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. Grace

    So, apparently CNN posters don't understand what a "journalist" does? Good lord.

    They're out there doing their job. They know the risks. But let's also remember that Gadhaffi's own government told them they could investigate on their own – so this account clearly and definitively shows that the regime says one thing, does another. Then the treatment of the cabbie (which is heartbreaking, that poor man) which shows how the regime's treating everyday people just doing their jobs. All of this is IMPORTANT information. This article isn't the reporter saying "feel bad for me", it's a personal account detailing exactly which lies are being told.

    The chorus of "you were looking for trouble, you deserved it" is baffling. That's what reporters do: they go looking for things the public should know. And it's what corrupt regimes do: they hide things like torture and massacre and use intimidation to keep word from getting out. But you know what, armchair media barons? If the reporters didn't go out there, we'd know NOTHING other than the propaganda being churned out by either side.

    They're not asking for your damned sympathy, and it's incredibly arrogant to assume that this story is REMOTELY about you.

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

      Agreed. These people would rather never know anything about the world. And to the almost guaranteed person who would respond to this with the knee-jerk reaction of "you don't need to read the news to learn about the world," good. I agree. Get on a plane and go see Libya for yourself. I will continue to read reports.

      March 11, 2011 at 11:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Just Me

      Thanks for saying it so well, Grace. So many of the comments are so ill-informed and undeserved, especially about someone as dedicated as Nic Robertson. Why all the vitriol? I too am very concerned about the taxi driver, but I'd be willing to bet Nic is more.

      March 12, 2011 at 1:46 am | Report abuse |
  2. BLING


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

      What the HELL are you talking?! Seriously, I'm going to agree w/ Tony's comment.

      March 12, 2011 at 4:27 am | Report abuse |
  3. johnessj

    gadhafi should kick all the lying journalist out his country, make no mistakes, gadhafi know the u.s military is on the way. he is ready. ten year ago with russian and china help !! more lives going to be lost than in iraq and afghanistan battle put together. gadhafi will not fall easy as some talkers would have u believe. this guys was uniting africans military to become united states of africa. this is also why america want to take out gadhafi.

    March 11, 2011 at 11:47 pm | Report abuse |
  4. BLING

    n i been watching this dude robert ahhhh helllooo khadafi is not a president he is a gangster revoltionist he said himself gangster with a military with chemical weapons

    March 11, 2011 at 11:48 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Dewayne

    This story is to over-dramatized. How can you "Aggressively" pat someone down. As I was reading this article, I just kept thinking, "Ok, when is Mr.T going to come in and save them.". This article reminded me of an episode of the "A-Team."

    March 11, 2011 at 11:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Grace

      You do it by grabbing, pushing, and hitting the person you're "patting down". Usually they tell you to stand still in one place, then roughly push you about, then hit you when you stagger because they've thrown you off-balance with all of the pushing. It's not a blow hard enough to make you double up or keel over, but it's certainly enough to feel like you're being roughed up.

      It's a charming experience.

      March 12, 2011 at 12:09 am | Report abuse |
  6. Rendarth

    Reading some of the comments here is disheartening. People don't understand the role of the news media – to inform the world of what is going on. It's not just CNN over there, people. Networks from all over the world are in Libya trying to expose the atrocities being committed by Gaddafi's regime. The BBC, Al Jazeera, etc etc etc. Is it self serving in so much that it brings in ratings, as well as hazard pay for those who volunteer? Of course! But that's just how the world works, and will always work. It doesn't make it wrong. Thank you, CNN team, for your bravery. You have my respect just for being over there in the first place.

    March 11, 2011 at 11:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Grace

      Agreed. Inexplicably, commenters here seem to think that information just flows freely out of conflict zones – why have reporters at all? Showboaters! Ugh.

      Reporters are doing their jobs. And I suppose that these local mouthbreathers are too.

      March 11, 2011 at 11:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tony

      It's more important to push their personal political beliefs than actually, y'know, understand the story.

      March 12, 2011 at 12:50 am | Report abuse |
  7. drcid777

    Yeah Nic this is less CCP more Kim Jong Il's violent instablity. Big Man Gadhafi- beating reporters, strafing unarmed protesters followed by blasting and strafing lightly armed civilians with tanks and jets. You and your men are so brave
    Change is imminent

    March 11, 2011 at 11:58 pm | Report abuse |
  8. drcid777

    Time for the strafer to meet his maker

    March 11, 2011 at 11:59 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Mathew

    Nic and Your CNN Team, Great job for your effort to report the truth in Libya in the past few weeks. Gadhafi, his family member and his team are all liar. France's President suggest to bom Gadhafi's control centre and key military position is a good proposal and let the rebel finished him after cracked his backbone. If the West let him go, I am very sure very soon there will many more terrorists bombing of airplanes, sponsored by Gadhafi, like what happened in Scotland mid-air. The West must act fast now. Gadhafi, like all dictator, will not forgive and will take revenge. US, UK, France and Germany should take immediate military action to prevent revenge been taken on their innocent countrymen by this beast.

    March 12, 2011 at 12:00 am | Report abuse |
  10. jmsdh

    I think there's self-pity and self-promotion in the story; sorry, but another reporter would have lived by the bargain made by heading into danger and sucked it up. When you take chances by stepping into the middle of a revolution, just what do you expect, to receive diplomatic immunity? On the other hand, the truth about suppressing freedom of speech gets revealed anyway, and that's part of the story too. This was good reporting which would have been much better without putting on airs of bravery. Face it, Robertson, you did want the attention. No pain, no fame.

    March 12, 2011 at 12:02 am | Report abuse |
  11. SSampson

    I just wish they'd grab a FOX NEWS crew.... Oh Wait.... FOX News teams can't read a map and still think the world is flat...

    March 12, 2011 at 12:05 am | Report abuse |

    I thank the Cnn crew in Lybia... Please always becareful Gadafi and his men are demon incarnate that is living among people... The End shall justified this mist of his bad rulling...

    March 12, 2011 at 12:08 am | Report abuse |
  13. Chella

    always an interesting diversion to come in here and read what the white trash rednecks have to say – you can spot them a mile away. I guess they hover over this website and wait for their chance to be abusive jerks. Sadly Nick, I guess you made their day. Only the sickest stupidest moron would kick you after such an experience, calling you names and berating you for doing your most important job. In Canada, we have comment moderators who remove abusive unhelpful garbage like roughly half of what appears in these comments. But I guess down there you just let it all hang out – unless I were to mention the natural union between two lovers, GOD FORBID, for example, in which case I'm sure I'd be censored. Your country is massively screwed up and all we have to do is look to some of these CNN cronies to know exactly why.

    March 12, 2011 at 12:12 am | Report abuse |
    • Poser

      Stay in Canada. Post in your country and STFU.
      Smoke your medicine, marry whomever you wish, stay cold all you want. But stay the hell out of my country and keep your socialization in Canada!
      The rest of you, learn how to spell before my head explodes!
      Thank you.

      March 12, 2011 at 1:59 am | Report abuse |
    • Just Me

      You started out okay, but then you crossed a line. The majority of Americans that I have met are truly wonderful people and I can't sit back and let them think that this is how we all think. Just so my American friends know, we're not all like this.

      March 12, 2011 at 2:01 am | Report abuse |
  14. Art H

    Seems like after weeks of cheerleading the "rebels", the CNN crew got picked up by the government officials of Libya. Clearly, if such one sided "reporting" were to be tried in China, they would have been bundled out weeks back and I am surprised they were allowed back to remain in the country and continue to present one-sided views that are heavily slanted towards the "rebel" fighters.

    Incidentally, who are these "rebel fighters" ? Peaceful protesters ? With rocket launchers and 50 caliber machine guns ? Never heard of peaceful protesters that could bring down a military fighter plane. I hear shouts of "Allahu Akbar" (Islamic chant for "Allah is Great") from the "rebels", after firing against the Government troops.

    Bottomline, either report the news from both sides and stop cheerleading. Else get out of there.

    March 12, 2011 at 12:16 am | Report abuse |
    • Grace

      Art, Gaddafi's been telling everyone who will listen that international media are free to investigate in Libya. Clearly, that's not true, and it's important to push back against the Gaddafi propaganda with articles like the one above.

      As for the rebels, they've raided the local military depots for weapons. From what I understand individual arms ownership is very rare in Libya (unsurprisingly, given Gaddafi's style of rule). I don't quite know what you're expecting in the terms of "balance" – one side is a dictator who's kept his citizens in poverty for 40 years and is calling airstrikes and likely ordered the execution of army soldiers who refused to kill civilians, and the other side is citizens. Giving each side equal airtime and credence isn't journalism, no matter how hard modern media appears to be pushing that model. Journalism is digging out the truth to the best of your ability and publishing it.

      But the focus on "Allah Akbar" makes me wonder if you're somehow assuming that the rebels are muslim extremists. "Allah akbar" is pretty much the muslim version of "Praise Jesus!" It's common. It's not an extremist rallying cry, and saying it doesn't automatically flag you as a member of Al-Qaeda. The Gaddafi side are likely hollering the same thing. I don't particularly think that someone shouting "Praise Jesus" is a member of the Westboro Baptist Church, and I don't think that a friend saying "Allah akbar" is plotting a terror attack. It's just a saying.

      March 12, 2011 at 12:33 am | Report abuse |
  15. Mazeman

    Seized by gunman looking for news crews, we were taken back to the hotel and released when they discovered we were CNN.

    March 12, 2011 at 12:18 am | Report abuse |
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