Tunisia was basking in the very warm afterglow of the ouster of a dictator president and now Egypt was looking like it might manage to do the same. It was a Friday and I was in the Toronto Star newsroom, thinking of the menu for the Super Bowl party I was to host on Sunday.
The newsroom was slipping into weekend shutdown mode when my editor called me over.
Could I go to Tunisia? How soon can I leave? And could I feed a live blog and turn around a 3,000-word piece on how Tunisia pulled off its revolution by this time next week?
Queue the instant mental checklist. Firstly, where is Tunisia? How do I get there? What languages am I dealing with? Fixer? What are the conditions there? Are there beaches?
I said yes, booked flights, got a wad of U.S. dollars, researched the situation in Tunisia, bought a Lonely Planet guide, packed a light bag of clothes suitable for chilly late winter in north Africa, and fit all of my cameras and electronics into a single carry-on bag. There were daily protests in Tunis, the Tunisian capital, but there’d been no bloodshed for a spell. I decided there’d be no need for Kevlar vest and helmet.
After cancelling the Super Bowl Sunday bash, I boarded a flight Saturday evening with no particular plan and very little clue about how it would all work out.
As one of the Star’s old two-ways (nothing sexual, that’s just what we called reporter-photographers back in the day when most journalists did one or the other) I’d been scrambled into action many times, sometimes heading to the airport without a toothbrush.
I am also used to working alone and, let me tell you, in an age when hybrid journalists are now shooting, writing, editing and posting, going it alone in a foreign place can be exhausting and exhilarating.
But there is nothing quite like the fear of failure, which, for me, is there every time I go on an out-of-town breaking news or quick-turn-around assignment. That fear is to be expected and, for me, goes away only after I’ve had that first interview, made that first keeper photo, pounded out something and filed.
After that, you’re good. Just do your job. On the road, you’ll find you are never not working.
And, although I’m not a regular foreign correspondent, this leads to the single most important bit of advice I can offer. Seems obvious, but remember to eat, drink water, sleep and otherwise take care of yourself, which is not always the case – or seems impossible. This goes for any breaking news environment, really, whether it’s a summit, the Olympics (dear editor, love to), the Russell Williams trial or a hurricane in Louisiana.
Travel with medicine and rest when you can.
If your body and head fail, your may indeed fail with your work.
For Tunisia, my assignment was straightforward: tell the story of how the revolution came to be. Based on my reading while in flight, I’d blocked off the 3,000-word story into sections by the time I touched down.
Here’s how that looked:
Lede – The fruit vendor who started the revolution by lighting himself on fire, set up story of how a revolution came to be.
Prisoners – Many were locked up for political reasons under old regime, tensions bubbling away, now they are free and banned parties back in action
Social media – Social media’s role in the uprising
The regime – Why the former president should have seen it coming
The martyr – Go back to the fruit vendor, end there
For each section, I’d need scenes and characters and voices. And a local fixer to assist me. I know that the others on this site who have travelled much more than I will delve into how to find fixers, so I won’t digress.
On the recommendation of a colleague, I hired a university teacher fluent in English, French and Arabic and we set out to collect the story bits. She proved to be a wonderful guide to the country and the situation.
I was in the country for seven days and in the middle of my visit Egypt indeed fell. Tunisians celebrated, knowing it had started with them. I made a point of assessing the material I had at the end of each day. I’d look for holes and discuss the missing bits with my fixer. I did some writing for the main write-through when I could and was relieved when I was given a week longer to write it.
So, if my first visit to Tunisia had been hurried and the epitome of parachute foreign reporting, my second visit was to be luxurious. I now knew a thing or two about Tunisia and planned to return for a look at the economic hurdles the country was facing and update readers on a revolution still very much a work in progress.
I timed my return trip to coincide with the first free Tunisian elections in decades.
My plan was to spend ten days in the country and file a couple of live pieces on the election. I had the sections and scenes for my larger piece all mapped out, including several days at a resort town on the Mediterranean Sea, where I would “investigate” the tourism dollars that had not returned since the revolution. Totally legitimate. The bathing suit was packed.
I hooked up with the same fixer and we had just finished our first full day of interviews – most related to the election – when my phone rang. It was the Star’s foreign editor, Lynn McAuley.
Moammar Gadhafi had been killed. Could I get to Libya right now, and be back in Tunis in time for the election three days later?
Quick mental checklist. I had little U.S. cash (there were no working bank machines in Libya). No satellite phone. No fixer. No one to meet me at the border. I felt a cold coming on. And history was happening one country away.
I consulted with colleagues who had recently been to Libya, a place I’d never been. I scanned the news. The fighting had stopped and road travel – there was a no-fly-zone in effect – seemed safe. Importantly, I looked for other journalists in Tunis who were in the same boat and I could team up with and share costs. For that, I didn’t have to leave the hotel lobby.
With some luck, the assignment – a quick parachute in and out – would work out.
But it would completely knock the wind out of me.
Within a couple hours, I was on my way along with two British photojournalists in a hired car, speeding toward the Ra’s Ajdir border crossing under a night sky. Seven hours later, sometime after 2 a.m., we crossed into Libya on foot to the sounds of celebratory gunfire.
“Welcome,” came the traditional Arab greeting.
However, we were not welcome to step past the Libyan border officials, anti-Gadhafi fighters in mis-matched uniforms whose day jobs before the uprising had nothing to do with guns.
Where is your letter of invitation? This was news to us. This was also a new rule.
A young fighter led us into a small office, equipped with a fax machine and little else. The boss would be there soon, we were told. Tea was served. None of us drank it.
Enter the boss, a middle-aged official named Fadi, or so it sounded at the time. Asking for the spelling seemed unproductive. He wore fatigues and was a dead wringer for the guy in the Dos Equis beer commercials, also known as most interesting man in the world.
That he was as well – but maybe it was the lack of sleep and the house arrest in which we found ourselves. He was certainly the most interesting man at that moment.
“Welcome,” said Fadi, running his fingers through our passports and over our press cards. “Canada,” he said, looking up. “Britain,” he said. “Why do you not drink the tea?”
One of the Brits shot back a glass, sensing this would help. It did not immediately help, nor did the fact that it was also his birthday. It did, however, lighten the mood. We sang Happy Birthday.
Fadi was warming up to us.
“Gadhafi,” he said, “had a problem: No heart.”
He pulled a handgun to make his point, waving it around. Fadi explained that he did not like guns, but Gadhafi did. “Da-ta-ta-ta-ta,” he said, mimicking gunfire and banging the barrel of the handgun against a glass ashtray for effect.
Meanwhile, other journalists arrived and were waved through, despite not having this newly required paperwork. A Spaniard managed to wake his fixer in Tripoli, and after a brief exchange, he was approved. A Turk gave us a sympathetic look, and off he went.
“Turkey, no problem,” explained Fadi.
The difference, however, appeared to be that they had pre-arranged drivers waiting for them.
The hours passed. One of the Brits nodded off with a light snore that amused Hadi.
A Libyan citizen entered the room. He had a problem, too. He broke down in tears, pleading to be let in. Fadi was not amused, but unlike Gadhafi, showed he had a heart and approved the man’s paperwork.
The sun rose; we did not.
Then, everything changed – most importantly, a shift.
An anti-Gadhafi fighter, as it happened, was now off duty and could borrow a car and drive us straight to Tripoli for 50 dinar each, the normal price. We could now go, said Fadi. With apologies for the delay.
A few hours later, after passing bombed-out buildings and bullet-pocket walls, our driver pulled into the guarded compound of the Corinthia hotel in Tripoli. Our driver spotted a blonde-haired journalist on the driveway and smile spread across his face.
“This (one is) from yesterday night,” he told us. “I take all the people down here.”
From there, we hired a fresh driver with a bit of English to take us straight on to Misurata, where Gadhafi’s body had been taken. Three hours later, we hit the bombed out city in search of stories and the body.
There were celebrations in the streets and a hospital that for the first time in many months had not seen a gunshot victim.
With no satellite phone between the three of us and the sun starting to set – and the body not yet located – we had to return to Tripoli where we could file. By the time we made the three-hour drive to our hotel, journalists in Misurata who were better equipped and had stayed had found the body.
I was disappointed.
I was also running a fever. I had not eaten anything more than a couple of power bars in the past 24 hours. I hadn’t slept for about 36 hours. And, I had a live Libya file to do and get to work on a 40-inch write-through setting up the Tunisian election.
After copious amounts of water and Advil, I layered in wire reports on Gadhafi’s body with my reporting from Misurata, filed photos using the slowest Internet connection I have seen since the Internet was invented, and hoped to hell the story read okay.
I spent the next day in Tripoli writing and recovering. I dashed out to do a quick streeter on how Libyans felt about how Gadhafi had been killed. With that, my time in Libya was up. I managed to get back to Tunis by election night. I regretted having to leave Libya so soon after arriving but I would have run out of cash in another day, any way.
I had four days left in Tunisia to flesh out content for this long feature and multimedia piece and returned home completely wiped. It wasn’t quite what I’d hoped for but the unexpected had made for an eventful trip.
And I never did put on that bathing suit.
Jim Rankin is a reporter-photographer at the Toronto Star. He specializes in database journalism and investigations and is currently on the features team. His work has been nominated for seven National Newspaper Awards and in 2002 he was part of a team involved in the Michener Award-winning investigative series into race, policing and crime in Toronto.