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.”