From Washington to Tripoli…

ORIGINALLY POSTED TO ‘THE DOWNHOLD WIRE,’ A NEWSGROUP FOR FELLOW FORMER UNIPRESSERS:

Marie Colvin! I remember the sweet-faced, gorgeous young woman with the black, lamblike ringlets – and the steel trap mind behind those sparkling eyes! We were both just starting out at UPI Washington in the early 1980s, and would run into each other occasionally at big Washington parties. In recent years we’d run into each other occasionally at big London parties & sometimes not even chat: just exchange eye contact and a little nod, acknowledging our shared history.

Thirty years later she was still a beautiful woman, with that lean, runner’s body, that fantastically lived-in face and the famous black eye patch … Wish I could have seen her at the tiller on one of her long-distance sails: she must have looked like a pirate.

We ended up at the same hotel overlooking Tahrir Square during the uprising, last year. She’d already had one very close call: interviewing the family of a young protester killed in custody, the rumor spread through the neighborhood that there was an Israeli spy in the house, and the family had to help her escape by hiding her in a back room & then letting her out a side door.

At one point, in Cairo, things got very, very hairy: we journalists got word we were going to be targeted by pro-Mubarak thugs; we were warned not to go out onto our balconies for fear of snipers; CBS pulled all but 5 of us out of the city center, and the rest of us had a planning meeting about escape routes and what to do if our hotel was overrun/set on fire. For once I was prepared to listen to the supervising producer’s pleadings NOT to go out at all, the next day: “You won’t be able to tell ANY story if you’ve been arrested or killed,” he pointed out.

Then, the next morning, I ran into Marie over breakfast. We traded tidbits about the security situation, agreeing it was pretty ominous.

“So… are you going out?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said.

And that was that: if Marie was going out, then I would go out. If Marie had said, no, then I’d have stayed in: any situation too dangerous for Marie was too dangerous for ANYONE.

I told this story to some CBS colleagues, yesterday. There was a little pause – and then we all acknowledged that, well, there probably weren’t ANY situations that Marie wasn’t prepared to enter.

The last time I met her was Tripoli, in the early days of the Libyan uprising. She gave me some tips on how to elude the government minders – but also warned me, correctly, that the dissidents had been driven too deep underground to reach, at that point. She was the go-to person for less well-connected journalists who wanted to get to Qaddafi: I suspect he was still taking her calls till close to the very end.

We laughed at the irony that we only ever met in war zones – even though we lived in the same part of London.

A couple of weeks ago, I turned onto my street and saw Marie cycling the other way. I should text her, I thought, and have her over for lunch. But I let it slide: there would always be another war zone, after all.

In a panel discussion last night I was asked what “lessons” could be drawn from Marie’s death. I resist that word – because it implies she made mistakes that directly led to those final minutes. But I am starting to wonder about the after-effects:

I wonder how many of us, consciously or unconsciously, faced with going into yet another hellhole thought: well, Marie Colvin’s been to plenty of even hairier places than that and she’s survived.

Most of us are still processing the fact of her loss. Eventually, though, I wonder how many of us – consciously or unconsciously – will recalibrate our sense of risk, the next time we’re asked to go someplace deeply dangerous.

Maybe the ultimate “lesson” or meaning of Marie’s death is the reminder that if you cover wars there’s a chance you’ll die in one.

In the same panel discussion, I pointed out that Marie, herself, would have considered the deaths of innocent civilians trapped in Homs to be far more newsworthy than that of a couple of journalists who chose to be there. But, then, that’s what kept sending Marie back into the forsaken, war-torn, wounded corners of the world: to give a voice to those denied a voice.

I thought we’d be disreputable old ladies, together, still running into each other at big London parties and cackling gleefully over our chequered pasts.

Damn. Damn. Damn.

#

The Syrian people will remember her forever.

Marie Colvin sacrificed her life trying to save the Syrian people from being slaughtered by their own government, I didn’t meet Marie personally but her legacy will live forever in my heart and in all the Syrian people that she was trying to save. We created a page in her honor on Facebook.

My heart and my condolences goes to her family and I hope we can bring her home to her family so she can find peace.

Sincerely
Mohamad

From Annie Lennox

I just wanted to share the blog I posted on the day, after I read what happened…I was trying to express the measure of my profound respect and admiration for Marie, and everything she stood for.

Exceptional men and women, who are prepared to put their own personal safety and security on the line, in order to bear witness to what would otherwise go unnoticed, are the rarest and most precious treasures in the world. It was an absolute honour to have met her.

The post:
“I’ve just learned the terrible news that veteran war correspondent Marie Colvin was killed in the besieged Syrian town of Homs earlier today, after the house that she was staying in was shelled. Marie was one of those special people that made you stand in awe. Boundlessly courageous, and passionately dedicated to justice and human rights, exceptional and exemplary, she was simply outstanding. I am deeply saddened to hear that her life has been taken, and bow my head to her nobility, and everything she stood for. My profound condolences go out to her family and friends.”

With love and deepest sympathy from Annie L.

In Jordan in the 1990s | In Chechnya in 1999. Rex Features

In Libya in 2011. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra | Giving an address in London in 2010 at a service to commemorate journalists, photographers/cameramen, and support staff who died on assignment. AFP/Getty Images

In Libya with rebel forces, 2011REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

Interviewing a Libyan general. Sidney Kwiram/Human Rights Watch | In Iraq, 2007

In Tahrir Square, Cairo, 2011.

We Live in Fear of a Massacre

The only British newspaper journalist inside the besieged Syrian enclave of Baba Amr reports on the terrible cost of the uprising against President Assad.

They call it the widows’ basement. Crammed amid makeshift beds and scattered belongings are frightened women and children trapped in the horror of Homs, the Syrian city shaken by two weeks of relentless bombardment.

Among the 300 huddling in this wood factory cellar in the besieged district of Baba Amr is 20-year-old Noor, who lost her husband and her home to the shells and rockets.

“Our house was hit by a rocket so 17 of us were staying in one room,” she recalls as Mimi, her three-year-old daughter, and Mohamed, her five-year-old son, cling to her abaya.

“We had had nothing but sugar and water for two days and my husband went to try to find food.” It was the last time she saw Maziad, 30, who had worked in a mobile phone repair shop. “He was torn to pieces by a mortar shell.”

For Noor, it was a double tragedy. Adnan, her 27-year-old brother, was killed at Maziad’s side.

Everyone in the cellar has a similar story of hardship or death. The refuge was chosen because it is one of the few basements in Baba Amr. Foam mattresses are piled against the walls and the children have not seen the light of day since the siege began on February 4. Most families fled their homes with only the clothes on their backs.

The city is running perilously short of supplies and the only food here is rice, tea and some tins of tuna delivered by a local sheikh who looted them from a bombed-out supermarket.

A baby born in the basement last week looked as shellshocked as her mother, Fatima, 19, who fled there when her family’s single-storey house was obliterated. “We survived by a miracle,” she whispers. Fatima is so traumatised that she cannot breastfeed, so the baby has been fed only sugar and water; there is no formula milk.

Fatima may or may not be a widow. Her husband, a shepherd, was in the countryside when the siege started with a ferocious barrage and she has heard no word of him since.

The widows’ basement reflects the ordeal of 28,000 men, women and children clinging to existence in Baba Amr, a district of low concreteblock homes surrounded on all sides by Syrian forces. The army is launching Katyusha rockets, mortar shells and tank rounds at random.

Snipers on the rooftops of al-Ba’ath University and other high buildings surrounding Baba Amr shoot any civilian who comes into their sights. Residents were felled in droves in the first days of the siege but have now learnt where the snipers are and run across junctions where they know they can be seen. Few cars are left on the streets.

Almost every building is pock-marked after tank rounds punched through concrete walls or rockets blasted gaping holes in upper floors. The building I was staying in lost its upper floor to a rocket last Wednesday. On some streets whole buildings have collapsed — all there is to see are shredded clothes, broken pots and the shattered furniture of families destroyed.

It is a city of the cold and hungry, echoing to exploding shells and bursts of gunfire. There are no telephones and the electricity has been cut off. Few homes have diesel for the tin stoves they rely on for heat in the coldest winter that anyone can remember. Freezing rain fills potholes and snow drifts in through windows empty of glass. No shops are open, so families are sharing what they have with relatives and neighbours. Many of the dead and injured are those who risked foraging for food.
Fearing the snipers’ merciless eyes, families resorted last week to throwing bread across rooftops, or breaking through communal walls to pass unseen.

The Syrians have dug a huge trench around most of the district, and let virtually nobody in or out. The army is pursuing a brutal campaign to quell the resistance of Homs, Hama and other cities that have risen up against Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, whose family has been in power for 42 years.
In Baba Amr, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the armed face of opposition to Assad, has virtually unanimous support from civilians who see them as their defenders. It is an unequal battle: the tanks and heavy weaponry of Assad’s troops against the Kalashnikovs of the FSA.

About 5,000 Syrian soldiers are believed to be on the outskirts of Baba Amr, and the FSA received reports yesterday that they were preparing a ground assault. The residents dread the outcome.

“We live in fear the FSA will leave the city,” said Hamida, 43, hiding with her children and her sister’s family in an empty ground-floor apartment after their house was bombed. “There will be a massacre.”
On the lips of everyone was the question: “Why have we been abandoned by the world?” Ban Ki-moon, the secretarygeneral of the United Nations, said last week: “We see neighbourhoods shelled indiscriminately, hospitals used as torture centres, children as young as 10 years old killed and abused. We see almost certainly crimes against humanity.” Yet the international community has not come to the aid of the innocent caught in this hell.

Abdel Majid, 20, who was helping to rescue the wounded from bombed buildings, made a simple plea. “Please tell the world they must help us,” he said, shaking, with haunted eyes. “Just stop the bombing.
Please, just stop the shelling.”

THE journey across the countryside from the Lebanese border to Homs would be idyllic in better times. The villages are nondescript clusters of concrete buildings on dirt tracks but the lanes are lined with cypresses and poplar trees and wind through orchards of apricot and apple trees.

These days, however, there is an edge of fear on any journey through this area. Most of this land is essentially what its residents call “Syria hurra”, or free Syria, patrolled by the FSA.

Nevertheless, Assad’s army has checkpoints on the main roads and troops stationed in schools, hospitals and factories. They are heavily armed and backed by tanks and artillery.

So a drive to Homs is a bonerattling struggle down dirt roads, criss-crossing fields. Men cluster by fires at unofficial FSA checkpoints, eyeing any vehicle suspiciously. As night falls, flashlights waved by unseen figures signal that the way ahead is clear.

Each travelling FSA car has a local shepherd or farmer aboard to help navigate the countryside; the Syrian army may have the power, but the locals know every track of their fields.

I entered Homs on a smugglers’ route, which I promised not to reveal, climbing over walls in the dark and slipping into muddy trenches. Arriving in the darkened city in the early hours, I was met by a welcoming party keen for foreign journalists to reveal the city’s plight to the world. So desperate were they that they bundled me into an open truck and drove at speed with the headlights on, everyone standing in the back shouting “Allahu akbar” — God is the greatest. Inevitably, the Syrian army opened fire.

When everyone had calmed down I was driven in a small car, its lights off, along dark empty streets, the danger palpable.

As we passed an open stretch of road, a Syrian army unit fired on the car again with machineguns and launched a rocket-propelled grenade. We sped into a row of abandoned buildings for cover.

The scale of human tragedy in the city is immense. The inhabitants are living in terror. Almost every family seems to have suffered the death or injury of a loved one.

Khaled Abu Salah, an activist who took part in the first demonstrations against Assad in Homs last March, sat on the floor of an office, his hand broken and bandages covering shrapnel wounds to his leg and shoulder.

A 25-year-old university student, who risked his life filming videos of the slaughter of Baba Amr residents, he narrowly escaped when he tried to get two men wounded by mortar fire to a makeshift clinic.

He and three friends had just taken the wounded to the clinic, which was staffed by a doctor and a dentist, and stepped away from the door when “a shell landed right at the entrance”, he recalled last week.

“My three friends died immediately.”

The two men they had helped were also killed.

Abu Ammar, 48, a taxi driver, went out to look for bread at 8am one day last week. He, his wife and their adopted daughter had taken refuge with two elderly sisters after their home was hit by shells.

“When I returned the house was obliterated,” he said, looking at all that remained of the one-storey building. Only a few pieces of wall still stood. In the ruins a woman’s red blouse was visible; bottles of homemade pickled vegetables were somehow unscathed. “Dr Ali”, a dentist working as a doctor, said one of the women from the house had arrived at the clinic alive, but both legs had been amputated and she died.

The clinic is merely a firstfloor apartment donated by the kindly owner. It still has out-ofplace domestic touches: plasma pouches hang from a wooden coat hanger and above the patients a colourful children’s mobile hangs from the ceiling.

The shelling last Friday was the most intense yet and the wounded were rushed to the clinic in the backs of cars by family members.

Ali the dentist was cutting the clothes off 24-year-old Ahmed al-Irini on one of the clinic’s two operating tables. Shrapnel had gashed huge bloody chunks out of Irini’s thighs. Blood poured out as Ali used tweezers to draw a piece of metal from beneath his left eye.

Irini’s legs spasmed and he died on the table. His brotherin-law, who had brought him in, began weeping. “We were playing cards when a missile hit our house,” he said through his tears. Irini was taken out to the makeshift mortuary in a former back bedroom, naked but for a black plastic bag covering his genitals.

There was no let-up. Khaled Abu Kamali died before the doctor could get his clothes off. He had been hit by shrapnel in the chest while at home.

Salah, 26, was peppered with shrapnel in his chest and the left of his back. There was no anaesthetic, but he talked as Ali inserted a metal pipe into his back to release the pressure of the blood building up in his chest.

Helping tend the wounded was Um Ammar, a 45-year-old mother of seven, who had offered to be a nurse after a neighbour’s house was shelled. She wore filthy plastic gloves and was crying. “I’m obliged to endure this, because all children brought here are my children,” she said. “But it is so hard.”

Akhmed Mohammed, a military doctor who defected from Assad’s army, shouted: “Where are the human rights? Do we have none? Where are the United Nations?” There were only two beds in the clinic for convalescing. One was taken by Akhmed Khaled, who had been injured, he said, when a shell hit a mosque as he was about to leave prayers. His right testicle had had to be removed with only paracetamol to dull the pain.

He denounced the Assad regime’s claim that the rebels were Islamic extremists and said: “We ask all people who believe in God — Christians, Jews, Muslims to help us!” If the injured try to flee Baba Amr, they first have to be carried on foot. Then they are transferred to motorbikes and the lucky ones are smuggled to safety. The worst injured do not make it.

Though Syrian officials prohibit anyone from leaving, some escapees manage to bribe their way out. I met refugees in villages around Homs. Newlywed Miriam, 32, said she and her husband had decided to leave when they heard that three families had been killed and the women raped by the Shabiha militia, a brutal force led by Assad’s younger brother, Maher.

“We were practically walking on body parts as we walked under shelling overhead,” she said. Somehow they made it unscathed. She had given an official her wedding ring in order to be smuggled out to safety.
Abdul Majid, a computer science student at university, was still shaking hours after arriving in a village outside Homs. He had stayed behind alone in Baba Amr. “I had to help the old people because only the young can get out,” said Majid, 20, wearing a leather jacket and jeans. He left when his entire street fled after every house was hit.

“I went to an army checkpoint that I was told was not too bad. I gave them a packet of cigarettes, two bags of tea and 500 Syrian pounds. They told me to run.”

Blasts of Kalashnikov fire rang out above his head until he reached the tree line. He said the soldiers were only pretending to try to shoot him to protect themselves, but his haunted eyes showed he was not entirely sure.

IF THE Syrian military rolls into Baba Amr, the FSA will have little chance against its tanks, superior weaponry and numbers. They will, however, fight ferociously to defend their families because they know a massacre is likely to follow any failure, if the past actions of the Assad regime are anything to go by.
The FSA partly relies on defections from Assad’s army because it does not accept civilians into its ranks, though they perform roles such as monitoring troop movements and transporting supplies. But it has become harder for soldiers to defect in the past month.

Abu Sayeed, 46, a majorgeneral who defected six months ago, said every Syrian military unit was now assigned a member of the Mukhabarat, the feared intelligence service, who have orders to execute any soldier refusing an order to shoot or who tries to defect.

The army, like the country, may well be about to divide along sectarian lines. Most of the officers are members of the Alawite sect, the minority Shi’ite clan to which the Assad family belongs, while foot soldiers are Sunni.

The coming test for the army will be if its ranks hold if ordered to kill increasing numbers of their brethren. The swathe of the country that stretches east from the Lebanon border and includes Homs is Sunni; in the villages there they say that officers ordering attacks are Alawites fighting for the Assad family, not their country.

The morale of Assad’s army, despite its superiority, is said to be low as it is poorly paid and supplied, although this information comes mostly from defectors. “The first thing we did when we attacked the house was race to the refrigerator,” said a defector.

Thousands of soldiers would be needed to retake the southern countryside. Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father and former president, crushed his problems with Islamic fundamentalists in 1982 by shelling the city of Hama into ruins and killing at least 10,000 men, women and children. So far his son appears to have calculated that a similar act would be a step too far for his remaining allies of Russia, China and Iran.

For now it is a violent and deadly standoff. The FSA is not about to win and its supplies of ammunition are dwindling.

The only real hope of success for Assad’s opponents is if the international community comes to their aid, as Nato did against Muammar Gadaffi in Libya. So far this seems unlikely to happen in Syria.
Observers see a negotiated solution as perhaps a long shot, but the best way out of this impasse. Though neither side appears ready to negotiate, there are serious efforts behind the scenes to persuade Russia to pull Assad into talks.

As international diplomats dither, the desperation in Baba Amr grows. The despair was expressed by Hamida, 30, hiding in a downstairs flat with her sister and their 13 children after two missiles hit their home. Three little girls, aged 16 months to six years, sleep on one thin, torn mattress on the floor; three others share a second. Ahmed, 16, her sister’s eldest child, was killed by a missile when he went to try to find bread.

“The kids are screaming all the time,” Hamida said. “I feel so helpless.” She began weeping. “We feel so abandoned.

They’ve given Bashar al-Assad the green light to kill us.”

Loyalties of ‘desert rose’ testedAsma, the British-born wife of President Bashar al-Assad, may well be feeling a sense of divided loyalty as the violence continues in the Syrian city of Homs. Her family are from the area, which has been a focal point for many of the recent protests against her husband’s regime and t he Syrian army’s brutal response.

Despite growing up in Acton, west London, Asma visited her family’s home in Homs every year throughout her childhood. She is also a Sunni Muslim, unlike her husband, who comes from the country’s minority Shi’ite community.

Asma, 36, has been criticised for displaying an “ostrich attitude”, keeping a low profile as the conflict has intensified. She has refused to comment on the way her husband’s regime has used tanks and other lethal means to crush protesters. In an email sent earlier this month, her office merely said: “The first lady’s very busy agenda is still focused on supporting the various charities she has long been involved with as well as rural development and supporting the President as needed.”

The daughter of a consultant cardiologist and a retired diplomat, Asma was born in London. She attended a Church of England state school in Acton and gained a BSc in computer science and a diploma in French literature from King’s College London.

She went on to work for Deutsche Bank and married Assad in Syria in 2000. Now a mother of three, she was once described by Vogue as a “rose in the desert”. In Homs, the beleaguered people may now take a different view. ” PLEASE TELL THE WORLD TO HELP US. JUST STOP THE BOMBING

News International Associated Service
 © The Sunday Times February 2012. All rights reserved.

Mad Dog and Me

Our Middle East Correspondent Marie Colvin, who has known Gadaffi for 25 years, offers an insight into the mind of Libya’s fallen tyrant Gadaffi told me he was in love with Madeleine Albright.

When I saw the looted chaos of the Bab al-Aziziya compound in the centre of Tripoli after its capture by rebels last week, I had a flashback to a night quarter of a century ago — the first time I met Muammar Gadaffi. In April 1986 I was driven through the empty, dark streets of the city to what was then his stronghold. The tall gates of Bab al-Aziziya swung open and I passed several tanks hidden in the shadows. I remember thinking I would not be leaving without the permission of the Libyan leader.
I was nervous. Gadaffi was in a tense stand-off with Ronald Reagan, the American president, who had called him “the mad dog of the Middle East” for sponsoring anti-western terrorism, including a nightclub bomb attack that month against American military personnel in Berlin. The US Sixth Fleet was off the coast. Superpower vengeance was expected at any moment.

Gadaffi had given no interviews to the scores of journalists in Tripoli. I was an American citizen, working at the time for United Press International, a US news agency. Why had I, a young female reporter, been awakened at 3am and told that “the leader” had summoned me? I didn’t know it at the time, but this was classic Gadaffi. He kept no set hours and summoned people. His whim had to be implemented immediately. You had only to see how quickly his aides scurried when he issued a command to know that his rule was based on fear.

My car was met by several beautiful young women in tight camouflage uniforms, high heels and make-up with pistols at their hips. They glared at me, led me underground down several staircases and left me alone in a room with a large desk and a sofa.

The door opened. In walked Gadaffi, dressed in a red silk collarless shirt, white silk pyjama trousers and lizard skin slip-ons. Over it all he wore a gold cape. He turned, locked the door, put the key in his pocket and said, “I am Gadaffi.”

I remember saying to myself, “No kidding.” But I think I was just stunned.

It was a weird interview. I kept turning on the tape recorder and he kept turning it off, putting his hand on my knee and saying he was tired and wanted to talk about something else. He seemed isolated. At one point I asked a not particularly clever question, something like, “How are you feeling now that President Reagan is about to bomb you?” “Who told you that?” he demanded. Missing my chance to be considered a journalist with highly placed sources, I said: “I heard it on the BBC.” Gadaffi leapt up, crossed the room and switched on a radio tuned to the World Service.

It was clear that he lived in a bubble of his own making. Libya was at the centre of an international crisis, yet he was sitting alone in his bunker, relying on the radio for news. The isolation could only have been enhanced by his obsession with the security he found underground.

We now know that the tunnels under the compound were more than just a secret way in and out. There was a whole world of living quarters where I must have interviewed him years ago, never knowing I was in a tiny corner of a secret complex.

The famous bedouin tent where he met dignitaries, including Tony Blair for the 2004 handshake, was one of the many props of his personal theatre. He played the bedouin sheikh but he never really lived there. He felt safe only in his burrow.

His paranoid obsession with safety underground became even more clear last week when I entered the house of Moatassim Gadaffi, one of his his sons and the national security adviser. Neighbours in the Ben Ashour district said Gadaffi senior had built the house about nine years ago, then given it to Moatassim.
Inside it was decorated in terrible taste, with mud-coloured leather furniture, dark brown modern paintings and an ostentatious, black-andwhite swirled marble floor. But down three staircases was an underground world. Much larger living quarters sprawled beneath the manicured gardens, complete with a fullyequipped operating theatre, an x-ray machine and a medical clinic. Armoured doors, painted green, punctuated the wide hallways, with instructions on how to release the lock if trapped by rubble.
“For four years workers were sending out trucks of dirt and no building appeared,” said Dr Ashraf al-Khadeiri, who lived across from the compound’s 30ft walls. “For four years, an enigma. We thought, maybe he is walking in the ground under us. Now we know.” Khadeiri was the first outsider to enter the underground home after Moatassim fled last week.

During the crisis of April 1986 I interviewed Gadaffi several times, always summoned at the last moment in the early hours, always meeting him underground. I never saw anyone besides drivers and guards. There was no sound from outside.

The interviews were increasingly strange. I arrived for one to find that a bodyguard had laid out petite green shoes for me to wear. It was Gadaffi’s favourite colour: he had changed Libya’s flag to a flat green banner and he had renamed Tripoli’s central square Green Square. But green shoes for an interviewer? Late on Friday April 11, he summoned me again and seemed in a more serious mood. He told me he had decided to “include all of southern Europe in a Libyan counterattack plan”.

Gadaffi painstakingly went over a communiqué with me, changing several words in a statement typed by his office and explaining exactly what he meant. He was anxious to hear what I thought the Reagan administration might do, and he pressed me for information from Washington. He told me: “I think Reagan must be mad.”

On the night of April 15 the Americans attacked. The use of Stealth F-117 aircraft was vetoed at the last minute — it would have been the first time the top-secret planes were used in anger — and a squadron of F-111s flew from American bases in Britain to hit the compound and other targets. I called the private number Gadaffi had given me to find out whether he had survived. An aide answered and hung up.
Several weeks later Gadaffi ended a long period of speculation that he had been killed by emerging to make one of his characteristic rambling speeches. He said Reagan was the problem, the American people loved Gadaffi, and to prove it he distorted the content of my phone call — which had been to find out if he was alive — to say that “an American woman had called and tried to warn me”. I was grateful he did not use my name.

Three years later I was in Tripoli again. It was a month after the Lockerbie bombing, which had not yet been definitively pinned on Libya.

American and British intelligence had identified a chemical weapons plant at Rabta, 60 miles south of the capital. US fighters patrolling the Mediterranean shot down two Libyan planes that had intercepted them. Gadaffi put human shields into Rabta, but this time no bombers came.

I saw him from a different perspective when I accompanied Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, on a visit to Libya. On the plane, Arafat worked through a mass of papers, always with his green pen. Without a break in stride after landing, he climbed into the limousine that whisked him to the hotel Gadaffi had assigned to him. When Gadaffi had still not seen him after 12 hours, Arafat took it as an insult.
He sent me in his convoy back to the airport. It was a feint. The call immediately came that the Libyan leader wanted to see Arafat, so my driver drove me at 100mph to join him at Gadaffi’s headquarters.
Gadaffi, in his finest robes, greeted Arafat then turned and noticed me. “Mary,” he asked (he has never been able to pronounce my name), “what are you doing here?” It was as if I had wandered in off the street.

“She’s with me,” Arafat said proudly, as though we were at a London film premiere. He then went on to lie outrageously about the state of my nose, which at the time was on the wrong side of my face.
Arafat told Gadaffi the Israelis had broken it. The truth was that Palestinian demonstrators had thrown a rock through the window of my car when I was posing as a Jewish settler on a reporting assignment.
Sometimes our encounters were even more surreal. When Madeleine Albright was Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, more than a decade after the bombing of Bab al-Aziziya, Gadaffi asked me at the end of an interview if I could get a message to her.

I thought I had a journalistic coup: the mad dog of the Middle East bidding for peace with Washington. Instead, he told me he loved “Madeleine”. He watched her every appearance on television, and he was annoyed that sometimes the cameras did not show her full face. The fact that, in her sixties, she was five years older than him and no longer a beauty seemed of no importance.

Could I get her special phone number for him, preferably for the phone next to her bed? Would I also communicate to her that if she felt the same as he did, she should wear green in her next television appearance? Albright appears to have been replaced since by a younger edition. An album of cut-out photographs of Condoleezza Rice, George W Bush’s national security adviser and secretary of state, was found in one of Gadaffi’s underground salons last week. In 2007 he told an interviewer on Al Jazedera television how much he liked her: “Leezza, Leezza, Leezza — I love her very much. I admire her and am proud of her because she”s a black woman of African origin.”

For years, he seemed to be starring in his own movie. I never saw him in the same outfit twice. He was a bedouin tribesman, a colonel and a selfstyled revolutionary. He was an Arab and an African, a nationalist and a socialist, a Muslim, a poet and a would-be “philosopher king” and he had outfits for every role. His military uniforms had more medals than a Latin American generalissimo, and yet he had never fought a war until this year.

Beneath the ludicrous military caps his eyes were dark; they never revealed any emotion other than a canniness, as if a reptile within was always plotting. For his own people he was, in their words, “the leader”. He preferred “supreme guide” and fancied himself their mentor, patriarch and uncle.
It was the people, though, who felt the vicious side of his character, and where the lack of pity in those eyes mattered most. He was feared and hated. He would stop at nothing to maintain power.

GADAFFI made much of his birth in 1942 into an illiterate bedouin family in the desert near Sirte, the coastal town where his diehard supporters have been fighting their final battle. But his world view seems to have been shaped during his schooldays by revolutionary upheavals in the Arab world, principally Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser’s seizure of power in Egypt.

He joined the army as the path out of poverty and seized power in 1969 in a coup similar to Nasser’s: the virtually bloodless unseating of a weak king by young officers from whom Gadaffi emerged as the most prominent and then dictator.

For a while he was fairly normal. I once thumbed through an old photo album put together by one of his former confidants, which showed Gadaffi on a building site in a pork-pie hat and shorts, looking at an architect’s drawing. “He was always a little strange, but he was easy with us, like a normal person. He changed greatly,” the friend said.

He posed as a tribesman who wanted only the simple life, but Libya under Gadaffi degenerated into a corrupt state that enriched his family and hangers on. He made himself colonel, then abolished all military ranks above that. Despite all his talk of rule by the people for the people, it soon became clear there was only one colonel in Libya — and only one voice, among 6m, that really mattered.

Increasingly unchallenged, he gradually created an unreal world in Libya that mirrored his own fascinations. Grandiose projects never worked. All that remains of his $20 billion man-made river are oversized pipes scattered by the sides of roads or standing bizarrely at the centre of roundabouts in mute testimony to his folly.

He could afford it. Libya had valuable oil on the doorstep of European markets. Until the events of this year it was earning about $47 billion a year from exports — and Gadaffi used the wealth and influence it brought to keep potential enemies at bay and the country under firm control.

Much of the oil wealth was squandered, stolen or embezzled. Gadaffi and his six sons, increasingly important props for his one-man regime, became immensely rich.

He was an impossible interview in many ways. When I last talked to him during this year’s uprising, I asked who was giving the army orders. He looked puzzled and said, “But there is no army in Libya!” This at a time that Libyan soldiers were shooting unarmed demonstrators in the streets of Benghazi, Misrata and Tripoli. He said he would not have to step down as he held no government position, and chided me for not understanding the Libyan system of rule. In 1977, he had invented the “jamahiriya” or state of the masses, in which the nation is supposedly governed by the people through local councils. In reality, it was a parallel power base that he, his relatives and tribal allies controlled.

His ego knew no bounds. He fancied himself a philosopher, setting out his ideas in a “green book” filled with banalities such as, “A man is male, and a woman is female”. Every Libyan school child had to study the pocket-sized tome.

The green book was based on his “third universal theory”, which, an aide once told me admiringly, Gadaffi came up with after lying in a darkened room for weeks with a blanket over his head. When Tony Blair’s new Labour announced the “third way”, Gadaffi claimed it vindicated his theory and even threatened to sue for plagiarism.

Libya’s population was small in comparison with countries such as Egypt, but despite its riches its people struggled and infrastructure fell apart. It was impossible to imagine Libya as a wealthy oil country. Streets were potholed, cheap brick housing lined the highways.

Libyans went abroad for good healthcare, the wealthy to Europe or America, the middle class next door to Tunisia and only the poor attended Libyan hospitals. Education was among the worst in the Arab world. Gadaffi banned the study of English, pointedly keeping his people isolated from the wider world.
For Gadaffi, the great disappointment was that he never graduated to the bigger stage. He was desperate for international recognition. No matter how much he jumped up and down like a child, the great powers did not consider Libya important enough — strategically or militarily — to worry too much about him, at least at first. So he took to violence to get attention. He made Libya into an isolated, pariah state by spending millions backing anti-western terrorist groups, part of his revolutionary mission to change the world. His support was as indiscriminate as it was lavish. He funded and armed the Provisional IRA, but when Ulster Protestant paramilitaries came begging, he gave them money too. His largesse went to the Red Brigades in Italy, and Eta in Spain, to Shining Path in Peru and the Sword of Islam in the Philippines.

European capitals were bombed. Assassination squads were sent around the world, targeting Libyan dissidents whom Gadaffi labelled “stray dogs”. There was no escape; one exile was gunned down at his grocery store in west London. But it was when Gadaffi turned his murderous attentions directly to the United States, sending agents to bomb the nightclub in Berlin packed with American servicemen in 1986, that Washington and its allies drew the line.

He was not even very good with his few misguided supporters.

He put on an Alice in Wonderland “victory party” after the 1986 US bombing of Libya. Western peaceniks watched from stands erected in the ruins of Bab al-Aziziya as cute children marched by with examples of their hobbies. Then came the Libyan boy scouts carrying live chickens and a few live rabbits.
They appeared to be showing how well they cared for animals — until they suddenly threw them to the ground, disembowelled them with their bare hands and ate chunks of the still-quivering flesh. The peaceniks ran from the stands, screaming.

Gadaffi seemed ever more eccentric. After another interview, I went back to my hotel to be awakened in the middle of the night by a knock at the door. Standing in the doorway were a tall woman and a short Libyan man. She was wearing a full nurse”s uniform, complete with hat. Her little companion came up to her hip.

 

He announced that Gadaffi had thought I looked tired in the interview and had sent his personal nurse. She pulled out what looked to my sleepy eyes like the largest hypodermic needle I had ever seen, and said: “I Bulgarian. I take blood?” I said no, I was exhausted, she could do that tomorrow. It was never healthy to give an outright refusal in Gadaffi’s Libya. She insisted — “Just a little blood” — obviously under strict orders. I said: “Okay, but I know myself and if you take my blood I will definitely be too tired to interview the leader tomorrow.” They conferred, and we agree she could come by in the afternoon.
I decided to catch the first plane out of Tripoli — to anywhere.

But when I went downstairs to check out, I found that reception was under orders to keep my passport.
Luckily, Arafat was in town again and was seeing Gadaffi. Members of Force 17, Arafat’s elite bodyguard, had decided to have a coffee in the hotel while they waited for him. When they walked into the lobby, they saw me in distress.

They asked what was the matter, and wrested my passport back after a fierce argument.

Driving me to the airport, they saw me safely on to the plane.

The next time I went to Libya I was nervous; but Gadaffi started the interview by practically slapping his leg and laughing: “Remember the time I tried to take your blood?” THE Lockerbie bombing in 1988 succeded in winning the attention Gadaffi craved, but it led to tougher international sanctions and ostracism. Libya was cast into outer darkness for more than a decade. Then came the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and with them, an opportunity. The Americans’ subsequent overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003 spooked Gadaffi.

In a spectacular volte-face, the Libyan leader came over to the West. Oil companies returned to the desert. His comeback was crowned in 2009 by his first address to the UN general assembly.

He admitted no fault for the terrors of the past, and oppression at home continued. The Libyans were never fooled. As younger generations across the Arab world rose in search of their rights this year, young Libyans decided to fight too.

His rehabilitation has, with hindsight, been rescinded by Europe and America over the past six months as his army has ruthlessly killed civilians to defend his regime. If captured he will now face an international indictment for war crimes. Or will the Libyans mete out their own justice? “My people love me,” he said in the last interview I had with him this year.

Did he really believe that? I looked into his eyes, trying to read him, and saw not a spark of duplicity showing. Yet he must have known his world was crumbling.

He chose the site of the interview cannily, appearing for the only time I met him above ground — in a fish restaurant of all places. It was puzzling until I realised the backdrop to the huge windows was Tripoli’s distinctive port, which would counter rumours that he had fled the country.

Where is he now? The streets I drove through to Bab al-Aziziya 25 years ago are littered with spent bullet cases, broken glass and burnt cars. The walls are daubed with cartoon caricatures of Gadaffi with exaggerated permed hair. The Libyan leader is on the run, with a bounty of $2m on his head. But he remains a showman. Will his exit be as dramatic as his entrance that night when he told me: “I am Gadaffi”? ”He was angry the cameras did not show Albright’s full face.

Marie Colvin was woken at 3am to see Gadaffi Albright: surreal meeting Colonel Gadaffi in 1973, left, four years after he took power. The Lockerbie bombing and other terror attacks made him a pariah, but by 2009, right, he had turned himself into a friend of the West

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 © The Sunday Times August, 2011. All rights reserved.

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