BBC News

Hazards of war reporting from the Libyan front line

By Alastair Leithead
BBC News, Libya


The television images of the war in Libya show a ramshackle bunch of rebels, firing off their guns and missiles in what seems an almost haphazard fashion, but what is it like being on the front line and reporting on the war?

It was too late to buy lamb, so camel pasta it had to be and it was not bad.

I guess the little villa on the Mediterranean would count as luxury in normal times, but Libyans are still waiting to find out what normal is going to be.

It is luxury for us - hot water, electricity, even some air-conditioning. Luxury in an oil-workers compound.

An oasis and nightly retreat from the ever-advancing front lines closing in on Sirte, where Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was born and where what is left of his army is still holding out.

We are commuting to war. For an hour and a half every morning and evening, we drive the long desert road to collect the video footage we need to put a television news report together.

image captionAnti-Gaddafi forces have been closing in on Col Gaddafi's home town of Sirte

We dodge the potholes and sand drifts, burned-out trucks, wandering camels and erratic rebel drivers - or now I suppose, former rebels.

They are the same rag-tag band of engineers and teachers, civilians who welded guns to their pick-up trucks and took on a standing army.

But they are soldiers now. Some bring fearless, almost foolhardy bravery. The professionals among them provide planning and strategy. The advance on Sirte we are documenting has been logical, cautious, well organised and well supplied.

They have troops, tanks, artillery, air power - courtesy of Nato - and rockets. Lots of rockets. And rockets make good television.

In a long-running war, finding different or dramatic footage keeps the story in the news. Outgoing fire shows the ferocity and aggression of war.

We filmed 30m (100ft) in front of the the rockets as they were fired over our heads with a roar and trailing fire - the only warning, a quick chorus of "Allahu Akbar".

They were bombarding the pro-Gaddafi positions. The effect on screen was dramatic.

What we could not show was their impact 30km (19 miles) away, where these terrifying weapons were landing, tearing holes in the defensive lines - lines, that is, of other people.

The Colonel's army have the same weapons, without the air power.

So, like the troops, we experience and try to record incoming fire. The only reassurance while on the receiving end of rockets is the trick of sound - if you hear a bang, it has already missed you.

But it is an occupational hazard rather than good television. At best it is no more than a whizz, a puff of smoke and a wobbly camera shot as we race for cover.

Drama of war

In a world of Hollywood war films, there is something almost disappointing about how real war looks on screen. The desire for better pictures can lure you into increasingly dangerous places.

This war is being fought in two ways - through the precise and remote science of long-distance artillery, whose angles, bearings and logarithms are familiar to the engineers now firing them, and the up-close, car-to-car, gun-to-gun graft where bullets and shrapnel fill the air.

We film the consequences through the steady flow of dead and injured arriving at the field hospital, pools of rich crimson seeping out of them.

They are shocking images which people do not necessarily want to see close-up. The temptation is to be out at the very front with them - where the fighting is more dramatic, more filmic.

The pictures might lever the story onto a busy news bulletin, but what soldiers do is madness. It is hard, brutal, bloody, deadly war.

Front-line reporting - capturing and communicating the essence of war - is always a gamble, but one where we think we can set the odds.

image captionFinding the strongest images while staying safe is a difficult balance

It is a balance of risk and access.

The further forward you go, the more powerful the pictures, but the greater the chances of being killed or injured.

Our flak jackets and helmets are far from invincible. As a cub reporter I was always told never to become the story.

This week, a friend of mine misjudged that balance.

On the other side of Sirte, dressed as a rebel, he tore through the desert with his camera.

As a freelance photographer there is more pressure to take risks just to make a living.

He was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. He survived, but is badly injured. I suppose I have thought more about risk in the days since.

It is dark now and I am glad to be commuting home. We will head back up to the front again tomorrow and again hopefully get that balance just right.

The men fighting will head there too. They do it because it is their future, their country, their revolution.

We will be there searching for an image you have not seen yet, something to keep you following a war far away which is not any less deadly or significant just because it goes on every day.

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More on this story

  • Profile: Sirte