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. Jazz

    Cella , know matter how bad the comments are, it is the 1 amendment so to speak of ours that we are free to say what we want even if the things that ppl say at times go well over the edge. You may respond as well and speak your mind , dont this for a moment that America is gonna shut up for you or anyone else

    March 12, 2011 at 12:19 am | Report abuse |
    • Just Me

      Jazz, please see my response to Chella.

      March 12, 2011 at 2:12 am | Report abuse |
  2. Jazz

    To all, know matter how u feel about the reporting of CNN reporters , realize they are in danger every moment to bring you the viewer what others are fighting. Of course u take it all for granted because you grew up in a country that is free for the most part OPEN UP YOUR MIND and realize how GOOD you have it. thanks CNN for your brave reporting cause everything that's happening to the REBELS could happen to you , thanks for your bravery

    March 12, 2011 at 12:24 am | Report abuse |
    • Mazeman

      Having lived/worked in garden spots as Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Lebanon, Iraq, Pakistan, and Burma - I stand by my statement.

      March 12, 2011 at 1:08 am | Report abuse |
  3. David

    I hope you are horrified of that headline.

    March 12, 2011 at 12:24 am | Report abuse |
  4. Brian

    "The hyper-aggressive jerk with the gun had just hit the jackpot." - I appreciate both the human touch and appropriate judgement of this sentence. In a journalism era free of analysis, even a bit of judgement is appreciated!

    March 12, 2011 at 12:30 am | Report abuse |
  5. Greg Clapton

    One less news crew, it's a good start. Media is the problem most of the time and so have maybe if they pistol whip these clowns then they'll get the message.

    March 12, 2011 at 12:32 am | Report abuse |
    • Grace

      Yeah, get rid of that pesky information! We hate intelligence or having to think hard, grrr!

      [rolls eyes]

      March 12, 2011 at 12:35 am | Report abuse |
  6. lmfao

    The funniest thing abt ALL of these comments is that you all think your comment is profound and enlightened. No one on here knows the reality of what's going on in Libya. You are not there. And all reports from any side with a political interest/ monetary interest is skewed. No one is reporting ALL of the facts objectively! NO ONE!

    March 12, 2011 at 12:42 am | Report abuse |
  7. TunaFish

    Guys, do you actually see anything in reports from Libya, the oppositian carries guns and drives Hammer.
    As Gadhafi sais "It is Al-Qaeda", I agree with him.

    March 12, 2011 at 12:43 am | Report abuse |
    • Grace

      You have evidence of any A-Q action in the region at all? And most of the weaponry was taken from Libyan army stockpiles... often by defecting soldiers. They're the ones in the Libyan army uniforms in photos from eastern Libya, showing civilians how to fire anti-aircraft guns.

      That's part of the reason the early airstrikes were on arms depots in areas out of government control – since Gaddafi couldn't get at it, he wanted to destroy the arms before the rebels could disperse them.

      March 12, 2011 at 12:51 am | Report abuse |
    • Tony

      Gadhafi is trying to look good on the international stage with the West by claiming Al Qaeda is behind the revolts. He was telling people two weeks ago that Al Qaeda was putting 'tablets' in his opponents' morning coffee. If you believe that, I have an invisible rabbit I'd like to introduce you to.

      March 12, 2011 at 12:53 am | Report abuse |
    • markjuliansmith

      The Libyan oppositions clearly not doing itself any favors in not detailing what they are actually offering simply saying 'Freedom' does not cut it. This is what is said in every revolution. Has anyone heard a revolutionary leader saying to potential supporters we are going to deliver worse than you already have – which generally ends up happening – look at Iran as simply only one instance.

      We have all grown up – tell us before we die what in fact are we dying for?

      There is no such thing as Freedom only the relative independence Nature and fellow Humans provide.

      As with infinity you can only ever approach Freedom but never achieve it. Freedom is total independence from the bounds of both Nature and Human spheres.

      The notion of Freedom was invented to deceive humans into believing whatever template for society was in the offering it would indeed free them from the chains of dependence either in the physical or spiritual realm. What is in reality being offered are harder and less forgiving chains against reason and choice.

      March 12, 2011 at 2:30 am | Report abuse |
  8. Brian

    Someone should tell Robertson that Libya is a foreign country. When you cross a border you are in another country. Duh!

    March 12, 2011 at 12:44 am | Report abuse |
    • Grace

      He was invited, as were the other journalists. They were there with the permission of the regime. Press passes and everything.

      This is not the same situation as was happening in Egypt, where the reporters were all going in without passes.

      March 12, 2011 at 12:52 am | Report abuse |
  9. Miguel

    Nick, CNN now needs to investigate, and report what happened to the cab driver. You work for one of the most powerful news organizations in the world, expose the what the libian government is doing.

    March 12, 2011 at 12:44 am | Report abuse |
  10. Decora

    "I know they are afraid of what is happening in the Middle East because they know it will happen to them so they are trying to stay out of it. " – dmodeste

    exactly. the UN security council needs to be reformed, we should replace Russia and China with more democratic countries, like India. China is right now cracking down on journalists and dissidents, obviously they are not going to be against Gaddafi doing pretty much the same thing. Russia, same story.

    Of course some could argue Obama is harassing journalists (see the Stephen Kim case) but i dont think we are to the ak-47 and beatings stage yet.

    March 12, 2011 at 1:02 am | Report abuse |
  11. markjuliansmith

    What did you expect to happen? You actively sought views from one side of the equation? You got the answers you wanted in the way you wanted them – dark rooms, secret meetings the whole baloney. Freedom the cry – without even questioning what that actually meant in practice. What in fact was this Islamic Council behind the Libyan Opposition actually going to deliver Freedom or more of the same or worse? Maybe you should go to the Libyan opposition headquarters and ask the Islamic Council – the labels on the door. You got the noises you wanted – you looked great – risking nothing in reality whilst the local people you were dragging around risked everything. You were James Bond reporter extraordinaire on steroids.

    The fact is the Libyan opposition (Islamic Council) by not demanding immediate military assistance from outside forces to combat Gadhafi jet fighters, helicopter gunships, tanks and other heavy weaponry have clearly shown, it is the will of the Islamic hardliners to sacrifice 100,000 Libyan citizens to Gadhafi’s military machine so that these Islamic hardliners can impose their diabolical Religious Democracy upon the backs of Libyan citizens and thereby crush the Libyan revolution?

    Local Libyan militias had better read the text of those demanding their weapons for they will be turned on them if they choose unwisely.

    Run with wolves be prepared to be devoured or worse to become a wolf.

    You sir got off very lightly for your very poor performance in seeking truth.

    If you really want a story and do good go ask the Libyan opposition what ‘Freedom’ means in reality particularly for women.

    March 12, 2011 at 1:10 am | Report abuse |
  12. Dave

    I have no sympathy for the reporters over in that country- you know the risk- you also relish glorifying the risks. Really, it should be shame on you for putting your families under stress & worry back in the US and other free countries. Stories like this are a joke...somehow with all that fear you managed to pull yourself together enough to become just poetic enough to make the deadline for the story...

    You know the risk- now get the heck out of that wacko environment and save the USA from having to bail you out...

    And shame on you for screwing over that cabbie- I hope you can sleep well clowns!

    March 12, 2011 at 1:10 am | Report abuse |
  13. Joe

    What sucks is that we let these people sit and rule. By us i mean the international community. It's ridiculous.

    March 12, 2011 at 1:15 am | Report abuse |
  14. lmfao

    Where did my comment go?

    March 12, 2011 at 1:16 am | Report abuse |
  15. Got Intelligence?

    I am incredibly upset at the lack of competence in these posts. You guys really take what we (America) have for granted. Go live in any other nation. You're not welcome here. This is pretty damn scary. I hope none of you are above 13 or this is going to be a rough 60 years. To the man who says his two year old registered an 80 on the IQ test: You realize that's close to mental retardation correct? ...Yet you say it as if to gloat. So congratulations sir, your child is mentally retarded. 🙂

    March 12, 2011 at 1:21 am | Report abuse |
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