Steve Harrigan on Reporting From the Frontlines in Libya

Middle East correspondent, Steve Harrigan.
Middle East correspondent, Steve Harrigan.U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Tyler Jones

It’s not all celebrations in Tripoli, Libya after rebels took control of the capital and stormed the Qadaffi compound on Tuesday. The dictator is still at large, there is continued resistance by pro-Qaddafi forces, and it’s anyone’s guess who will run the transition government. To get a sense of the mood and action in the capital, we talked to Steve Harrigan, a Fox News Middle East correspondent. He has been in the midst of the recent fighting in Tripoli, the nation’s capital, for the past three days and has been in Libya since the outset of the rebellion.

You’ve been in Tripoli for three historic days now. How would you sum up what is going on in the Libyan capital?
I have been watching them fight for six months, and they have finally come in and taken control of the capital. There is a sense of euphoria right now, but I have seen this happen in the past. If they don’t make people feel secure right away, things could get very ugly.

Were Tuesday’s events – the raid on Qaddafi’s compound and the attack on his fist monument – Libya’s “big moment” the way tearing down Saddam’s statue was for Iraqis?
I think it is. One good thing about for the Libyans is that, to a large extent, they feel like they did it themselves, that they had skin in the game, that they fought and died for six months. This wasn’t just a token force of Iraqis. They got a lot of help in the air, but on the ground, they fought and died. That gives them a sense of pride but also a sense of responsibility and what happens next. And hopefully that’ll help them take ownership over the next few days, which is their real battle.

On Wednesday, we saw a lot of celebratory gunfire, but there are still many happening battles in neighborhoods around Tripoli?
That’s right. There are still pockets of fighting around the Rixos Hotel and Qaddafi still controls at least one city, his home city, [Surt], so it’s really too early to celebrate, and it’s a sign of what kind of army they are, that they are all firing up into the air with huge guns. It doesn’t inspire a great deal of confidence in their discipline or their professionalism.

On the news, we see a lot of firing large weapons into the air…
It’s terrible for their image. I don’t know what it’s like to having been held down for 42 years by a dictator and what kind of rage that can produce, so I can’t judge about firing weapons into the air, but I saw a guy out today, a middle-aged man walking his young daughter it looked like, holding her hand – she was about 4 or 5 – and they were walking around the main square watching people fire their guns into the air. To me, it seems nuts that they’re firing into the air and nuts that you have your kid out there, but this is like the American Revolution for a lot of people here. It’s a day that they probably want their children to see and remember.

You covered the Iraq War, Afghanistan, and Katrina. How does Libya compare?
I am seeing real excitement and hope and joy, and I am hoping it doesn’t go sour this time; I am hoping it doesn’t go south. You have a few days after a revolution to make sure people don’t start looting, and I don’t see the mechanism here to prevent that, to prevent violent unrest. I hope they get it right.

Who are you traveling with?
I have two people with me: a cameraman from London and a security expert and trained medic, who is our eyes and ears. We have a local fixer as well – someone who’s come back to his own country where he’s been exiled from. He’s got to take care of his neighbors, take care of his friends and disappear from us for hours at a time.

Are you all close?
We are. One guy will [watch] the battle and the other two might rest, and you take turns. And you really have to do everything. It’s not like you have this one job. The security guy battles to get us food because getting food is a real tough thing to get right now in Libya, or I’ll battle to get us into a hotel or Pierre [the camera man] will battle to get the satellite up and get the shot up on time. Every one’s got a lot of pressure, and every one needs to cool off once in a while. Sometimes it’s your turn to [keep watch] and let the other guy cool, so it’s a tag-team.

Where do you stay at night?
We have been moving. We have stayed in a different place [primarily hotels] every night.

And what do you all eat?
There are three basic foods that you find in war zones: snicker bars, Laughing Cow cheese and Otis Spunkmeyer muffins. When you’re sitting in the dirt eating Laughing Cow cheese, you know you’re in a war zone.

In the chaos, have you found people who have time to reflect on what’s happening?
I asked ‘How are ya?’ to this old guy today. I figured he’d say, ‘Isn’t this great, we’ve gotten rid of the dictator type thing.’ But his chest heaved a couple of times, and he started to cry, and he said, ‘This is the greatest day of my life. Qaddafi hung my brother 20 years ago as a young man, and I have been waiting for this day ever since then, everyday of my life.’ (See video of this encounter, below) For me, I bounce in and out and it’s a job and I’m going along, and I realize just what it means to him, and that’s what you have to try to remember: It’s unbelievable to have to suffer with one person for 42 years and lose a family member to him, and have that injustice and then to finally have the lid off the box.

Did we call it a win too quickly when the rebels briefly had the upper hand six months ago?
I think everybody called it a win real quickly. We have seen the rebels take over a bunch of cities one day and then have to race backwards the next day. A lot of these guys are amateur fighters. You have to respect them, that they have put their lives on hold and are fighting to topple a dictator. At the same time, there are a lot of chiefs out there and no Indians, so they fight for their neighborhood or their group, and they’re not coordinating.

And it’s still dangerous in Tripoli?
It is nerve-racking because those bullets come down. Always, if you have enough people with guns, you’re going to have some lunatics in there. Our driver honked at somebody and he fired a shot back at us, so you have to behave in traffic a little differently than normal.

You were in Libya since the beginning of the rebellion. Does an end seem more in sight now than then?
I’m a little skeptical because I have seen this once before in Iraq, where there is a sense of euphoria and then things can get ugly if people aren’t brought in – if all the people who supported Qaddafi aren’t made to feel secure and welcome in a new government, in a new country, really.

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