Fear of failure is a hell of clarifier when a senior editor emails you at 5:11 a.m. (Portugal time; I was in the Lisbon airport, moments from boarding a plane home after a peaceful, sun-soaked vacation), saying “We’re thinking of sending someone to Tripoli. Would you go?”
Before I could ask myself any questions – Did I want to go? Would I get hurt, or worse? – I typed “yes” and hit send. I was not sure I wanted to go, but I believed that if I said “No,” everyone would think me a coward. If there is a list of go-to reporters in my newsroom, I thought, an editor’s hand would cross out my name and scrawl an epithet in the margin for emphasis. Unreliable Wimp.
Fear of failure also helped me get through the next 36 hours. Back home to Toronto, sleep a few hours, in to work, chat for a few minutes with the foreign editor, hastily make plans (events in Tripoli were unfolding so fast the Star risked missing the story), load up on communications and other gear, visit the Star accounting department for an obscenely thick wad of U.S. cash (to pay drivers, fixers), rely on a colleague who had been to Libya to email a driver and arrange transport from Tunis Airport (the closest to the fighting in Tripoli), then get on a plane.
Somehow, inelegantly, the photographer and I got to Tripoli, relying on a network of drivers – some honest and helpful, others taking advantage of our lack of options and delivering us far short of where they promised. But we did not have time to dicker or seek other options. Though he said he would drive into Libya, one driver left us at the border – a small, dusty customs outpost, where men hissed and glowered at me for smoking cigarettes as I walked about, without a translator, trying to ask someone, anyone, how to hire another driver to take us on the long mountain route toward Tripoli.
At the time, these sloppy, on-the-fly arrangements felt stressful, like a series of near-failures. Maybe this is how it goes, and more experienced reporters expect and possibly embrace the changeability. But I had no such perspective. Just get there, is what I was thinking, that’s all that really mattered.
After our arrival, it was almost easy, logistically speaking. Dangerous but easy. Driven by events on the ground, in an urban combat zone, the stories are often plain to see, though risky to get.
How to prepare:
I have the benefit of working for a big newspaper with a foreign reporting department and war reporting experience. Star staff provided the communications equipment and showed me how to use it, gave me a battery operated point-and-shoot (as opposed to a camera needing a power outlet to recharge; who knew if there would be electricity in the war-ravaged city?) guided me to a network of fixers in Libya whom I could contact once I arrived (one of these contacts resulted in my hiring a Tripoli man, who every day found a car, driver, petrol in the gas-starved capital and translated as I looked for stories) and provided a helmet and flak jacket.
What to take:
After checking the Tripoli forecast and temperature averages for August and September (it was 41 degrees Celsius most days I was there!), I packed some T-shirts, underwear, socks, long-sleeve T-shirts and that’s about it. My goal was to pack light, thinking it was more important to have mobility than a range of clothing options in a thick suitcase. In hindsight, I wish I had packed more. I wore the same pair of jeans – the only pair of pants I brought – 14 straight days and by the end of the trip, the Levi’s were orange and spongy.
Though many of the reporters in Tripoli, myself included, went out by day to find stories, they returned to one of two hotels at night to file stories, eat a meager dinner and sleep. Any excess bags, stuff I did not need while hunting for stories, could have remained in the hotel room. It was not as though I had to take all my belongings with me everywhere I went during the day. While everything of mine fit into a backpack, I had used hand soap to wash underwear and socks in a hotel tub full of tepid, increasingly filthy water. (My room, 2110, was also home to five Spanish reporters, and they, too, packed light.)
I wish I had brought a bottle of shampoo, toilet paper, extra batteries for a variety of devices and a power bar – all of which I had to borrow from other reporters in Tripoli.
I had no time to inquire about inoculations. I still have no idea what shots, if any, I needed for travel to Libya. I brought no first aid kit. I was not prepared medically. There was no time.
Where to stay:
As I scrambled to pack for my journey, a colleague with foreign experience and contacts went online, talked to some of her freelance friends who were already in Tripoli or en route and got a couple leads on hotels. Had I more time, I would have searched online for reporters filing stories or blogging or tweeting from Tripoli and undoubtedly would have found some writing about their accommodations.
I went to a hotel where many reporters were staying. This gave me some comfort. This was my first war experience. Meeting, working with and learning from other reporters proved crucial.
Make friends, network:
On the second day in Tripoli I met two Spanish reporters, and struck a friendship of convenience. They needed a fixer (mine was willing to take on more reporters) and I wanted to travel with people who had been in situations like this before. The two had vast experience, were brave, aggressive and decisive. We agreed on what stories to chase each day, though sometimes events waylaid our plans and we had to react to a story tip or chase rumors of battles developing in the area. I could go all the way with them and share all the risks or choose to remain a few checkpoints back, ratchet it down and play it safer. In most instances, I went with them, but it was better to have that choice than not.
The well-heeled news outlets often have their security consultants, and while it may be tempting to be dismissive of these military types – their cop-like flat stare, bossy tone and air of authority – you never know when you will need them in your corner. One such consultant, whom I met and chatted with during the trip to the capital, helped me get a room in a Tripoli hotel that claimed no vacancies.
Don’t stay in the hotel during the day:
There are no stories there. Yes, top rebel leaders were coming around and dropping quotable lines on whoever would gather round, but I let the wires cover that stuff. Get out and find stories.
Check the equipment:
I was sent with a BGAN, a device that you plug in to charge, then take it outside, point it skyward and the machine finds a way to transmit copy and photos wirelessly. Only after I got to Tripoli did I discover that the thing was malfunctioning and did not work unplugged. Which was a problem, considering it cannot transmit unless outside, and it was usually not possible to find an outdoor outlet. I had to borrow other reporters’ BGANs.
What to pay a fixer:
I hadn’t a clue, though the Spaniards I was with and other reporters said around $100 a day. That might be too low, I don’t know. Start with $100, gauge the fixer’s reaction, and go from there.
Where to start building contacts:
You will find contacts each time you go out. Just be sure that in addition to paying attention to what you will report on deadline, also take a moment to slow down and spend some time chatting with locals. I got a couple good story ideas by shooting the breeze with locals who were not sources for, or relevant in any way to, the next day’s article.
How to focus story ideas:
The events of the fast-moving battle for Tripoli usually set my agenda. For the most part, I was chasing the news. That said, by the time I left Libya, I had done stories not just on the fighting but also on the role of women in the rebel movement and the treatment of black prisoners by the rebels. I wanted to give Star readers an accurate sense of what life was like in Tripoli at the time. The story was not just guns and bullets and corpses.
David Bruser is a reporter for the Toronto Star’s Investigations Team. He worked two years at a small newspaper in Southwest Mississippi before returning home and joining the Star as an intern in 2003. With minimal foreign experience – a trip to rural Mexico for a story about a controversial Canadian migrant farm worker program; and to New Orleans to assist with the Star’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina – David went to Tripoli earlier this year for his first experience reporting from a war zone.
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