A Mass Grave Raises Questions in a Libyan Ghost Town
At an army checkpoint on the way into the Libyan city of Misrata, an angry police officer with a pistol tucked into his pants demands I give a blood sample before locking me in a trailer. For what should be obvious reasons, this is a deeply paranoid town. When I eventually get into the center of the city, a protest against the Tawergha—a black-skinned tribe that used to live 25 miles away in the neighboring town of the same name—is in full swing. Worked-up young men tell me they’re ready to kill if they don’t get what they want.
The demonstrators want to know who I am. They want to know where I’ve come from and they want to know what I think about human rights. “So what do you think of this organization, Human Rights Watch (HRW)?” Hassan, a former English teacher, asks me.
I quietly assure Hassan that I view all human rights organizations as parasitic scum feeding on the aftermath of war and turning it into dirty money to be squirreled away into its employees’ snakeskin pockets. “They turn tragedy into PR stunts,” I tell him. “They have to transform victors into villains. That’s how they make their money. It’s sad. It’s perverse. But it’s all they know.”
Hassan nods slowly while other anti-Tawerghan protesters crowd around.
"Public opinion matters a great deal to us," he says, seriously. "During the revolution, Misrata withstood great pressures and made great sacrifices. It was a hero, a champion. But now people are starting to say that we are the bad guys. It’s not right."

The acid of toxic loathing that’s disfiguring Misrata’s public image is its intense hatred of the Tawergha tribe. It’s one of many tribal feuds that have festered since the revolution, further destabilizing the country at a time when the government is struggling to maintain any semblance of control. The feuds have also helped to ensure that violence, guns, and explosions continue to slosh around the country, staining the reputation of free, postrevolution Libya.
Continue

A Mass Grave Raises Questions in a Libyan Ghost Town

At an army checkpoint on the way into the Libyan city of Misrata, an angry police officer with a pistol tucked into his pants demands I give a blood sample before locking me in a trailer. For what should be obvious reasons, this is a deeply paranoid town. When I eventually get into the center of the city, a protest against the Tawergha—a black-skinned tribe that used to live 25 miles away in the neighboring town of the same name—is in full swing. Worked-up young men tell me they’re ready to kill if they don’t get what they want.

The demonstrators want to know who I am. They want to know where I’ve come from and they want to know what I think about human rights. “So what do you think of this organization, Human Rights Watch (HRW)?” Hassan, a former English teacher, asks me.

I quietly assure Hassan that I view all human rights organizations as parasitic scum feeding on the aftermath of war and turning it into dirty money to be squirreled away into its employees’ snakeskin pockets. “They turn tragedy into PR stunts,” I tell him. “They have to transform victors into villains. That’s how they make their money. It’s sad. It’s perverse. But it’s all they know.”

Hassan nods slowly while other anti-Tawerghan protesters crowd around.

"Public opinion matters a great deal to us," he says, seriously. "During the revolution, Misrata withstood great pressures and made great sacrifices. It was a hero, a champion. But now people are starting to say that we are the bad guys. It’s not right."

The acid of toxic loathing that’s disfiguring Misrata’s public image is its intense hatred of the Tawergha tribe. It’s one of many tribal feuds that have festered since the revolution, further destabilizing the country at a time when the government is struggling to maintain any semblance of control. The feuds have also helped to ensure that violence, guns, and explosions continue to slosh around the country, staining the reputation of free, postrevolution Libya.

Continue

Saadi Gaddafi is “a fun guy” and not a war criminal, says his bodyguard.

Saadi Gaddafi is “a fun guy” and not a war criminal, says his bodyguard.

ON THE ROAD WITH LIBYA’S LIONS OF THE DESERT


The smoke from Taha’s massive cone joint flowed through the cabin of our silver Hummer. The A/C was on high and blew long fingers of smoke to the back seat. We were all mellow. Taha’s aviator sunglasses hid his tiny black eyes as he cranked the volume on the Arabic Reggae beat until it became painful. Then he floored it.
Jesus Christ, he’s PTSDing again, I thought as the speedometer cranked past 100 mph.
“He has to drive fast here,” Hamid said in flat Arabic-accented Canadian English. “This is where the snipers were, and if we didn’t do this we were dead.”
The Hummer slalomed as we sped towards the sea west of Misrata. The dark asphalt was covered with sand on the edges, and I prayed Taha could keep the car from sliding out of control as it swung side to side on the twisting road. I kept thinking about what my father had taught me about a tire’s contact patch and how small it is; his father had been a champion racecar driver in Havana in 1920. I’ll never get to see Havana I thought sadly, convinced Taha was about to roll the car.
A white Mazda pickup appeared over a rise, coming straight at us. Taha expertly pulled right and slid the Hummer around him, lining us up on the sea road. We sat there for a second, staring at two T-55 tanks, burnt hulks that sat guard on the road like ghosts. Taha sat crouched in the driver’s seat, his sunglasses barely over the steering wheel as sweat covered his brow.
Hamid dialed back the music as Taha leaned back and we continued to Misrata.
“See, I told you he has to drive fast here.”
“Hashish no problem. Whiskey no problem. Music problem.” Taha said. His English was meager and talking to him was like conversing with George “The Animal” Steel. I looked at Lucian my cameraman.
“You get that?” I asked.
“Got it,” he said, sitting up next to me, taking the camera down from his face, rubbing it against his perfectly trimmed beard. At first I thought he was lying down next to me fearing for his life until I realized he was angling for a shot of Taha, the joint, and the speedometer.
***
I was back in the US after two trips to Libya in three months when I pitched Dan Rather with the idea of doing a documentary on Muammar Qaddafi’s death. I used to be one of the UN’s war crimes investigators in Libya after the war. I primarily looked at NATO’s bombing. But we were short staffed, and so I was also given the lead on investigating Qaddafi’s death. The UN wanted to know if he was “EJE’d” or Extra-judicially Executed as they say in international legal circles. It was an odd request I thought. Who gives a shit if he was EJE’d I asked? Should we give the guy a medal? If someone popped Bashar al-Assad earlier in Syria wouldn’t we all just be better off? Maybe so, but this was serious stuff so I went about it seriously doing two trips to Libya—November 2011 and January 2012—along with a team of about a dozen war crimes investigators.
Working for the UN is funny. Everyone thinks we have some great karmic authority. It is as if people say, oh, it’s the UN, how can we help? The reality is sometimes you show up at a site and an old bespectacled Libyan in fatigues and a beret tells you, “Take your fucking paper and shove it up your ass,” in perfect English. We drive around in huge white Land Rovers that scream “HERE I AM, SHOOT ME” and we are often confined to base for security reasons while our colleagues and friends in human rights organizations and the press call us from shisha bars on the beach in Tripoli telling us “It’s safe. Get your ass out here.”
We flew to Libya via Rome in November, shortly after Qaddafi was killed. There were 12 investigators, a chief of security, and a close protection guy that had the guns. The chief of security was a massive dark-skinned Brazilian and the close protection guy was a dashingly handsome Tunisian who never stopped smiling. We flew to Rome from Geneva when the Italian police showed up. It was a buffet of heavily accented English.
“What do you mean no guns?” the chief of security asked.
“Prego, we are sorry but there is a UN arms embargo on Libya. You must send your weapons back.”
“But we ARE the UN.”

Continue

ON THE ROAD WITH LIBYA’S LIONS OF THE DESERT


The smoke from Taha’s massive cone joint flowed through the cabin of our silver Hummer. The A/C was on high and blew long fingers of smoke to the back seat. We were all mellow. Taha’s aviator sunglasses hid his tiny black eyes as he cranked the volume on the Arabic Reggae beat until it became painful. Then he floored it.

Jesus Christ, he’s PTSDing again, I thought as the speedometer cranked past 100 mph.

“He has to drive fast here,” Hamid said in flat Arabic-accented Canadian English. “This is where the snipers were, and if we didn’t do this we were dead.”

The Hummer slalomed as we sped towards the sea west of Misrata. The dark asphalt was covered with sand on the edges, and I prayed Taha could keep the car from sliding out of control as it swung side to side on the twisting road. I kept thinking about what my father had taught me about a tire’s contact patch and how small it is; his father had been a champion racecar driver in Havana in 1920. I’ll never get to see Havana I thought sadly, convinced Taha was about to roll the car.

A white Mazda pickup appeared over a rise, coming straight at us. Taha expertly pulled right and slid the Hummer around him, lining us up on the sea road. We sat there for a second, staring at two T-55 tanks, burnt hulks that sat guard on the road like ghosts. Taha sat crouched in the driver’s seat, his sunglasses barely over the steering wheel as sweat covered his brow.

Hamid dialed back the music as Taha leaned back and we continued to Misrata.

“See, I told you he has to drive fast here.”

“Hashish no problem. Whiskey no problem. Music problem.” Taha said. His English was meager and talking to him was like conversing with George “The Animal” Steel. I looked at Lucian my cameraman.

“You get that?” I asked.

“Got it,” he said, sitting up next to me, taking the camera down from his face, rubbing it against his perfectly trimmed beard. At first I thought he was lying down next to me fearing for his life until I realized he was angling for a shot of Taha, the joint, and the speedometer.

***

I was back in the US after two trips to Libya in three months when I pitched Dan Rather with the idea of doing a documentary on Muammar Qaddafi’s death. I used to be one of the UN’s war crimes investigators in Libya after the war. I primarily looked at NATO’s bombing. But we were short staffed, and so I was also given the lead on investigating Qaddafi’s death. The UN wanted to know if he was “EJE’d” or Extra-judicially Executed as they say in international legal circles. It was an odd request I thought. Who gives a shit if he was EJE’d I asked? Should we give the guy a medal? If someone popped Bashar al-Assad earlier in Syria wouldn’t we all just be better off? Maybe so, but this was serious stuff so I went about it seriously doing two trips to Libya—November 2011 and January 2012—along with a team of about a dozen war crimes investigators.

Working for the UN is funny. Everyone thinks we have some great karmic authority. It is as if people say, oh, it’s the UN, how can we help? The reality is sometimes you show up at a site and an old bespectacled Libyan in fatigues and a beret tells you, “Take your fucking paper and shove it up your ass,” in perfect English. We drive around in huge white Land Rovers that scream “HERE I AM, SHOOT ME” and we are often confined to base for security reasons while our colleagues and friends in human rights organizations and the press call us from shisha bars on the beach in Tripoli telling us “It’s safe. Get your ass out here.”

We flew to Libya via Rome in November, shortly after Qaddafi was killed. There were 12 investigators, a chief of security, and a close protection guy that had the guns. The chief of security was a massive dark-skinned Brazilian and the close protection guy was a dashingly handsome Tunisian who never stopped smiling. We flew to Rome from Geneva when the Italian police showed up. It was a buffet of heavily accented English.

“What do you mean no guns?” the chief of security asked.

Prego, we are sorry but there is a UN arms embargo on Libya. You must send your weapons back.”

“But we ARE the UN.”

Continue


Last year, in a show of support for the opposition to Bashar al-Assad, TV networks in Qatar and other Gulf countries began refusing to broadcast Syrian-made films and TV series linked to the regime, leading to a huge drop in the number of scripts being produced by studios. 


The censorship was a blow to Najdat Anzour, a leading Syrian director who’s best known for Al-Hour al-Eyn (Beautiful Virgins), a 2005 film that vilified suicide bombers and terrorists. He also made the news in 2007, when it was announced that he was slated to direct a film based on a screenplay by Muammar Gaddafi, which was later revealed to be funded by $50 million of the dictator’s personal fortune (that project has since been scrapped, duh). 
I dialed up Najdat and found out he’s keen for more creative freedom, but also opposes the FSA rebels who are fighting against a regime that he believes has had a spotty record on free speech, to say the least. It was all very confusing, just like the conflict at hand.  
VICE: Najdat, how has your life changed since the beginning of the civil war? Najdat Anzour: First off, it’s not a civil war—it’s an international war, organized by other authorities against Syria. It’s a war between terrorist gangs and the Syrian people, and it’s still spreading chaos. It seems like that’s what was intended when this war was started: to turn Syria into a chaotic, unstable country; affect peoples’ work and ambitions; and put us all in a climate of fear. 
You truly believe that is what’s happening at the moment? Not that they are actually revolutionaries fighting for freedom?Yes, and there’s no room for a gray zone anymore. People need to know about the conspiracy against our country and who it is that’s trying to stab it in the heart. A huge number of Syrians want change, a move toward more freedom of expression and democracy, and whoever creates a boundary against Syria’s development and modernization needs to be disposed of.
Do you have plans to make any series or films about this supposed misunderstanding?Not directly about that, no, but I’m currently preparing a dramatic series about the events in Syria and their direct effects on Syrian youth. Productions like mine contribute to eventually creating dialogue and discussion that will help immunize individuals against extremist Salafi ideas. Or at least make them think about what they’re doing instead of just blindly doing it. 
How would you like to see the situation in Syria work itself out?I’m personally hoping for more creative freedom and less fear, lies, favoritism, and tyranny. All we can do is challenge what’s in front of us.   
Has the boycott on Syrian TV and films in the Gulf made you and other directors hesitant about continuing to work?  No, there are still a lot of Syrian artists who have stayed on and given up a great deal of their personal income in an effort to keep working on local drama. We criticize the corruption, encourage development, and call for national unity. That’s how Syrian drama always is: pioneering and courageous.
For an overview of the issues that have fueled the conflict in Syria, we recommend reading “Road to Ruin,” our condensed timeline of Syrian history, and “The VICE Guide to Syria,” a crash course on the country’s geopolitical, cultural, and religious complexities.

Last year, in a show of support for the opposition to Bashar al-Assad, TV networks in Qatar and other Gulf countries began refusing to broadcast Syrian-made films and TV series linked to the regime, leading to a huge drop in the number of scripts being produced by studios. 

The censorship was a blow to Najdat Anzour, a leading Syrian director who’s best known for Al-Hour al-Eyn (Beautiful Virgins), a 2005 film that vilified suicide bombers and terrorists. He also made the news in 2007, when it was announced that he was slated to direct a film based on a screenplay by Muammar Gaddafi, which was later revealed to be funded by $50 million of the dictator’s personal fortune (that project has since been scrapped, duh). 

I dialed up Najdat and found out he’s keen for more creative freedom, but also opposes the FSA rebels who are fighting against a regime that he believes has had a spotty record on free speech, to say the least. It was all very confusing, just like the conflict at hand.  

VICE: Najdat, how has your life changed since the beginning of the civil war? 
Najdat Anzour: First off, it’s not a civil war—it’s an international war, organized by other authorities against Syria. It’s a war between terrorist gangs and the Syrian people, and it’s still spreading chaos. It seems like that’s what was intended when this war was started: to turn Syria into a chaotic, unstable country; affect peoples’ work and ambitions; and put us all in a climate of fear. 

You truly believe that is what’s happening at the moment? Not that they are actually revolutionaries fighting for freedom?
Yes, and there’s no room for a gray zone anymore. People need to know about the conspiracy against our country and who it is that’s trying to stab it in the heart. A huge number of Syrians want change, a move toward more freedom of expression and democracy, and whoever creates a boundary against Syria’s development and modernization needs to be disposed of.

Do you have plans to make any series or films about this supposed misunderstanding?
Not directly about that, no, but I’m currently preparing a dramatic series about the events in Syria and their direct effects on Syrian youth. Productions like mine contribute to eventually creating dialogue and discussion that will help immunize individuals against extremist Salafi ideas. Or at least make them think about what they’re doing instead of just blindly doing it. 

How would you like to see the situation in Syria work itself out?
I’m personally hoping for more creative freedom and less fear, lies, favoritism, and tyranny. All we can do is challenge what’s in front of us.   

Has the boycott on Syrian TV and films in the Gulf made you and other directors hesitant about continuing to work?  
No, there are still a lot of Syrian artists who have stayed on and given up a great deal of their personal income in an effort to keep working on local drama. We criticize the corruption, encourage development, and call for national unity. That’s how Syrian drama always is: pioneering and courageous.

For an overview of the issues that have fueled the conflict in Syria, we recommend reading “Road to Ruin,” our condensed timeline of Syrian history, and “The VICE Guide to Syria,” a crash course on the country’s geopolitical, cultural, and religious complexities.


Public Opinion: Should We Have Been Allowed To See Gaddafi’s Dead Face?

Public Opinion: Should We Have Been Allowed To See Gaddafi’s Dead Face?