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. brian

    If you read the article you'd know that the reporter isn't "promoting" himself or complaining that he was detained, in fact, his only concern was for the taxi driver that is probably now dead. You are all missing the point.

    March 11, 2011 at 9:34 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Mr. Poopy Pants

    I don't feel sorry for the CNN crew at all. They new the risks of going into that part of the country just like any part of the country that CNN cover's. Stop drawing attention to the MEDIA to get the US to do something about libya. I say we stop butting our heads in other countries business's. America, is basically a bully. If you don't do what we want you to do, we will invade your country. Meanwhile our goverment can't get the damn budget worked out and take care of the million's of unemployeed...etc

    Booo.... CNN wants us to feel sorry for them in which they knew the risk's going into a country that is in a cival war. I wonder if CNN made this story up to try to get obama to have USA invade libya and declare war on another country. If we invode a no fly zone, you might as well say America is declaring war because libya will go after american's if we bomb there air planes.

    March 11, 2011 at 9:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • truthnow2011

      You are very right.

      March 11, 2011 at 9:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Grace

      This sounds like conspiracy-theory nonsense. Reporters are not government agents, nor are they soldiers, and they're certainly not agents fomenting a civil war just so they can get America to invade (??!). Obama's firmly against unilateral action in Libya.

      The rest of your rant just comes off as wild-eyed rambling.

      March 12, 2011 at 12:21 am | Report abuse |
    • Pete

      Well said. It's time for the U.S. to stop dictating to the rest of the world.

      March 12, 2011 at 12:35 am | Report abuse |
  3. Ellie

    Nic, please be safe. Your words paint such a vivid picture of tyrany. When will it end? Will the community of fee nations step up? thank you for your courage.

    March 11, 2011 at 9:36 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Semper Fi

    It's time to let the BIG DOGS go feed.

    March 11, 2011 at 9:37 pm | Report abuse |
  5. RG-Tex

    It is high time to shoot this mad dog Gadafi along with his equally stupid sons. The US needs to cut off relations with these rabid dictators. Not only that, US foreign policy needs to destroy any oppressive dictatorship or theocracy.

    The US needs to act, and act now – destrtoy Gadafi now!

    March 11, 2011 at 9:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • truthnow2011

      so you came up with this decision all by your good self? wow what and IQ you must have!

      March 11, 2011 at 9:46 pm | Report abuse |
  6. chris

    Yes...Gadhafi and GW Bush have so much in common..........

    March 11, 2011 at 9:41 pm | Report abuse |
  7. TheMovieFan

    Does anyone know if reporters from FOX News have had run ins with Gadhafi thugs...or have reporters there?

    March 11, 2011 at 9:43 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Mark Still

    My heart goes out to you; this is a terrible ordeal. But I can't help be struck how journalistic "objectivity" has disappeared here. Usually journalists speak of alleged crimes and perpetrators – such as Major Nidal Malik Hasan, who was caught in the act and felled by a police officer, and who said it was his duty as a Muslim to attack the U.S. Army, yet he is still being referred to as "alleged" in the press. I hope that this horrible experience you've had inspires CNN and other medial outlets to start having the integrity to report the truth. Godspeed to you and your colleagues.

    March 11, 2011 at 9:45 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Lance

    This disgusts me! YOU disgust me that you even go over there in your over inflated ego driven plights. The only thing you accomplished here is to most likely get that innocent Taxi Driver KILLED! YOU went over there! YOU knew the risks! Find your own damn transportation and DO NOT risk others lives! You are Irresponsible. Do not gove me the happy BS about havng a right to cover a story. No, we do NOT have a right to go there for that purpose! Libya is NOT in the USA in case you dont understand that! GOD, I am sick from you all!

    March 11, 2011 at 9:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Marsrising

      Lance got back under your rock reading the news seems to stress you. Try some grade school primers.

      March 11, 2011 at 10:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • J PAP

      So I guess news should only come from within the U.S. ?? Duma$$

      March 11, 2011 at 10:14 pm | Report abuse |
  10. M

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

    Oh please... go against any ruling government and you get booted around.

    If they really wanted to teach you a lesson, they'd beat you senseless and throw you in a dirty jail.

    March 11, 2011 at 9:49 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Dave

    The USA doesn't need an invasion to help, for God's sake. Just kill Moammar Gadhafi. Cut off the dragon's head.

    March 11, 2011 at 9:54 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Mike

    Even wonder why the rebels didn't "grab" the reporters. It's because the reportings are so biased and lack of impartiality even a moron knows where the darn Western reporters throw their supports behind. They're luck they aren't treated as instigating spies and executed by the opposing side!

    Where I or the reporters stand is not the question. The world needs the messengers to be messengers. Not some fricking cheerleaders for one side. So be a professional, report the darn events without politicial emotions. The your political correctness off the table!

    March 11, 2011 at 9:55 pm | Report abuse |
  13. RG

    Gadhafi has hired Mariah Carey and Beyonce as his Spokeswomen.

    March 11, 2011 at 9:56 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Marsrising

    Nic glad you are safe. Too bad the free press haters and Fox News followers don't seem to get it that this is part of your job.

    March 11, 2011 at 9:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Just Me

      Thumbs up. I would love to see a follow-up on the taxi driver, if at all possible, but I know it's likely not.

      March 12, 2011 at 1:22 am | Report abuse |
  15. Alejandro Dron
    Graphic Commentaries on the Middle East

    March 11, 2011 at 10:00 pm | Report abuse |
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