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. JLT

    Hey! Let's get back to the article shall we. If you want to a place to debate and insult one another, start your own blog.

    To the CNN reporters: Quite frankly the only person I feel badly for in the cab driver. You're in a war zone and know the risks. Did you bother to inform him? Somehow all your heartfelt concern, as poured forth in this article rings less than true. If you were that concerned for his safety why involve him in the first place? Or, did it just make for a better story?

    March 12, 2011 at 1:55 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Lo Man

    I wonder if there were such an uprising against the government here (the one that is no longer working FOR us) and there were some crazies shot somehow, WHO would discuss invading US to help quell the carnage?

    March 12, 2011 at 1:57 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Lets keep it real

    So Sorry about the gramer,I was angered at listeners,if they don't like the cnn reports go some were else.!!!! They really do risk ther lives to report everything,if you don't believe there doing it right,then step in,and do it your selfs!

    March 12, 2011 at 1:57 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Carrie

    This makes my heart hurt. I am praying for you guys and I hope your all safe. A job is a job yes but when safety becomes an issue and you are a target maybe the game plan needs to change. I seriously hope that everything gets better but please yes contact your families and use extreme precautions. Your playing by their rules now. Even if they are in the wrong.

    March 12, 2011 at 1:57 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Smash

    First of all we must separate what the US says in public and what we might be doing covertly. If we have learned anything over the last 10 years, we have special forces that don't announce where they go. The Arab League just asked for a no fly zone and if we could get some help from Europe as well as any Arab country, then I believe a no fly zone would be a very good start. I know that the US manufacturers of bombs and planes wants very badly for us to use their equipment but we need to move cautiously.

    March 12, 2011 at 1:58 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Blogs-Clearly for Idiots!

    This is barely news. This should be covered a symptom of a major event NOT as the major event. I feel ALOT worse for the MANY MORE Libyans who are suffering than I do for a news crew desperately in search for an award...

    March 12, 2011 at 1:59 pm | Report abuse |
  7. chris

    since there are so many Americans being killed over there and so many want payback for it how about this for starters? if your an American and your not a mountaineer, in the military or have a job over there that is a must how about you keep your @ss out of the Middle East then it won't be a me it's a risk you take when you go over there, anybody with common sense would have to think "anything could happen" especially when that area as a whole has been unstable for so long! I love to travel and everything else like the next man but WHY in all of creation would I go to a country or region that is and has been in political turmoil? I'm only 26 and maybe don't understand the whole situation completely but I see all the time where an American is killed over there while on vacation or whatever and I immediately think "why were you there out of all places?"

    March 12, 2011 at 2:02 pm | Report abuse |
  8. CTLH

    ok, a few things. One: we are only in one war now. Iraq is over but Afghanistan is still going. Two: in relationship to that, I see no benefit from Afghanistan, we should pull out, but thats not the topic here. The second point is that instead of fighting for no reason in one country, we should be helping the rebels in Libya. I'm not saying a full-on invasion, even though, with the backing of NATO and the Arab / African groups, an invasion would be a good idea. with the backing of even a few other developed countries it shouldn't be hard to finish an invasion in a few years. Third: for those trashing Obama, I have to agree on som points and dissent on others. he is not a coward or idiot or anything, but he does show severe weakness in foreign policy (and domestic, but not the point here). he needs to be more forceful and diplomatically aggressive or this will go on with no resolution. And fourth: for those who are talking party politics, drop it. This is about Libya not Democrats or Republicans. Finally, for the discussion on CNN: to the commentors, these reporters do this because they took the job. if they didnt want it, theyd do something else like traveling or pubic speaking. however, to the editor and CNN in general, you guys have really gone downhill. some very valid points were made concerning the agency in the last few years. stop seeking the highest ratings and start reporting real, honest, unbiased, and factual news. and this applies to all the stations, including FOX and MSNBC, we need you guys to report the news, not compete for some score! thats all i have to say

    March 12, 2011 at 2:04 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Carrie

    Another thing. People need to stop dwelling on the past and saying what we should have done and shouldn't have done. It DOESN'T MATTER anymore! The past is the past. Take what we've learned and move forward. Honesly American's are not that bright if you look at all these comments from ignorant people who don't know what they're talking about. Let the press do it's job. They get paid for it. Let them do it.

    March 12, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Lets keep it real

    By the way,how are the reporters,who report,Death,and LIFE,Joy,and gentleness,temperance,the meekness,And Faith,above all Love!!! Thx CNN

    March 12, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Carrie

    I want to see these people who keep talking bad about these reporters to put themselves in these people's shoes or pretend that you are related to them. Ok. Now you can start talking. Don't judge people when you have no right to it.

    March 12, 2011 at 2:10 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Carrie

    I agree wholeheartly with LarryKegel (USA ARMY) and I think that what we need to do is learn a lesson here. Not only look at what's going on but see how we can apply what we learn to our personal lives. All hate does is hurt so why the hurtful comments and negative opinions when what we need is to build ourselves and people up. Use common sense America please. It's not hard.

    March 12, 2011 at 2:20 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Rev. Elizabeth C. Ley

    I never cease to be amazed by people who think that our going into a country in conflict is so simple and easy to do.
    There are international laws to deal with, there is the small fact that our forces are already spread to thinly, and then there is the financially commitment, when we are already using money we don't have.
    People need to become more well informed. and not speak from the gunslinger stance, as it makes them sound pretty stupid. Have they learned nothing from the past when our country has intervened militarily and we ended up in a quagmire for years to come.
    We can not afford to enter another war zone on so many levels. We can not fix everyone else s problems. We need to fix our own, and take care of our own until we get back on our feet.
    Humanitarian help is all we can do, and should do.

    March 12, 2011 at 2:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • LarryKegel(USA ARMY)

      Thank you,Rev.Elizabeth. I totally agree with you. The people really do need to be wised up on the subject here instead of being brainwashed by the right-wing news media like they are!

      March 12, 2011 at 3:07 pm | Report abuse |
  14. ed bailey

    Yes damn dangerous work, Mr pearl will tell you that but I still think the real reason was for IMPERSONATING JOURNALIST. The boys and girls in the field suffer because of the actions of some yackamo somewhere else!fun is fun but I do wish someone a firing.

    March 12, 2011 at 2:24 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Cesar

    Good grief fu9i,are you truly that ignorant or are you just trying to be funny here?

    March 12, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Report abuse |
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