As journalists race to Tripoli to cover Qaddafi's fall, a veteran correspondent reflects on what they're witnessing -- and what they're missing.
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.
After a frigid 24-hour ride on horseback and then a cab ride that took us in the opposite direction from the hundred other cabs fleeing the city, we finally made it to Kabul. And there we found evidence of the Taliban's, and al Qaeda's, hasty exit. Al Qaeda "safe houses" dotted the most affluent parts of the city, filled with piles of shorn beard hair, evidence of Taliban and al Qaeda figures apparently trying to disguise themselves in retreat. We found stacks of notebooks, teaching materials, and documents in Arabic, Pashto, and other languages, attesting to al Qaeda's international aspirations. There were scenes of bloodletting in the streets, as those few remaining Taliban who didn't flee in time were summarily executed, hung from trees in the parks, beheaded, or set on fire, their bodies lying uncovered on the ground because no one wanted to bother burying them.
I'd seen similar revenge attacks in Haiti, as a novice correspondent, when I witnessed the celebration of Baby Doc's fall turn to violence and then widespread disorder and outright anarchy. Duvalier had left behind the enforcers of his brutal regime, including the dreaded Tonton Macoute. But once he fled, average citizens armed with machetes and any weapons at hand took revenge on anyone deemed a supporter of the old regime.
In Haiti, I got what journalists call a lucky break; I was there on the ground when Duvalier left the country, while most of the rest of the press corps was trapped in Miami, with the airport closed due to the unrest. It was that kind of luck -- I like to think of it as journalistic prescience -- that placed me in Jakarta for the fall of Suharto in 1998. I could tell that Suharto's three-decade-long regime was in trouble. These student-led demonstrations seemed dramatically different from earlier protests: This time, the students stood toe-to-toe with the police in riot gear, hurling Molotov cocktails and carrying signs specifically denouncing Suharto and his family by name, something previously unheard of.
The foreign editors in Washington indulged me and let me relocate our Southeast Asia bureau from Hong Kong, where I had been living, to Jakarta. Before long, Suharto's security forces ended one protest violently, killing four students at Trisakti University. The regime lost its legitimacy and the end was in sight.
I was lucky to be on the ground to watch the orchestrated chaos that followed, as Suharto sent his thugs into the streets to loot and batter his erstwhile subjects. On a later trip, I felt less lucky to be there.
In 1999, I spent a lot of time trying to get into East Timor to cover a referendum declaring independence from post-Suharto Indonesia. Once the results were announced, the Indonesian-backed Timorese militias and Indonesian troops went on a shooting and burning spree, torching many of the buildings in the capital, Dili, and laying siege to the rest -- including the Hotel Turismo, where I and most of the other foreign journalists were staying.
Like the journalists trapped in Tripoli's Rixos hotel, I was evacuated out, hitching a ride on the last chartered network TV flight in a small 10-seater that was taking out its equipment and crew. When I returned, it was in the company of Australian peacekeeping troops.
More than a decade later, the U.N. mission in East Timor is about to end, after elections scheduled for 2012. This year also marked the 25th anniversaries of the fall of Baby Doc and of Ferdinand Marcos's regime in the Philippines. It's a reminder that the race we all undertake to get to a story is often only matched by the race we undertake to get out of there, once we deem the story to be over. We rarely go back once the violence ebbs and the world considers a place to be on the path to stability or democratization or whatever.
The story is never really over, however; the toppling of a regime is often just the beginning of a long process that will have many twists and turns and setbacks along the way. But we rarely have the time to go back and see the next chapter unfolding. Too often we are too busy trying to get over the next closed border, to the next story, to whatever is the next big thing.