Dispatch

A Day Under Fire with Anton

Two days before Anton Hammerl was killed in Libya, I spent a few, good, honest hours of war and peace in the field with him.

View a slide show of Anton Hammerl's final photos in Libya.

I met the photographer Anton Hammerl early in the morning on April 3. At least I think it was April 3. I have to guess at the date because I don't have my notebook with me now; even if I did, I wouldn't be able to find a reference I never thought I was going to need.

I was reporting for La Vanguardia in Benghazi and staying at the Al-Wahat hotel, which stands right next to The Africa, the hotel where Anton was living. He was with two colleagues and old friends, Samuel Aranda and João Pina, freelance photographers like him. They were looking for a ride to the front, where the ragtag rebels were battling forces loyal to Muammar al-Qaddafi. Ryan Calder, a sociologist from the University of California, Berkeley, and I had a car, a wonderful Ford Flex SUV. We offered to take them along.

Hussein, our driver, was behind the wheel -- flying down the two-lane highway at 100 miles an hour. He was a volunteer and native of Benghazi whom we met at the media center. He didn't charge us any money for taking us down to Ras Lanuf and Bin Jawad the previous days. That day, however, he wanted payment, $100, but he was too proud to ask for it. It took Ryan and me almost two hours of awkward negotiation with him at the media center before we left to figure out what he was hinting at. Anton, Samuel, and João waited, taking pictures of Maiden al-Jarriya (Freedom Square).

It was around midday when we finally departed. The SUV had three rows of seats. Anton sat in the back, his equipment in a small backpack on his lap and his legs too long for the tiny space. He smiled and said it was fine.

I didn't know Anton before that day in Benghazi, but he and Samuel were friends -- and I'd been working with Samuel in Tunisia during the revolution. Anton was an easy person to get along with from the moment I met him, not only because of his great politeness, but, above all, because he gave the impression of being always on your side.

After about an hour on the road on our way to Ajdabiya's western gate, we stopped for egg and tuna sandwiches. We ate the sandwiches standing around the car and kept moving.

We stopped at a metal green arch above the highway -- the main entrance to Ajdabiya from the west. Dozens of pickups and private cars were piled full of rebels. Some were coming from the front, looking tired but not defeated. I watched Anton move through the chaos, taking pictures of rebel fighters who didn't know how to fight. He seemed to float 3 feet above the ground, moving without making a noise, invisible in the chaotic mix of pickup trucks, anti-aircraft guns, and hundreds of young Libyans firing at enemies they couldn't quite see -- eager to show the world how brave they were. The smell of rotten food and excrement was overpowering.

We lost touch with Anton for a while inside that filthy bubble of disoriented testosterone. He emerged while Ryan and I were talking to Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Gutrani, an old man trying to organize a Pancho Villa's army in the Libyan desert. Anton took the general's picture and wrote down his name; and then we drove off toward Brega, where we had heard the fighting was intense.

About 30 minutes later, we saw the front line and stopped on a hill, about 10 miles east of Brega. Qaddafi's forces were shelling the oil town. The road was full of cars. Rebels were reading the Quran out loud, shouting "Allahu akbar!" against the deep sound of the shelling.

The sun was still high, the light too flat. It was fine for asking questions but not so good for taking pictures. Anton, Samuel, and João did what they could. The incoming fire, though, was getting a bit too close -- Grad rockets, and we were in range. Yet we felt relatively secure, as the artillery shelling was still rather light. It was interesting to see how much more powerful Qaddafi's forces looked, compared with the innocent rebels, with their old guns, old shoes, and old jerseys from European soccer teams. Anton huddled alongside them; they were glad a foreign photojournalist was there making something big of their own private bravery.

After Anton had taken some photos we met again atop the sandy hill, standing side by side, watching the artillery battle, listening to the fighting in the distance. We couldn't see the enemy from our vantage point. We started talking about our families. I told him about my three kids; Anton looked at his watch and said that if he were home in London he would be picking up his elder child from school.

Suddenly, the Grad rockets starting landing closer; everyone decided to retreat. Dozens of cars filled the road; we followed in the scrum. Anton sat in the front seat, the better to take photographs out the windows. We drove back past the western gate and reached the Ajdabiya hospital. We looked for casualties from the war zone, but it was quiet.

Anton tried to talk with the Bangladeshi janitors there, but they didn't know any English. All they wanted was a Thuraya satellite phone for calling home, but Anton didn't have one to give. He was full of sympathy for them: he spoke of the long trip these poor janitors had taken to be here, now trapped by war, with no other choice but to remain at that hospital. We felt lucky to be able to be on the storytelling side of life.

It was getting late. I had to file before 9 p.m. But Anton, Samuel, and João wanted more time on the ground: The sun was going down, and the light was perfect for photographs.

It was dark when we reached Benghazi. The wind rolling in from the north was blowing an unpleasant spray off the sea, but we wanted to try a little fish restaurant by the corniche. Two sharks were hanging from their tails outside. They served a great lobster soup, squid, and a grilled catch of the day. The place was full of journalists and a few locals. The TV was on. The light was bright; the beer was alcohol-free. Anton didn't talk much. Like most of us, he looked tired, relaxed, and happy; and like not so many of us he had so much more to tell.

SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

Sí, Se Puede

Spain's lost generation has taken to the streets -- and they're no longer just looking for work.

MADRID — The famous statue of King Carlos III in the Spanish capital's central square, Puerta del Sol, has recently been gazing over a round-the-clock makeshift protest camp. Hundreds of young Spaniards have been camping out in sleeping bags and tents in the run-up to nationwide municipal elections on May 22: the country's lost generation occupying the space normally roamed by tourists. They claim to be "apolitical," but there is no doubting that they have seized the political initiative from the country's old-school politicians.

Of all the dozens of slogans pasted onto the subway entrance at Madrid's Puerta del Sol by members of Spain's 15-M protest movement, so named because its activists started their campaign on May 15,  the one that speaks loudest happens to be the simplest: "United by common sense."

Myriad different motives are being pinned to 15-M: "anarchist," "Marxist," "anti-capitalist," even "hooligan" are all words that have been used to describe the array of groups that have been occupying public squares across the country for the past week.

It's a movement largely generated by the country's youth. They are the best educated, best informed, most international, and most multilingual the country has ever seen -- and with a 45 percent unemployment rate, also one of the most embittered in the country's history.

Spain's economic woes have been well documented. The global recession popped the country's decade-long property bubble, leaving it with a cripplingly high deficit and an overall unemployment rate that has crept up to 21 percent, Europe's highest. But it's even worse for young people. A combination of rigid labor market laws, a still-inflated housing market, and years of shortsighted economic policy have together created a perfect storm.

Those Spaniards under the age of 40 who manage to hold a job usually earn less than 1,000 euros per month. The expression "mileurista" -- literally, "thousand euro-er" -- is now a standard part of the Spanish vocabulary. A two-tier labor system ensures that most young people with jobs have low-paying and unstable temporary contracts, while the lucrative permanent contracts are mainly in the hands of older, white-collar Spaniards.

Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero has been implementing a hurried and unpopular reform program as he attempts to fend off market jitters. A lukewarm labor reform angered the traditional left by challenging labor unions' traditional bargaining rights, while leaving businesses dissatisfied. The changes also did little to help the low earners or the youth. The government has also introduced a reform to raise the retirement age and cut back on unemployment subsidies to help trim the deficit. The perception has grown among many Spaniards that Zapatero has abandoned the ideals that got him voted in and is simply obeying the orders of the European Union and International Monetary Fund.

"Is it really necessary to explain the causes?" asked Público newspaper's columnist Ignacio Escolar. "Is anyone really surprised that in a country that claims to be European, that presumes to sit at the table with the G-20, that only recently claimed to be the seventh largest economic power on the planet, protests erupt when youth unemployment is at 45 percent?" And Klaus Schwab, executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, recently warned that Spain's youth unemployment rate could have serious consequences.

The popular uprising has inspired sympathy among many Spaniards. Ramon Gonzalez is not part of the 15-M movement and at the age of 68 is much older than most of its members, but he was intrigued enough to visit the protest camp in Madrid. "Young people don't have work; they don't have access to housing -- it's unforgivable what is happening," he said as he watched the activists. "I think that young people are realizing that they don't have access to anything."

But the other side of the political spectrum has a different view. "It's the typical Socialist get-up in which four people start a supposed revolution on the evening news," sighed right-wing radio shock jock Federico Jimenez Losantos, while the Libertad Digital website headlined an article about the protest, "15-M: Puppets of the left."

But the activists themselves claim that they aren't motivated by any particular political ideology at all.

"We're just fed up with the system," Violeta Castelo, a 24-year-old protester told me in Madrid. "It doesn't matter what the name is, or the political party -- it's always the same." The sentiment was reiterated again and again by those who have been camping out under sagging tarpaulin roofs and depending on food donated by strangers to keep the campaign going.

But the 15-M movement's most frequently expressed raison d'être is electoral reform to loosen the duopoly of the governing Spanish Socialist Workers Party and the opposition conservative Partido Popular (PP), which have dominated Spain's politics for the last three decades. This ambition stems not from some ideal of an anarchist state or a primal desire that conservatives be lined up against a wall and shot; it's the result of years of frustration. The system, they believe, just doesn't work and these parties do not represent them. It's not just that the youth are out of work; they also feel politically disenfranchised.

The two political parties in the sights of this unprecedented protest have been predictably baffled. The PP suspects -- or claims to suspect -- that leftist agitators are at work. And when the Socialists look at the 15-M movement they see people who once upon a time might have voted for them, but who have been driven away by the feeling that the party is now guided by circumstance, not ideas. "I hope those kids don't let themselves get manipulated," said former Socialist Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez. He could barely have made more apparent how distant he and his party now are from "those kids."

But the demands of protest leaders -- if there are any -- are still not formally defined and have a somewhat woolly, unrealistic sound to them, such as holding an Iceland-style referendum on paying the national debt, or abolishing the Spanish Senate. But other demands, such as calling for politicians under investigation for corruption to be removed from electoral lists, surely makes sense to anyone -- except the corrupt and incumbent. El País newspaper asserted, as the current local election campaign was getting under way, that over 100 candidates on electoral lists were being investigated.

It's too early to know where the 15-M movement is heading. Perhaps it will fizzle out once the May 22 election campaign has ended -- though with a general election on the horizon next year, don't bet on it. Its activists hope it will become something akin to America's Tea Party, but without that organization's right-wing associations.

What's clear, however, is that mainstream Spanish politics is running out of steam, as the bitterness and banality of the ongoing local election campaign is making abundantly clear. The country's battered economy and growing jobless lines are equally dispiriting. But if the potential of this lost generation, embodied by the 15-M movement, can be unleashed, there might be room for optimism.