Wednesday 28 March 2012

Kevin Dawes Part One - Arrival

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

What were your initial motivations and aims for your visit to Libya?  Was there anything or anyone in particular who inspired you to make the journey?
I wanted to try something different.  Believe it, or not, Robert King. A lot of people will probably give me a lot of flak for this but you have to remember that he filmed his growing up period.

How did you get from San Diego to Misrata?
Expedia to Cairo, Egypt where my plan was to locate and hire a fixer. This was an expensive and involved process. I eventually found a tour guide who only coughed up a driver into Libya after putting me through all kinds of ridiculous tourist shit. I got sunburn and spent way too much money in Egypt greasing that guy, greasing the right people to get my armor out of hoc, etc. It was pretty terrible.

It turns out that Malta was a much shorter and cheaper route. I could have spent 10% or less of what I ultimate did. It pays to know people who don't hate you (ahem) and are willing to pass on travel tips. I get the impression that the first time is the only expensive one.

The drive from Cairo to the border was very long. I was accompanied by one Egyptian police officer and one Egyptian police official. When we arrived at Sallem there were few people crossing from Libya but an almost infinite stream of brand new Hiluxes flowing in, all loaded with fighters and weapons in covered beds. The police officer looked very dismayed and the police official had the most incredible look of smug. I wish I knew what was going on there.

After Sallem I changed drivers and was driven to Benghazi. We stopped in Tobruk on the way there for bread and cheese. There were many checkpoints manned by bored looking fighters and parts of the drive reminded me of photos that I had seen of Afghanistan. Beautiful, lush, grass-carpeted valleys separated by tall rippling stony crests of semi-vegetated desert. It was beautiful, yet foreboding, country. The hulks of burnt out armored vehicles could be seen here and there on the side of the road.

Finally, I arrived at the Alnoran Hotel in Benghazi and discovered the ridiculous prices they were charging. To this point I had been chasing rumors of a free hotel for journalists. There was one- it was just in Misrata. I was in Benghazi for several days before finally arranging passage to Misrata. Much like a fallout game this involved speaking to the other journalists and denizens of the Alnoran hotel and completing various side quests. Benghazi was full of random blasts and gunfire. Also, panicky evacuations from the military base next door.

The first side quest involved getting a cellular telephone SIM card for the rebel cell network. My first attempt resulted in me borrowing and then inadvertently stealing one from some guy due to a breakdown in communications. I apologized after he called me and demanded to know what the fuck I was doing and we tried it again. This second attempt resulted in a successful SIM card purchase. Remember, I had not learnt any Arabic yet at this point on my trip.

Through these same guys I managed to meet a local guide who apparently owned an Egyptian brand money pump of his own. He showed me Benghazi and I learnt about the battles there. He eventually helped me secure my court permissions to travel to Misrata.

One of the guys there was obviously some kind of gangster. He kept trying to get me to leave the hotel with him to see 'his studio'. I'm pretty sure he wanted to mug me. There were a few other journalists there from various outlets that I never saw again after leaving for Misrata with the exception of one fellow that I met from the New York Times who I ran into again at Kubre Estada where he interviewed me about why I had a rifle and was sitting at a guard post processing refugees.

This is a very common theme for my trip. The first encounter and then the distant second encounter. It happened with doctors I met, seeing them in June as harried medical students pressed into service and then again in October as fire breathing thuwar. It happened with security guys (kids, really, we cooked together sometimes) I knew at the Gostik who I later encountered in Sirte. It even happened with a set of three pairs of Hexarmor cut gloves I brought with me and left at the Gostik. I was there in Sirte and suddenly this column of four kids snaked past me and they were all wearing those gloves. One 'pair' was only two left gloves and wouldn't you know it some of them only had the left glove. It happened with the people I was on the Jaraffa (fishing boat) from Benghazi to Misrata on when they began to show up wounded at the field hospital.

The second appearance is where you suck your breath in.

Theoretically the other journalists sailed there as well- just on a much bigger boat than I did. An older fellow with a bald head whose name I don't recall- I remember his accent being britaustralish and faint, indicated that they were travelling on one of the missile cruisers. The Times guy was very helpful in explaining how to get started (solicit everybody, etc.) as well as the mechanics behind passage to Misrata.

There was also a Japanese guy there who had a panic attack and literally fled the hotel. I managed to stop him from running screaming into the night and he took the time to interview me. I was trying to reassure him that he'd be fine. It ended with me giving him a tour of my medic bag. I have no idea what happened to this footage. I'm wearing a bathrobe (Boondock Saints style) in it.

There were also some guys I'm pretty confident were NTC spies there to check up on us and make sure we weren't Qaddafi terrorists. I ran into one of them again later in Misrata. All he did was drive next to me very slowly trying to get me to get into his truck. I ignored him for a block or so (oh god oh god oh god) until he finally just said: 'HEY! HEY! WE'RE COOL! LOOK! WE ARE COOL!' before flashing the peace sign  and driving off. After that I had no real problems in Libya. Interpret these events however you'd like. It could be a coincidence.

I finished some missing parts of my medic bag here- trading for supplies with Sonia at the Benghazi hospital. I also had the captain of the boat I got passage on see her when his diabetes seemed 'blinding' bad. He was in rough shape but he made the voyage. He let me use his cabin to store my things and I had access to the wheelhouse. I spent a lot of time sitting there in the dark while we crossed the Gulf of Sirte listening to NATO's 'kill you all' broadcast on infinite repeat. The vessel itself had twin towed guns on the stern and a load of ammo in the hold. We were so low in the water that we almost sank during a storm and so full of bombs that if the boat caught fire there was no possible way that we could have swum far enough away to avoid getting blast decapitated in the water.

It was very tense. Sitting there in that pitch dark wheelhouse lit only by red light and tracking a GPS heading in absurd seas while listening to a radio warning about how vessels like ours qualified as 'targets for destruction'- that was a little Nick Danger, yeah. It certainly felt that way. Well, it turns out that this is actually a pretty typical experience for a journalist in areas like these. The scary part was whenever the radio would fuzz out in a loud blast of static. You can hear it on the radio set whenever a search or targeting radar paints the boat.

I did handle the wheel during a particularly rough part of the storm because the wheelman (wheelkid, actually) had his arms get tired. The key to steering a ship like that is slow, long-thinking corrections. Don't try to chase the sea. You'll spin in a circle.

I met a lot of amazing people on this boat. It's true what they say. Facing a common danger binds men together. Even long after our trip we would greet each other very warmly. The stars at night were amazing. We fished a little and saw a JSTARS aircraft turning slow orbits over the gulf of Sirte. We also had two Typhoons buzz our vessel.

I started two IVs on that boat. Three if you count the practice IV I ran in on myself while we were waiting around in Benghazi. Both for dehydration, though after evaluating the guys they didn't seem all that dehydrated. The part that made it fun was that I had to do it below decks in pitching seas while a NATO frigate investigated us and was presumably deciding if we were a target for destruction. One took two sticks and he got a moderate hematoma from the first which subsided. Deeper veins than I had thought for a skinny fellow. The other I got in one. A liter of saline a piece later and they were right as rain or at least thought they were. Since they were adults and healthy I figured that they could take their bolus and that I should probably humor them. They were bedridden. I was going by saliva production and skin plasticity.

I was badly alarmed by the appearance of the frigate and the fact that the captain was totally ignoring them on the radio as they demanded we identify ourselves. The towed guns were under tarps, but it was only about as effective as a thin white cotton t-shirt on a well endowed women after it has been drenched with water. That and how low we were in the water. Fish aren't that heavy. Nobody else seemed alarmed. All the captain said to us was: 'French frigate!' The meaning of this statement would only become clear later once it was revealed that the French were supplying arms to the rebels.

The frigate circled us once and then left. After this we steamed the remaining 25 miles (I believe it was a 25 mile picket line) into Misrata.

Can you describe the situation in Misrata when you first arrived?

The whole place seemed completely empty. We were expecting to land under heavy shellfire and the harbor had already taken several hits. Luckily it was clear when we landed. I made my way to the hotel (the free one) settled in, and made friends with the journalists there. I met some very interesting people including one I only know as 'The Ghost' because of his sunken eyes, lack of speech, and ability to only show you gruesome combat footage on his tiny camera in the same way that the guy from Red Dragon showed off his tattoos.

The front line was the city limits. It was a desperate situation. Food was very scarce. Do you remember the story about the journalists becoming trapped in the Rixos Hotel as the war began to come to an end?

They complained about the food in the story. The food they complain about in that story was the best available food we had at the Gostik. I often found myself combining two mostly-eaten cans of tuna, some crackers, and maybe the jam residue from a jar people had given up hope on into a meal. Your stomach is acidic. Your immune system is strong. Mold means safe. Eat or die. While it is true the hotel did very generously provide food for a time this dried up before long. With no functioning banks and a budget that had been sucked nearly dry by horrible fixer experiences which I will *never repeat* I was stuck.

I had made some friends in the city and between these guys and my own geek-like determination to stay fed I came through this part just fine. The Libyans were, and are, the most generous people on the face of the earth. I even had the owner of a burger establishment give me a discounted sandwich. Everybody gets one, he said, by sternly holding up one finger. I never managed to pay him back before leaving the second time around.

When you first arrived in Misrata what did you do? 
I took the best shower of my entire life. It was ice cold but I did not care. I was laughing and happier than I had ever been in my entire life.

Where there other foreigners in the city aside from journalists that you noticed when you first arrived? 

No, not immediately. Those guys fell out of the woodwork later.

Inside the Gostik Hotel

Was there a certain part of Misrata you were staying in?

Yeah, the Gos El Teek (Gostik) hotel. I still have the card in my wallet. It's near the center of the city.

You've mentioned bringing body armour and medical supplies with you, could you tell me what else you brought with you?

Beyond the body armor and medical supplies?  Clothing, bug spray, a water filter, multivitamins, sleeping bag and accompanying kit. My multi-tool, which was invaluable, my flashlight, map, paracord, a gas mask, and a GPS that was useless for most of June because of the jamming.  I also used my iPhone as a back up camera, that footage is kind of interesting.  I also had a ton of malarone with me in case of malaria. Also Zithromax, which I ended up using to treat an upper respiratory infection. I had to do this twice during the trip. Zithromax was highly effective both times. The second time I had to source it locally.

I actually was massively over equipped and spent most of my time reducing my equipment.

Can you tell me how you researched what equipment you would need in Libya?

I asked people who had done it or similar things before. I had a lot of friends in the military, for example, so they were able to give me some idea as to what to expect and what sorts of problems I would face. The key to doing something like this successfully is intricate planning and careful preparation. Little things like getting vaccinations to somewhat larger things like making sure you are in good enough shape to meet the physical demands.

I also did a lot of research specific to the country of Libya.  Climate, insects, and so on. Classical Arabic did not work in Libya so all of this turned out to be useless. I had to learn Libyan. By ear.

Diary entry June 9th
Best day of my damn life.  A random Libyan donated 200 dinars to me on the street for no reason.

I caught a ride to the front (Daphniya - an aid station) and then to the real front from first a random "Libyan" then a genuine one.

The genuine one was a doctor I met at the aid station.  He was the one who drove Tim Hetherington back while he was dying.

I have him most of my medical supplies.  I hope he uses them well.

We demonstrated my flash IV caths to the docs at the field hospital (not the med station) and they went home.  Tomorrow (today as I am writing this entry late) we will go to the media centre and arrange for a shipment of supplies (including IO drivers from chinook medical through malta.

The choice item is a portable vent, also AED's.

The rebels also have a killdozer, which they showed me.  I met the designer and got inside.

Very awesome

You've filmed footage in June of the armoured vehicle constructed by the rebels in Misrata that was later deployed towards the end of the fighting in Sirte, popularly described as the "Libyan Killdozer".  Could you tell us how you came across it? 

It happened to be housed at that part of the front. Dr. Tameem and I stopped by while we were driving around. It was well known to other journalists but we were the only ones allowed in.

So once you arrived in Misrata and found a place to stay, what did you do next?

After I arrived I began looking for ways to get to the front line. I first asked the other journalists if I could accompany them as they went out. This resulted in a hearty round of corporate-clean 'Fuck you kid'-s as they breezed out of the door. It turns out (I was eventually let in on this) that everybody got everywhere by hitchhiking with random Libyans in front of the hotel. I soon adopted this practice after confirming that it wasn't a bad joke designed to get me killed. Misrata is not Benghazi and wartime is not peacetime.

I eventually met a man who agreed to drive me to the front. He took me as far as Dafniyah and no further as he said it was too dangerous. He dropped me off close to the aid station where I met the head of the Misrata hospital (al Hecma) to whom I presented a whole lot of medical supplies. This is when I met Dr. Tameem. He had me stick him a few times in front of other doctors to both IV qualify me and demonstrate the new equipment I had brought. The most valuable items were the chest seals and chest needles.

The supplies I had brought wouldn't last long but they did do a little good. The actual front line was not far away at about 10 kilometers. We were within easy bombardment range.  The 10 km mark was defined as the line of Qaddafi's forces. There was a very large no-man's land that began about 300 meters from the aid station.

After that, everything is captured pretty well in the video series. This would be June 8 and onward. My weapons identification is horrendous at this stage as is my Arabic. Both get better.

I eventually get conscripted and decide to hang around as a medical assistant. This was also filmed.

Tomorrow Kevin Dawes describes his experiences with the medical staff on the Dafniyah-Misrata frontline.

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

1 comment:

  1. Libya from a Journalist 's point of view.

    I cry with her because it took courage to stand up and tell the truth. This footage should go viral.