Robertson: Gadhafi thugs grabbed me and my crew
CNN Senior International Correspondent Nic Robertson has been covering the situation in Libya.
March 11th, 2011
08:44 PM ET

Robertson: Gadhafi thugs grabbed me and my crew

CNN Senior International Correspondent Nic Robertson and his crew were detained Friday in Tajura, Libya, east of Tripoli by forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. This is his account.

For a few moments today, for us personally, Libya’s lies and deceit were swept aside and the real deal was brutally exposed.

“Itla, itla” - "Get in the car, get in the car!" - he was screaming. My cameraman, Khalil Abdallah, and I hesitated for a split-second. But that's all it was.

We were staring down the barrel of an AK-47, the weapon was jumping in his hands. He was cocking it, wrenching the handle back, a bullet being slammed into the firing chamber.

It was only a split-second.

We are free to go anywhere, any time, talk to who we want, when we want. That's what Moammar Gadhafi’s son told me, that's what Libya told the U.N. We already knew it was all lies - look at any number of our colleagues, arrested, detained, in some cases, beaten - but today it came home to us personally.

The hyper-aggressive jerk with the gun had just hit the jackpot.

There was him and three others. They were grabbing us, bundling us towards their pickup truck. He had a pistol in his belt, one of the others kept his AK trained on us too, and an older guy with the grey beard was speed-dialing his phone.

These are Gadhafi’s enforcers. They were looking for us.`

As Khalil and I were pushed through the car doors, clambering over the body armor these thugs had strewn over the seats, I could see the rest of our team try to drive away.

We got to Tajura in a random taxi that had picked us up as we walked down a street. Now it was the best hope producer Tommy Evans had to get away and report our detention.

But it was too late. They'd been spotted, blocked, and stopped, and as I watched, Tommy was forced out of the car, kicked by another thug who already had his AK pointed at Tommy’s face.

Another member of this plainclothes security force pulled open our car door, started rifling through my pockets. Patting me down about as aggressively as he could. There was nothing we could do.

They were demanding our phones, asking where was our camera.

They'd only just got hold of us. This was no accidental arrest, no fortunate stumbling across a news team. They had planned this all along.

We were trying to cover Friday prayers on the same streets where last week police attacked protesters firing tear gas and live rounds. Now it was clear they were out in force.

The questions began. "Where are you from? Where are you from?" It seemed they didn’t quite know what to do with us.

"We are going to cuff you and we are going to throw you out of the country," the angry thug with the AK and pistol was shouting at us. Then the guy on the phone got orders. The press office would pick us up.

They'd known all along who to call - the government officials who'd invited us to the country. We parked by the roadside. No chance to call CNN head office; they had our phones now.

But much worse, they were bringing the innocent taxi driver with us. He'd done nothing more than give us a ride. He had no idea he might get in to trouble. The poor fellow looked increasingly nervous.

Not much younger than me, he probably has a family waiting for him. We felt terrible for him. But there was nothing we could do to protect him. Our camera was on the floor of his car, our kit in his trunk.

In the eyes of these government heavies, our taxi driver was guilty by association. But guilty of what, what had we done? Nothing - we'd not even shot a single picture. No interviews, nothing, just driven in to a neighborhood with an anti-government reputation.

The gunmen were smoking, bored now that the thrill of the chase was over. They called again: "Where was the ride to take us back to the hotel?" The answer: "We're busy, bring them in yourself."

Amid screeching tires and the stench of burning rubber needlessly ground into the tarmac, we took off. A final indignity for these hard men, they'd got the mundane job of delivering us back to government officials.

The violent invective started again. "You should go to Palestine and film what the Israelis are doing. You should leave Libya, go to Afghanistan, report what’s happening there," "Libya mia mia," repeating a chant we’ve heard many times, meaning Libya 100%.

We were screaming down the highway close to 100 mph, the radio blasting out a Gadhafi anthem, the driver pumping out the beat with his fist in the air. One-handed driving at its most worrying.

At the hotel gates, the realization we weren't alone, the realization of why the Libyan government press office had no spare vehicles to pick us up.

Dozens of other journalists like us were being brought in under armed guard, signed over to our minders. One was OK about our detention, claiming, "You know if you are there they will protest; if you don't go nothing will happen."

Of course, the protests began long before the government allowed in reporters, but that kind of logic carries no weight here.

Another official waiting for us, one I'd not seen before, was more aggressive, telling cameraman Khalil: "If you’ve shot anything, I'm going to take you to the airport and deport you."

It took a long time to convince him Khalil hadn't shot any footage. Some journalists we talked to were inside the mosque when they were arrested. How they got out of that threat, I don’t know.

But right now we had only one concern: our taxi driver. We pleaded for his release –by now he could barely speak - but we were ignored.

He was stuttering and trembling as they stuffed him in his car and drove him away.

I still don’t know what’s happened to him. Our ordeal is over, but I fear his may only just be beginning.

That’s the reality of life here under Gadhafi’s rule.

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Filed under: Libya
soundoff (616 Responses)
  1. Sal

    Some of you people are not too bright! Do you really want to get us involved in another war with another muslim country? Why don't you then just send your kids and grand kids to lead the charge? You people just aren't thinking straight.
    And if one of our planes get shot down, what then? Send in American troops to start another Iraq or Afghanistan? Think about it and use your head.

    March 12, 2011 at 1:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • WAKE UP!

      Sal.....we could wipe Gaddhafi off the map in one day with what we got. Thanks.

      March 12, 2011 at 1:30 pm | Report abuse |
  2. WAKE UP!

    They are "weighing all options"...really? So Gaddhafi has frozen assets. Like he does not have cash elsewhere and with South American countries that support him???? PLZ STOP THIS LUNATIC already. At the least, smuggle arms to the rebels. They want to fight their own fight! But to stand back and watch as we have done for nearly month is like when Bush Sr. let down the southern Iraqi's in Desert Storm They were destroyed!!! Right? Flash forward 20 years and finally, some change??? Really???

    March 12, 2011 at 1:23 pm | Report abuse |
  3. pizzl

    Obama won't do anything. He's too busy trying on his new Black Hawks jersey. All who voted for him can now watch as he puts his tail between his legs and runs in the face real world crisis. Everyone hates the US (it's not really hate – just flat out envy because we have worked hard to get what we have and they think it should just be handed to them). But the US is one of the few countries that shows compassion to the rest of the world (especially in their time of need). These primitive people living in primitive countries ruled by primitive leaders need to break free and live their lives without dictation of leaders who think they are Gods.

    March 12, 2011 at 1:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Just a Minute

      If Obama is the problem, how do you explain the secretary of defense not wanting to get involved? The Secretary of Defense! We're talking the guy Bush put in and a guy who was #2 in the CIA under Reagan when Reagan wanted to bomb Libya into the stone age – which he got talked down from. And the result of even that smaller attack was the Pan Am 103 bombing. Actions have consequences and smart leaders have to consider that before letting emotions guide their decisions.

      Oh, and the longest-serving republican in Congress is also against going after Gadhafi. So it's not like Obama is alone in holding off. His position is the same as where most Americans stand.

      March 12, 2011 at 9:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • LarryKegel (USA ARMY)

      At least Obama listen to others!!1 Bush just listen to Cheney...

      March 12, 2011 at 10:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • ETCH

      I mentioned your blogs in my own. Thank you for you fair and on message comments.

      March 13, 2011 at 11:36 am | Report abuse |
  4. Sam

    Looks like Libyan and Gaddafi people are civilized, they freed the journalists, unlike we Americans who intentionally killed many journalists with opposing voice and bombed their offices like killing Al-Jazeera journalists and bombing their offices in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    March 12, 2011 at 1:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • RUFFNUTT

      Good posting,Sam. It's one of the few sensible ones here yet. Thank you.

      March 12, 2011 at 2:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • acutemind

      Very well said.

      March 13, 2011 at 4:11 pm | Report abuse |
  5. gordon atl

    It's funny how everyone hates us unless it comes a time they need us. Kind of like police.

    March 12, 2011 at 1:28 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Devil Dog

    @Adam, What is your definition of a war then? 1000 dead? 10000 dead? how about when anti aircraft guns bolted to the back of pickup trucks starts to happen? Maybe when a country devides itself and infrastructure starts to become useless from destruction? Perhaps when people start to go missing and noone has any knowledge of their whereabouts. Its interesting to define a war and civil unrest and what determines the difference between the two. I wonder who gets to decide. Could you tell us? Are you qualified? Have you been there recently? Oh ya lol our good friend Nic is, apparently the government there doesn't want him to see some things. I guess that would qualify as "perfectly peaceful".

    March 12, 2011 at 1:32 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Wasted1

    That was some fine writing. Reminded me of Hunter S. Thompson, only sober.

    March 12, 2011 at 1:33 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Devil Dog

    Oh Larry You are starting to appear comical. If you were there right now i seriously doubt you would be wasting time commenting endlessly about something you know nothing about. Let me repeat for you "You don't know whats happening over there" Try as you may but you cant make people believe something that isn't true. Are you doing this to try to lower gas prices by downgrading the situation? The world has a right to the facts! Plain and simple.

    March 12, 2011 at 1:37 pm | Report abuse |
  9. gordon atl

    Of course people will find time to Obama bash. Obama is being smart. No one here seems to be criticizing Britain or France for not sending military aid.

    March 12, 2011 at 1:38 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Devil Dog

    @Andy, I'm with you.

    March 12, 2011 at 1:41 pm | Report abuse |
  11. jim

    You're stupid for evening being there.

    March 12, 2011 at 1:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • JackieB

      And you're even stupider Jim because what you said doesn't make any sense – for "evening" being there?

      March 12, 2011 at 2:52 pm | Report abuse |
  12. melody

    The problem is understanding international law and humanitarian law. The conflict is still outside of international law because it is a civil war. The only thing the rest of the world can help with now it the humanitarian side, however, we are not being let in to do that. Before people start spouting about get involved or don't involved you need to understand both international laws and humanitarian laws. Then you would understand why governments deploy or not.

    March 12, 2011 at 1:47 pm | Report abuse |
  13. asrael

    Will that be before or after you and all of your relatives and friends volunteer for military service...?

    March 12, 2011 at 1:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • asrael

      This was a response to an earlier post; have no idea why it ended up here...

      March 12, 2011 at 1:52 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Lawrence Curtin

    Having been in Libya last year and being a writer and a reporter I find this report to be full of made up accounts. In law it is called mens rea. This reporter must have the ability to read minds. I tried to tell Gadhafi "don't trust the Americans".

    March 12, 2011 at 1:49 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Lets keep it real

    Cnn,thx for everything you keep us inform,As for the other watchers, Hmm why do they watch you report?If they don't won't to really know get a nothing reality news.Keep it trueful,and caring,above all loving!

    March 12, 2011 at 1:52 pm | Report abuse |
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