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. ram

    Fury has always been the tool to enforce security. Lets look at what happened on 9/11.
    Bush ordered all planes to divert away from American soil..regardless of whether they had enough fuel to get to another airport in another country or not, death to passengers was not even considered. A Korean aircraft was brought to land in Alaska because it did not respond to the American jets properly. That was the action of America in America to protect America. Khadafi's action is on the same level, no less. Gone are the days when foreigners can jump into a country's turmoil and expect to be treated like semi-demi gods. If reporters want to jump into a troubled country to promote their careers, then they must be very cautious, just like anyone in that area, and be subject to treatment dished out to the locals. Why should reporters be put on a pedestal? Take care reporters, you have to risk something to gain that fame and if you are not treated like gods, then don't complain.

    March 13, 2011 at 7:53 am | Report abuse |
  2. TP

    This article is poorly written: it conveys the chaos of the ordeal but at a few points, loses the time-space continuum in favour of descriptions. CNN, you should do better.

    March 13, 2011 at 8:06 am | Report abuse |
    • Scott

      I seriously don't seem to care about this. I just wanted to know what it is like over their. Though they should have the articles more on innocent civilians instead of their own reporters.

      March 15, 2011 at 10:17 am | Report abuse |
  3. concerned

    And these are the same people JAY Z and sweetie Beyonce' entertained. Money, Money, Money. Hope you are proud of yourselves.

    March 13, 2011 at 8:20 am | Report abuse |
  4. juiceman

    what you morons are even doing there is beyond me

    March 13, 2011 at 8:22 am | Report abuse |
  5. usehq

    About time someone kicked Nic's ass

    March 13, 2011 at 9:19 am | Report abuse |
    • LarryKegel(USA ARMY)

      Well said,usehq. Thank you.

      March 13, 2011 at 11:35 am | Report abuse |
    • Scott

      lol 🙂

      March 15, 2011 at 10:18 am | Report abuse |
  6. Ramon F Herrera

    I blame Sarah Palin.

    March 13, 2011 at 9:20 am | Report abuse |
  7. ETCH

    Studying the photograph, the depth of field, the cropping, the items hanging from the reporters belt, the positions of his hands, I sense the picture has little to nothing associated with the event he reports.

    Why the conflict between armed personnel that have no idea what to do with him and the allegation that they knew who he was and were sent out to collect him?

    Poorly written – – – that is why the blogs wander off the reporter experience.

    March 13, 2011 at 11:50 am | Report abuse |
  8. gordon atl

    Actually I take back my comment earlier about asking for assistance from Europe. Since when has Europe helped anyone? Very limited unless it was in their interest. Whoever believes we need to go into Libya militarily is a fool. We just can't afford to do it if nothing else. And us toppling saddam's regime was a mistake. Now Iran is a larger problem because Iraq was not balancing that equation. Imagine if we oust the Libyan regime what could happen. Especially with the area in transition, Qaddafi may be the only consistent thing in the region.

    March 13, 2011 at 12:48 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Phil in Oregon

    This story and the one from California about the man washed out to sea trying to get tsunami pics are alarmingly similar. the main difference is the drowned man was an amateur and the CNN people were professionals who should have known better. There is a war going on, between two factions who both hate white people in general, and US people even more. It's a miracle they aren't all dead.

    March 13, 2011 at 2:22 pm | Report abuse |
  10. ruben

    Porque obama esta ayudando otros paises ei aqui en u.s. hay tantas carencias.primero tiene ver su cola como la tiene sucia y cuando acabe de acerlo que va a ser..nunca... entonces pude opinar acerca de otros paises del mundo u.s. no es el policia del mundo no sean estupidos.

    March 13, 2011 at 3:05 pm | Report abuse |
  11. god

    its all sarah palins fault lets all blame her 🙂

    March 13, 2011 at 3:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • John Palin

      I blame my daughter for this and so should you!

      March 15, 2011 at 10:19 am | Report abuse |
  12. Phil

    ""a bullet being slammed into the firing chamber.""
    Its a hostile environmental, almost a war-zone, I kind of doubt that there wasn't already a round IN the chamber and ready to fire.

    March 13, 2011 at 4:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • ....

      Three men could've been killed that day and you worry on how someone keeps their gun loaded??? >:(

      March 15, 2011 at 10:21 am | Report abuse |
    • Outsider

      This article is weak and aimed to get sympathy. Reporters walse in to countries and mostly do NOT know half of what they need to in order to show respect to the people and most of the time are very disrespectful because they do not know the history or traditions of the country, then while in the host country they loudly voice how disgusted they are with it. They should know they arent in America and freedom of speech is not always allowed and most of the time subdued with force. In my opinion actually train your reporters a bit on what to do and what not to do. You need to always plan for the worst and be expecting it. No one is untouchable and anything can change in a warzone. All of them are lucky to be alive and thanks to them the cabbi is most likely not.

      March 15, 2011 at 10:07 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Square

    attack gadhafi and remove him he is using mercenaries to destroy peaceful protesters what good is UN and US troops if we with all the power and might cant remove one bully from dictatorship? It shows total lack of success of UN and also US politicians who are more worried about money and economic impacts rather than human life and liberty something US Citizens and all who pledge allegiance swear an oath to uphold .

    March 13, 2011 at 5:14 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Oldeye

    Hopeless place to be! Is it worth it? I fail to understand the risk all the reporters are taking in Libya.
    Why get stuck in someone else's civil war? I wish we were in the middle ages. We do not need to
    know so much about others. Let them live in hell. It's their choice. Let Gadhafi be the ruler of whatever
    he wants. An evil ruler will never prevail. That is the nature things. It just will take longer time to find
    the balance for the Libyan nation. Force is never a good thing.

    March 13, 2011 at 8:44 pm | Report abuse |
  15. mstabers

    I'm glad they were taken into protective custody. The rebels are killing westerners.

    March 13, 2011 at 9:00 pm | Report abuse |
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