PHNOM PENH, Cambodia—Watching from afar the televised scenes of the rebel takeover of Tripoli and the collapse of the Qaddafi regime, I found something satisfyingly familiar about the rituals.
There is the celebratory gunfire as the liberators toast their surprising victory -- without realizing that Newton's law of gravity also applies to bullets fired from AK-47s. There are the portraits and posters of the fallen dictator, once ubiquitous on walls and in houses, now dragged into the streets for stomping. There are the reports of holdouts, "pockets of resistance," "loyalists," or "die-hards," who will start firing on the liberators and spoil the party. The palace, compound, or headquarters will be combed through for curios or evidence of past atrocities. Secret prison sites will be found. Then come the inevitable questions about a breakdown in law and order, revenge killings, and whether the newly victorious force is really capable of governing.
And we will be there to record it all. For at least a week or so, or until another autocrat is toppled somewhere else in the world and the process begins all over again.
By "we," I mean those of us who make our living as foreign reporters, responsible for an entire region or continent and ready to move at a moment's notice to the next hottest hotspot. I've done the job on and off for the last 25 years, covering regime collapses for the Washington Post from the fall of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier in Haiti in 1986 to the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan in late 2001. In addition there was the fall of Suharto in Indonesia, the withdrawal of Indonesian troops from East Timor, the withdrawal of Vietnamese troops from Cambodia, the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq (which I covered from southern Iraq, without the benefit of the U.S. military's "embedding" system for reporters). In Africa, there was the aftermath of the collapse of Mohamed Siad Barre's regime in Somalia, which led to a famine similar to the one we are witnessing today and the "Black Hawk Down" incident, and the genocide in Rwanda after the assassination of President Juvenal Habyarimana.
Almost every new case inspires a mad journalistic race to get early, if not first, on the scene of the collapse of another longtime autocrat. Often we are there when it happens, and we get to look like sages. Just as often, we are stuck on the outside trying to figure out some way to get in.
That was my situation in Afghanistan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. We knew early on the attacks had likely come from Afghanistan and that the Taliban regime headquartered in Kabul would be the target of an American retaliatory strike. My colleague Bill Branigin, an old Afghanistan hand, was already up north with the bedraggled troops of the Afghan Northern Alliance, who suddenly found themselves on the right side of history. My job, in early October 2001, was to meet him and journey together to cover the fall of Kabul.
It was a long trek from my then-base in Paris across several time zones -- to Moscow, to Tajikistan, by road to the Afghan border and then a night trip by boat across the Panj River to the Northern Alliance's base camp. Two photographers and I hitched a ride in the back seat with an Afghan physician trying to take medical supplies to the front.
Then, somewhere in the peaks of the Hindu Kush, with a high mountain pass separating us from the front lines of the U.S. bombing of Kabul, the first snow of the winter began to fall. We spent the night in a dug-out cave in the mountainside, huddled together with Afghan truck drivers also stranded by the flurries. The next morning, the mountainside was a vast whiteness, and our driver and interpreter said, matter-of-factly, that after the first snow, nothing makes it over the mountains to Kabul until spring -- except horses.
"Horses?" I heard myself say. Within a few hours, a bearded Afghan had led a team of horses over the mountainside, and there I was, haggling like it was a frozen, snow-covered horse bazaar, picking the best mounts for myself, the photographers, and the guide, plus a spare horse to carry our luggage.