Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Kevin Dawes Part Four - Sirte

Kevin Dawes, from San Diego, California travelled to Libya in June 2011 as a photojournalist, but almost immediately became involved with assisting rebel medics on the Dafniyah-Misrata frontline, and eventually ended up fighting alongside the rebels in Sirte, where his time in Libya came to a sudden and violent end.  He filmed much of what he experienced in Libya, and has uploaded around 300 of those videos onto his Youtube Channel.

The following map details some of the locations visited by Kevin Dawes in Libya, along with videos filmed in the area:

View videos and locations visited by Kevin Dawes in a larger map

You met up with Dr Tameem again near Sirte?

Yes I did. We halted our convoy for the day. Forward elements had met some light resistance so the ambulance units had stopped and I found Dr. Tameem there. I snapped the attached photo when I found him. I also shot some video.

Everybody was exhausted. Among other things they had yanked most of the tail section of an RPG out of somebody. These were used as a cheap mortar system when fired in batteries. I was very tired as well. On the way there we had driven through a roadblock that had been hit by a NATO bomb.

Everything was a little charred and the ground was still smoking.  There were sandbag fortifications. Very neat and orderly. Almost like a LEGO fort as you'd build as a kid. All of the people had died right in place. Pitched forward over sandbag walls, smashed into their heavy machinegun yet still prone, etc. Neat and orderly at their stations. They died in a position of vigilance, completely unaware.

The bodies themselves were all mangled to various degrees. They looked like a giant had stepped on them and rubbed his foot back and forth just a little before lifting it off. Things crushed. Pieces missing. A lot was hidden as many of the bodies had already been draped by rebels. Using their own uniform blouse to do this was popular but the ones at this checkpoint were draped with sections of Toyota Hilux body panelling. The only thing missing was a huge stone sculpture of the word 'Iconic'.

Anyway, I climbed into his ambulance in the only space that was available. There was a body in back but also no choices. I rode most of the way back to Misrata on top of a still hot corpse zipped into a flimsy body bag. I felt him go tepid as we approached the city.

I was really hungry. I ate there, too. A snack cake Dr. Tameem had very generously given me. He saw me eyeballing it. In the video I filmed I'm half-leaning on top of a corpse. You can't see that part. I made sure not to pan down. I had to go with him then or risk not being able to find him later. Period.

I remember pulling into the main hospital, newly relocated across the street from the Gostik, with him to unload the deceased. The people gathered there began chanting 'Allah Hu Ackbar' as they opened the rear of the ambulance. I could see them easily through the windows but because the interior was dark they couldn't see me. I was ignored totally. They hauled the body out of the ambulance as I carefully scuttled out of the way and took it inside.

The feeling was like being at my own funeral. Not truly foreboding but certainly one of those moments. Just strange.

Was that the first time you had seen him since you had returned to Libya, or did you meet him in Misrata before he went to Tripoli?

Yes, that was the first time.

At that point did you leave General Mohammed Schuetys division and travel with Dr Tameem?
Immediately, though I never disconnected from their supply line. They kept Dr. Tameem, Tofeek, Mohommed the Demo Guy, and myself supplied with ammunition and other necessary supplies to keep operating as well as providing me with a billet and machine shop that I could use to maintain my weapons. They knew I would be joining their front line units in battle and they were fine with this. I was allowed to operate in whatever way I felt was most effective.

So you spent some time travelling back and forth between the outskirts of Sirte and Misrata with Dr. Tameem?

Yeah. We were commuters. We didn't have the equipment to continue operating at night.

It was reported at the time that it was very difficult to enter Misrata without the correct permissions, did you experience this?

No. I knew all the right people and all of the right people thought pretty highly of me. Most folks helped me out whenever they could.

How did you get involved with the final advance into Sirte?

With Dr. Tameem and the rest of our team, ultimately, though I made the decision somewhat earlier. It was like being the smallest Katiba in the Kataeb. We had been granted total autonomy by Misrata and so we fought. I quickly gained the respect of the commanders on the western front as well as the fighters there by way of my prowess in combat and bravery. Together we closed in on our 'Mystery VIP possibly Qaddafi'. When we began to encounter very well trained resistance I concluded that we definitely had a VIP bottled up in the city. I just didn't know who exactly but I had my suspicions.

With regard to the how and the why of the decision? I felt it was a just cause. That my participation would ultimately do some good. I have a video interview with the New York Times floating around somewhere that never saw the light of day where I explain myself a bit better. I talk about artillery versus a marksman to silence a heavy machinegun while I'm handing out water to Sirte refugees at Kubre Estada. If you can figure out where this footage went that would be huge. There's also the Japanese newsguy footage from Benghazi.

Credit where credit is due. Without the logistical support of my hosting Katiba none of this would have been possible. It's really hard to talk about any kind of hierarchical organization because it was a collective war effort. I had their blessing as well. I'd run into them in Sirte now and again. They were first class front line units. So while I was operating with Dr. Tameem, ultimately, it was only by virtue of having the full logistical support of the Katiba. They rocked. So to be clear the Katiba was still supplying me with food, bullets, and a billet until the very end even though I was operating with Dr. Tameem and his crew as a small, fast unit instead of with the Katiba as part of a slower and less maneuverable heavy attack unit. I think they felt I was more effective in this role.

How did you acquire your sniper rifle?

A black guy gave it to me.  I know this sounds like a flip response but it's actually true. A black guy I met only once or twice gave it to me.

Was it unusual to find rebels armed with sniper rifles?
There was actually a small squad of them I ran around with while in the Sirte agricultural outskirts for a while. The commander (sniper commander, Sheikh a da Hornas) spoke great English and always provided good target intel.

Did you have any specific responsibilities when you were fighting with the rebels?

Neutralize all emergent threats. Snipers, machinegunners, and heavy weapons.

Did you see much evidence of NATO activity around Sirte?

Just bombers.

At that point in the conflict how did the rebels feel about NATO?

Magical unseen sky giants that would sometimes smash things on the ground. NATO was treated like a force of nature. Even among the English speakers with good mastery of pronouns it was always '*the* NATO' in conversation. Like 'the rain' or 'the wind'. This was 'the NATO'.

Did you get a sense that the rebels had more direct contact with NATO during the fighting in Sirte?

No. A NATO airstrike radio would have helped enormously. I could have directed accurate bomb strikes on enemy positions and spared a lot of bloodshed.

Did you see any evidence that NATO had killed civilians in Sirte, or elsewhere?

Nope. The only dead I saw were uniformed other than those I saw at Al Hyesha.

How did the rebels feel about the people coming out of Sirte?  Did they regard them as Gaddafi loyalist?

Some regarded them with a lot of suspicion. Others were a lot more magnanimous. A simple 'Hallas', bottle of water, and a snack cake as well as a finger pointing to the next checkpoint.

While clearing structures in Sirte the rebels I was with were very humane. Civilians were questioned and not molested. Many were allowed to walk off free. One is captured on film doing just this. I also didn't see any looting of non-military items from homes.

We only had one problem and that was a house that contained an extended family. An old man, some women, and a kid in his late teens or early twenties who looked terrified and pale. He was probably involved with Qaddafi's guys before his folks pulled him out. They initially just screamed at us and slammed the gate.

Given what we had found in the other homes I thought we were about to get lit up. I handed my grenade to the squad leader and he just looked at me, smiled, shook his head, and said: 'No.' before pounding on the gate again. They spoke more, the kid was taken away for about ten minutes to be questioned before being returned, and then we left them in their home as we moved on down the block.

I didn't fork over my grenade wholesale. I offered it to him. I understand how screwed up this seems given who was there but I didn't want the scared kid to pop out of an upper window with a PKT. Everybody there was capable of handling a weapon. Doesn't take a lot. Most homes we had so far searched were chock full of guns.

It seemed like opening a grenade attack option up to the squad leader was prudent. We had a few RPG guys but those don't work as well in tight quarters. You eat your own blast nearer than 40 meters.

How do you think the rebels felt having to attack Sirte?  Did they expect strong resistance?

Euphoria. The end was in sight. It's like when the allies were finally driving in on Berlin during WW II.

What did the rebels think of the Gaddafi forces they were fighting in Sirte?

Everybody was just tired. People surrendering were sort of listlessly taken into custody. The atmosphere was about as hopeless as you'd find in Starship Troopers as were the scales of engagement.

Did many people believe Gaddafi or any regime members were hiding in Sirte?

No. People had their money on Bani Walid. I said Sirte because of the man's personality. I know of some of his stuff rebroadcast on NPR and I'm familiar with his peculiar auxiliary appetites pertaining to his superman complex as well as his legendary legacy-oriented vanity. Based on this I guessed 'grand last stand somewhere personally symbolic' and chose Sirte. The ocean access also afforded a possible surrender/escape route so it seemed logical.

Did you see the mood of the rebel fighters change as the fighting went on?

Yeah. It's pretty clear in my videos, actually. Everybody eventually got into this 'We are all going to die here' attitude while we were still fighting through the agricultural outskirts. It was very brutal combat.

How was the advanced organised?  Were you part of a specific group, or did you just join other rebels heading in the same direction?

Several rebel units heading in the same direction. I never got an accurate count of commanders. I spent some time running around with a bunch of snipers and all of the commanders basically treated me like another commander with respect to passing along target intelligence and responding to fire mission requests. I often found myself literally leading the assault. As in pointman for everything. This wasn't really the intention but it sure did work out well because wherever I went territory got captured.

So tactically and strategically I was basically like 'Liberty Prime' from Fallout 3. At least until we got into the urban environments. This was only possible because I had a much greater engagement range than the guys I was fighting. I could stand up to their fire and aim my shots.

In some videos you appear to also be directing artillery, is that correct?

Yeah. I'm trying to put fire on a building that we're taking SPG fire from.

How co-ordinated were the rebel artillery attacks?

They were guided by a loose sense of civic pride and common ideas.

Even with months of experience in their operation I'd imagine the various vehicles with rocket pods welded onto them weren't very accurate?

Not really. The grad rockets were pretty damn decent. There was one guy who could hit targets accurately from almost the maximum range of the rocket system. Generally speaking, though, they were all attacking an area target. Most people didn't have the training required (or stable enough firing platforms) to hit far targets with these systems.

I didn't observe any traffic from a forward observer to these guys. In fact, I'd say the artillery was more of a community pot-luck event. My favorite technical was a taxi-cab minivan that somebody had put a single rocket pod rocket tube on top of. Right on the roof over the driver's side. Anyway, this guy hops out, and with a huge grin he fires his one rocket in the general direction of Sirte, and then leaves.

Grads, the full sized grads, would often hit the near wall rather than continue into Sirte. I even saw one puke out onto the ground only ten meters ahead of the launcher. It vanished in a huge cloud of dirt. It's probably still buried there. I looked around and it was just gone. I didn't really explore because I didn't want to step on it but I could not see it. It burrowed.

The worst rocket artillery accident happened inside of Sirte itself. The day Dr. Tameem and I first arrived there. Same day I got blown up by that RPG on the roof and got blast concussion.

Tofeek and I were in this alley near the burning tire store (green building) when suddenly this ball of orange fire went rocketing, roaring actually, by at street level. As in on the street. A huge amount of smoke and debris accompanied it. Newspapers and all kinds of crap. Then another. And then another. They were grads.

They were puking the grads out of the tubes so low that they were hitting concrete and taking off at ankle level down main street in Sirte. I was wondering when one would finally clip a chunk of debris and detonate broadside to our alley and kill all of us when they finally stopped.

There were also crossfire problems between Benghazi and Misrata units later in the battle.

You came across abandoned uniforms, did you you see an increase in these apparent desertions as the conflict went on?

They were literally everywhere. The gas stop just outside of Kubre Estada (traditional on our drive back) was also my primary piss stop. Since there wasn't a latrine I would just go into this little concrete outbuilding and piss on an old Qaddafi uniform.

Eventually the explanation I was given was that Qaddafi's guys had such a ridiculous number of uniforms that it was easier for them to discard rather than wash. This seemed consistent with the uniforms I saw on dead Qaddafi troops. They appeared to still have their packaging creases.

I've seen a lot of clips of rebels firing RPGs into the far distance, was that an effective tactic?

Not really, no. Unless you're directly in front of the path of the RPG or the RPG detonates within a few meters you will be uninjured. Did you see the little black poof of smoke with the yellow smoke cone sticking out of one side whenever an RPG would pop? That's how you can tell how they were oriented. The yellow smoke indicates which way the shaped charge blew the copper forming cone.

RPGs are way more effective if you aim or can effectively sabotage the self destruct mechanism. The only times I ever saw these things do damage is when they managed to hit the ground again. When they hit they hit about as hard as a 60 MM HE mortar, based on feel. I've been blown up by both. From about the same distance, too. I got blast peppering wounds and a mild blast concussion but nothing else.

There were reports of some groups of rebels looting homes of suspected Gaddafi supporters in and around Sirte, did you see or hear anything like that?

Yeah, but only the weapons. I saw no theft of jewelry or other personal effects (and let me tell you something, digging through people's lives is weird. It was like Pripyat.) though I did see a couple of very young kids attempting to steal a car from Sirte.

Apparently it was their goal during this war as they were young and, well, first car. They were encircled and shamed by other fighters pretty rapidly. So no, I saw nothing like that from the Misrata brigades. Didn't fight directly alongside the Benghazi guys much. The major difference seemed to be equipment quality. Benghazi's military hardware was massively superior to the jury rigged shit that Misrata was fighting with. It is a credit to them that they fought so well anyway.

The Doostang Heavy Industries power plant was very heavily damaged by rebel occupation. It was an extremely convenient staging and barracks facility near Sirte. Koreans also know how to live. These guys were running crab pots off the coast, we found this rocky point that had a couple of very nice hardwood deck chairs set up on it, and all along the beach you'd find empty bottles of booze. 55 gallon drum barbecue grills were plentiful. There was also a driving range in addition to the beautiful stretch of beach they had.

One group of kids began walking around with golf clubs. The power station complex was so large that various parts were occupied by different Katibas. One day this group of golfers showed up on a quest of exploration, complete with goggle eyes. It was like 'The Warriors'.

You have a number of videos where you visit ammo dumps near Sirte.  Was there any evidence that the ammo and weapons stored there had been looted by people other than the rebels, for example, so they could be sold?

I have no idea. Nobody leaves receipts.

Was anyone guarding any of the ammo dumps you came across?


What sort of equipment did you come across in the ammo dumps?

It was mostly mortars, rockets, 106 MM ammunition, and other common items but you'd sometimes find exotic stuff like that stubby seemingly wire guided missile. I believe somebody identified that but I'd have to look at the video comments. There was a lot of unidentifiable stuff and everything was always available there in huge quantity.

Were there any particular dangers in an urban environment like Sirte City Centre you didn't face elsewhere?

Yes. Extensive backblast hazards. Nobody ever checked their backblast area before firing an RPG or recoiless and there was shattered glass everywhere. I also had a rebel trip and almost waste me with his AK-47. This was on video. Luckily his trigger discipline was good. He was backing up and stumbled.

From the above video of a Gaddafi billboard being destroyed at this location it looks like you managed to get quite close to the area where Gaddafi was hiding in Sirte, did you manage to get much further into the city after that?

No. Dr. Tameem got taken out by a heavy machinegunner we were challenging as we pushed into Sector 2. He's still recovering. Severe leg wound. The kind with a recovery measured in years.

In the final part of Kevin Dawes story we find out how his time in Libya came to an end, and his thoughts after returning home.

You can contact the author on Twitter @brown_moses or by email at Previously posted on my Libya Voices blog.

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