Wednesday 28 March 2012

Kevin Dawes Part Three - Returning to Misrata and travelling to Sirte

Kevin Dawes, from San Diego, California travelled to Libya in June 2011 as a photojournalist, and 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

Names of journalists have been changed.
Diary entry 25/08/11
When we arrived in Misrata I was not allowed to debark the boat.  My passport was retained and I was stranded aboard the Al Entisar.

Ahmed Alamine hadn’t shown up on time and with a ride I had no immediate ability to contact my friends in the region.  The IMC people helped, or tried, by getting me a spot in their guesthouse and attempting to negotiate for my release.  The last thing they said to me was :”Don’t worry – we’ll get you out of this.” But though they tried very, very, very hard the Libyan port authority would not budge.

A bit later they large hatch covering the hold was removed and a team of Libyan dockworkers, just kids, began to unload the vessel with a crane, kitted out with straps, and a number of wooden palettes in a very poor state of repair.

After watching them upload for a time I climbed down into the hold myself to help.

The work was very difficult.  The deck of the hold kept breaking under the weight of the palette jack and we had to both hand-unload several palettes and make use of large steel sheets to cover holes in the deck.

The first cargo was a load of expired German milk – probably 90 or so palettes.  Many cartons broke, which guarantees that the hold of the Al Entisar will smell like complete shit for decades to come.

The next cargo were several palettes of medjed dates from Jordan.

Even though the English was very limited the crew quickly accepted me and in almost no time we were working as an efficient team.

A cargo avalanche, a crane failure or simply falling through the deck while carrying a load of dates (every palette was badly overloaded) were all very real risks.  The pallets would often crack and shed lumber as they were being lifted.

We shared food during breaks.  They decided to nickname me “Obama” after finding out where I hailed from.

After many hours of difficult labor Ahmed finally arrived and we departed.

So, in July you returned to the US via Malta, and returned to Libya around mid August?

Yes. I travelled on the Al Entisar both times. The company was always interesting.

You mention a Medtrade CELOX study, can you expand on that?

Sure. CELOX was being very widely used in Libya on traumas. This is the first time that I am aware of where such a large scale use of this hemostatic agent has ever taken place. The idea was to collect usage data so that Medtrade could produce better versions of CELOX. CELOX in a ribbed package, for example, allowing you to throttle the use of one pouch without contaminating the entire thing upon opening it. CELOX compounded with antibiotics was another idea that was floated by a doctor there.

Unfortunately, due to the pace of the war and the state of record keeping this never was achieved. I did see CELOX work. It saved many lives. Notice the central item in this video:

When you arrived in Misrata on the Al Entisar you had your passport retained by the local authorities and you were prevented from debarking, can you explain why this happened?

Nope. I have no idea what the hell happened. I suspect the local media center had set up some kind of Quisling dictatorship. This guy waved some handcuffs at me, said I was told never to return despite having extensive e-mail chains and other conversations to the effect: "For the love of god please hurry up with those medical supplies." With people way more important than they were... I was irritated. I was initially barred from debarking because no Libyan was there to pick me up.

Anyway, the same guy and I later meet some time later at military police HQ and everything is totally cool. Nobody passed the media center the memo. At various points during this war I had the media center guy randomly appear and verbally dress me down and demand I appear at the media center immediately and that I would be wanted in Misrata, and then I'd have the Misrata king poobah military/civilian police guys grinning and smiling at me. I mean, the chief of the civilian police shook my hand and called me a hero after a UXO recovery thing I was involved with and the military police had basically said: "Fly, my falcon." so it isn't truly as bad as it sounds. It's actually hilarious. I did everything in my power not to make faces because that would mean having to explain things so I'd just smile and nod and then go to Sirte as per usual and engage in brutal warfare. When we'd rarely, luckily only once in practice the second time around, meet by chance I'd still be covered in blood and dirt and he'd stand there in his flawless suit with his perfect coif of hair. There was little to say.

It was also during those days on my second trip that I was walking around smelling about as nice as a reanimated corpse. There just wasn't time. It was either my rifle or my body that got clean. Not both.

It was so surreal. Everybody else, except for that guy, thought (based on my performance and not my reputation- this had to be earned.) that I was a critical asset and demanded my presence and attention as such.

Flash back to June for a moment-

He and I (the fellow I suspect caused the trouble) had met several times in June and some animosity did form. He immediately accused me of publishing a story that he didn't like and told me to go, a day or two after arriving. I told him that I had done no such thing and that he was mistaken. After this, well, the stage had been set. I found him somewhat bullying and demanding in an unfair way. At various points he'd told me to flee the country under pain of various punishments and nothing ever happened. I learned to completely ignore him then and the policy seemed to hold nicely all throughout the rest of my time in Libya. He once said to me: 'My boss tells me that there is a boat in the harbor tonight. You should be on it!' and I said to him: 'Tell your boss: Hello.' and walked away. He looked confused, smirked, and walked off. It was awesome.

No, he didn't come back. That was the last time that I saw him in June. In hindsight, he might have been partially responsible for the temporary impoundment of my camera with no explanation. It was either that or that bastard journalist Richard accusing me of being a CIA agent in front of as many people as possible. That was a barrel of laughs. Shit went completely haywire after that. My favorite post-Richard-being-a-shit encounter I had was this elderly Libyan security official going: 'BOY I THINK YOU ARE SPY!' and I said 'If you think that then you are retarded.' and he became gorilla pissed and then I said: 'A na asif.' and he replied: 'A TA ASIF!' and stomped away. Being assertive is the way to go in this culture, believe it or not. Assertive but strictly not threatening.

During this period I was just using my iPhone to film. I actually got impounded myself at the Gostik for a while with a guy named Tareq who was accused of being a spy. Tareq and I also got hauled off to police headquarters (military police headquarters) and questioned. We were later released. I also saw one of the other photographers there except he was making a big scene. No idea what happened to that guy. I think maybe another one Richard accused of being a spy.

Anyway, after that I set sail. Ahmed told me to just get a spare camera next time, the local security chief asked me to stay in touch, and everybody was amicable and also fully aware that I was returning in two weeks. At no point was I ever asked to never return. The missing camera was explained to me as being for my own safety which I never actually fully understood. Who knows what strange crap really happened during this time. When I visited the Gostik before leaving the second time around everybody was really very happy to see me. So it wasn't them. I really can't say. Probably fallout from Richard's fatal pronouncement. He may as well have shot me.

Now back to the second time I was in Libya-

I eventually got my passport back a few days before ultimately leaving the country. After meeting with a guy working with the Misrata military police very early in my second trip he gave Dr. Tameem and I a shrug and nod. He retained my passport so I couldn't just boogie if I misbehaved. So we were off. Other than a security guy wagging his finger at me after another guy wouldn't let me debark for lack of a ride- Ahmed being late, nothing material happened at the docks. I debarked and made it to the katiba without incident. At no point did I have any trouble with the actual authorities. They quite liked me. Checked in with the various police HQs, had the katiba boss do his thing... yeah. Everything was fine.

I also met my friends in the Black Trucks as I was leaving the dock. It was very good to see them again. These were the fast reaction guys that reinforced thin spots in the Dafniyah line. One drove me around and gave me an Arabic lesson, once. They were very friendly extremely badass people.

Were it not for Ahmed being late none of these encounters would have happened. Hopefully now it is a bit more clear as to why those NGOs sprang to my aid. My plan was, in the event of being deported on the spot, to elect a courier to move the IO drivers and other medical supplies to Dr. Tameem from the dock. Call it a mission success and go home. Fortunately, reality reasserted itself a few hours later when Ahmed showed up. Lodging, etc, etc. was in place as we had arranged. I debarked and we were off. I still remember him sticking his head out over the lip of the cargo hatch.

I actually remember this incident very fondly. The NGO people are very nice and I got to find out what it is like to be a dockworker.

Remember, I was NOT a fighter at this point.

You mention an incident with UXO recovery that earned you a good reputation?

Yeah, it was luck. I was in an area that I knew was risky which was stupid and managed to step on a hand grenade that had no pin and a bent but still attached spoon. Luckily for me I didn't ignite the fuze. There were also a lot of undetonated MAT-120 cluster munitions laying around but these are infinitely safer to handle. Much to my surprise and happiness a UXO team arrived very rapidly, closed the streets, and removed the ordnance after I pointed it out to a local. A month or two earlier and nobody would have come at all. This is one of my really close calls. I don't like to think about it very much.

Can you tell me about your friend Ahmed?

Good guy, affiliated with Human Rights Watch (how we first met- he was walking up and down the front at Dafniyah), later became a fighter... other biographical details are really up to him.

You arrived in Libya around the time Tripoli had been captured, and just as Ramadan was starting.  What was the mood among the people of Misrata after such an important victory for the NTC forces?

The air was electric. People dreamed of the future. Ramadan was great. I had a dinner invitation every night with a friend of mine in town. Fantastic guy, lovely family.

You then began to travel with the General Mohammed Schuety personal mechanized division, and he seemed to leave a very good impression with you?


Diary entry 25/08/11
The only outing that I have been on so far has been to Al Hyesha with the unit.
It was during this outing that the general really impress me. 
The was no battle.  The leap-frogging line of technicals pushing into the region only found two refugees.
It was what happened afterwards that impressed me.  We found six bodies, perhaps a day old, on the side of the road.  They were dressed in civilian clothes.  Four were in a line and two were some meters distant.
The had been bound, their shoes taken, and executed.  The General’s Lieutenant told me to stop filming.  I did, though I continued to investigate.  The General took great pains to film the entire crime scene.  The four in a line had been neatly shot in the head and then the ropes cut off after they had died.
The two that ran died very slowly from gunshot injuries to the trunk – one drowning in his own vomit.  At least, I presume they tried to run.
The one that drown was just a boy.  The others had looks of terror frozen on their faces – the boy had one as though he had been cheated of something.  I will never forget this.  Afterwards, the general told me that I can’t listen to people who tell me to stop filming and that I should have continued.
Hopefully they capture this war criminal who killed these six men.  All six were prisoners of war.  Judging by the hasty feel of the scene it could not have been the work of more than one of two men.

Were the prisoner executions done by one side in particular, or did you see evidence that both sides were doing it?

There were many reports of executions by Qaddafi's side during the war. I only saw physical evidence of this single grave but I assure you that many others have done their documentary work well.

In one of your videos you come across what appears to be a group of executed prisoners, can you tell me more about that?

Not really. Everything is captured in the subtitles I attached to the video. It really hurt my knees and back to jump down off of the truck like that, and you shouldn't do that while wearing so much gear.

Did you travel with General Mohammed Schuety's division to Sirte?

Yep. Filmed it, too, but have yet to upload the videos. It was like the traffic jam scene from 'Field of Dreams'. An incredible river of technicals. I also filmed the taking of the main gate on the western front. A kid with a G-36 used a few of his precious 5.56 rounds to shoot the flags off of the structure.

At what point and under what circumstances did you begin to fight alongside the rebels?

The first day of the invasion of Sirte in terms of being armed. Only as part of an intense assault effort after meeting up with Dr. Tameem.

In part 4 Kevin Dawes talks about his time fighting alongside the rebels in and around Sirte.

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

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