My friend, the fixer
Reporting on the uprising in Libya, Patrick Cockburn recruited an idealistic Tripoli hotel worker as his guide. Shortly before Gaddafi's fall, Ahmed Abdullah al-Ghadamsi was killed. This is his tribute
SATURDAY 05 NOVEMBER 2011
I first met Ahmed Abdullah al-Ghadamsi in Tripoli last August about seven weeks before he was killed in one of the last battles of the Libyan war.
I was staying in the Radisson Blu, a large hotel that overlooks the harbour and overfilled with journalists who had poured into the Libyan capital after the rebels captured it. There were still frequent bursts of firing and very few cars in the streets because people thought it was too dangerous to go out and there was an acute shortage of petrol.
I had found a room in the hotel with great difficulty and was upset when a young man knocked on the door and told me I would have to leave. He said, politely but firmly, that members of the National Transitional Council, in practice the provisional government of post-Gaddafi Libya, were arriving from Benghazi and needed several floors of the hotel for themselves and their bodyguards. He added that, fortunately, there was another room I could have and he would help me move there. As we packed up, he said his name was Ahmed, he had previously worked at the Radisson, and he had now come back to help the few remaining staff cope with the influx of visitors.
We talked about the fighting, the fall of Gaddafi and the future of Libya. Ahmed was fresh-faced, looked a little younger than his 32 years, spoke good English, was obviously highly educated, and did not seem too alarmed by the uncertainty of living in a city where the government had just collapsed and the rebels were only slowly asserting their grip. I asked him if he would come to work for The Independent as guide and translator and, after a few moments thought, he said he would.
I learnt later, after he was dead, that there was a good deal that Ahmed had not told me. He was born in 1978 and came from a family that had long detested Gaddafi. He had gone abroad to study in Norway for six years between 2002 and 2008, and it may have been this foreign travel which gave him an air of self-reliance and sophistication. He had learnt Norwegian and improved his English (study of which had been restricted by Gaddafi). On his return to Libya he had joined the staff of the luxury Radisson Blu, often visited by leading Libyan officials and members of Gaddafi's family, one of whom, al-Saadi, had a suite there. On 15 February this year the popular movement against long-established police states in the Arab world spread from Tunisia and Egypt to Libya.
Ahmed was one of the first people to protest in the streets in Tripoli and was also one of the first from Fornaj, a district militantly anti-regime, to be detained. His younger brother Mohammed recalls that Ahmed "was the first to be arrested in Fornaj on 20 February, but he was jailed for just two hours or less before his friends and the protesters broke into the police station and freed him".
Gaddafi was able to regain control of the capital and almost all of western Libya with the important exceptions of Misrata and the Berber minority in the Nafusa mountains 100 miles south of Tripoli. Ahmed later told the Italian photographer Enrico Dagnino that he had wanted to get more involved with the anti-Gaddafi resistance and "went to the Nafusa mountains, but the fighters didn't trust him and after a week or 10 days he went back to Tripoli and worked at smuggling in guns and gelignite". He was soon wanted by Gaddafi's security forces because he became involved in a plan to blow up the floor at the Radisson Blu where al-Saadi Gaddafi was living, Ahmed's brother Mohammed said. Despite this he got married for the second time (his first wife was a Norwegian) on 1 July.
I think of Ahmed now as an exemplar of the people who are at the forefront of the Arab Awakening from Tunisia to Bahrain and Syria to Yemen. He was brave, energetic and eager to help others. A well-educated man, he felt limited and humiliated by the restrictions of Gaddafi's police state and ludicrous personality cult. "Books used to be more difficult to bring into this country than weapons," Ahmed told me. "You had to leave them at the airport for two or three months so they could be checked."
Ahmed was a very good guide for me in Tripoli. I did not know that he felt deeply frustrated that he had not been able to take a greater and more effective part in the anti-Gaddafi resistance and by now it seemed almost too late to do so. Tripoli had fallen more quickly than anybody expected and the fighting was far to the east around the Gaddafi loyalist heartlands of Bani Walid and Sirte. I left Tripoli soon afterwards, but I expected to see Ahmed when I returned.
In the event, the last stand of the Gaddafi loyalists went on much longer than anybody expected. Ahmed worked with Cécile Hennion of Le Monde and the photographer, Enrico Dagnino, for several weeks. His brother Mohammed says that at about this time Ahmed told his mother that he wanted to go to fight, but she asked him not to. But Enrico ran into a militia commander from Benghazi called Adel Tharouni and asked if he could join him to cover the battle for Sirte, Gaddafi's home town. A few days later Enrico, Cécile and Ahmed flew to Benghazi. Enrico says: "Ahmed insisted he wanted to come to Benghazi not for money, but because he was interested in what was happening in Sirte. He did not tell us he was planning to join the fighting."
They drove to the rebel positions outside Sirte where they linked up with Adel Tharouni's fighters from Benghazi. They slept in the desert living off macaroni and driving up to the frontline every day. The battle for Sirte was turning into one of the bloodiest and hardest fought of the Libyan war. Ahmed told the fighters that he wanted to join them, but at first they had doubts about him and did not give him a weapon. Their attitude changed when Ahmed endured a heavy bombardment without flinching and he was given a gun. He quickly became a friend of the rebels and their commander.
The fighting intensified and there was a continual drain of casualties as the anti-Gaddafi fighters pushed deeper into Sirte. "The first time Ahmed got close to death was during the battle for the hotel," says Enrico. "We drove into an ambush and had to fight for our lives for two hours." They were eventually rescued by another rebel unit with heavy weapons. On 7 October there was a heavy exchange of fire between mortars and rocket-propelled grenade launchers on both sides. As the group fell back at nightfall, a mortar bomb landed close, killing one man and wounding others. "One of the wounded was Ahmed," Enrico recalls. "He was lightly wounded in the head and was in shock, but was back in the front line the next morning."
The rebel fighters suffered severe losses. One of the first to be killed was called Fatee from Tobruk who was friend of Enrico and Ahmed. He was carried back with a bullet through his head. Ahmed had tears in his eyes. The rebel commander ordered an attack to get at the snipers. The last Enrico saw of Ahmed was him leading five or six fighters into a district of Sirte called Medina. After a day of heavy fighting, Enrico had returned to the rebel camp when Tharouni came up to him and said, "I am sorry about Ahmed". He had been shot through the head by a sniper. Another fighter who tried to rescue him was also killed.
Ahmed was declared a martyr by his unit and his body was taken back to Tripoli. He had got his wish to fight in the revolution against Gaddafi, but he was never motivated by blood lust or desire for revenge. "He was a strange fighter," says Enrico. "I never saw him fire any bullets. He would shoot only to save his life, saying he wanted to capture Gaddafi loyalists and there was no need to kill anybody if you were not in danger."
Ahmed Abdullah al-Ghadamsi, born Tripoli 31 December 1978, died Sirte 9 October 2011.
Fixers: The Silent Heroes
They take huge risks on our behalf and often play a key part in what successes we have in reporting from difficult places. And, while we have the luxury of leaving and telling "war stories" back home, our fixers stay in the danger zone and, sometimes, pay a terrible price.
Some take up reporting, others achieve success in other fields. Tejani Ahmed was a fixer in Darfur who took me to meet the opposing sides through extremely violent areas, unfazed even when our car got shot at. Later he became a member of the district government and a mediator between warring factions.
Some became local personalities. I met Wais Faizi in November 2001 in the upheaval of post-Taliban Kabul, Glock pistol in a shoulder holster and speaking in a broad US accent. Hotel rooms were at a premium, I needed a bed for a few nights. "Yeah, yeah, you'll get one by nightfall. Trust Wais, I always deliver," he muttered. He did, and became a firm colleague over the next few years.
Faizi was known as "the Fonz of Kabul" and "King Fixer" by journalists. There was nothing, he would declare, that he could not fix.
Faizi died a few years later, the cause remains uncertain. But other fixers have been attacked as a direct result of their work.
In 2005, I was working with Nour al-Khal, a brave and bright translator, in Basra, when we got a scoop. A group of British soldiers were in front of a court martial for abuse of Iraqi civilians, but despite a year-long investigation, the Royal Military Police failed to produce any of the victims to give evidence.
The real reason was that it was not in the interest of the British Army to find them. Nour and I tracked the men down within half a day and gathered harrowing accounts of what had been done to them. I got the kudos, but the real credit belonged to Nour.
A few months later Nour and an American freelance journalist, Stephen Vincent, were taken in Basra by men wearing police uniform. Both were shot and dumped on the roadside. Stephen died. Nour, severely injured, survived.
But she had to flee from the city and her family and has not been able to return.