Hotel Libya – Journalist relives the horror story
August 21, 2012 1 Comment
“We were in the lobby of the hotel with our bags because we were just waiting to leave. I remember the Red Cross representatives walking into the hotel… you could see them coming around one of the walls, with their Red Cross uniforms on… Oh my God, what a moment. I broke down crying. It felt like a huge burden had gone. I’ll never forget that moment.”
More than 30 foreign correspondents were trapped inside the Rixos Hotel in Tripoli, Libya, during the final days of the Gaddafi regime in August 2011.
Like Hotel Rwanda in the midst of the genocide, the Rixos was an oasis of relative safety in a world gone mad.
Armed Gaddafi loyalists roamed the five-star hotel rooms and prevented anyone from leaving the building as battles raged outside. Snipers were on rooftops and balconies.
The journalists slept in corridors in their flak jackets, away from the windows.
Internet and satellite connections to the outside world were shut down and food and water supplies were so low that residents had to drink from the hotel swimming pool. International organisations struggled to secure the journalists’ release, but hopes of checking out were fading.
One year on, a correspondent for a major news organisation recalls her experience of the ordeal. She wished to remain anonymous.
“We weren’t allowed to leaving starting from day one, the August 20 uprising in Tripoli. On the 21st we saw gunmen running around the hotel. We had our backpacks ready, we wanted to leave, we had this expectation and we thought the rebels would come.
Then we’d get this false hope, these calls saying, ‘the rebels are coming in’. We’d get tweets from different people whenever we had internet access. People would say that the rebels had taken Green Square, the Gaddafi compound, and the Rixos – but of course, they never came to the Rixos.
You had these moments when you thought it was all over, then all of a sudden you feel like they’ve totally forgotten about you, that no one cared about the Rixos. We felt forgotten.
‘Don’t shoot us, we’re journalists’
Some snipers were positioned in the hotel, on the balconies and the rooftops. We were worried about the rebels coming into the hotel and starting a fire fight, and we thought we could be caught in the crossfire, so we had to do our own thing and put up banners saying ‘don’t shoot us, we’re journalists’.
We slept in hallways most of the time. We avoided the rooms because they would get ransacked, and we wanted safety in numbers and to stay away from the windows so we didn’t have much glass around.
We also had shells flying over the hotel which was very scary, because we were stuck in the battle of Al Badya. As soon as we heard RPGs (Rocket Propelled Grenades) we’d try to get cover and run for the basement – it wasn’t secure but it was relatively more secure than the rest of the building. We located one room on the second floor of the hotel that was a prayer room, and we huddled there too, flak jackets and helmets on.
We were running out of food and water at the end, like the rest of Tripoli, and there was no power at the time. We had to get water from the swimming pool in the Rixos. It was getting difficult, it was very stressful, and we were frustrated that no one was doing anything.
There was one really emotional night where we all sat there and we thought, ‘we’re not going to get out of here, are we?’
‘The embassies were too jumpy to come in’
We were actually so desperate that we were calling any possible international organisation to help, like the UN and embassies. The embassies were too jumpy to come in.
Then a colleague handed me the phone, saying he was talking to an ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] representative in the country at the time. I think a [news] desk in London may have contacted them. And that was it, they kept the line open the whole time, they were calling us every few hours checking on our condition and trying to get access to us.
We never knew there was an ICRC hotline [for journalists in danger]. There were more than 30 journalists in there, and I don’t think any of us knew there was one.
And even when we did get in touch with the ICRC it seemed there was little they could do to help at that point. Initially they said they didn’t do evacuations – what they said they would do is assess the situation and, if they could get safe passage, they’d come and check on us, and the food and water situation, and ask if any of the women had been sexually harassed in any way by the guys who were in the hotel – those kinds of things.
But the compromise we reached inside the hotel [with the Gaddafi loyalists] was that only the ICRC could evacuate us.
There was a lot of begging them, of saying ‘please, you are our only hope, you need to come in’, because the guys who were holding us would not let us leave with any other vehicles.
They ended up evacuating us in the end because they had to, because that was the only way for us to leave.
I remember we were in the lobby of the hotel with our bags because we were just waiting to leave. I remember the Red Cross representatives walking into the hotel – you could see them coming around one of the walls, with their Red Cross uniforms on.
Oh my God, what a moment. I broke down crying. It felt like a huge burden had gone. I’ll never forget that moment.
‘It was good knowing someone was trying to do something’
It was good having that hotline because you knew someone was trying to do something, someone was trying to get in touch with both sides of the conflict to get us out of there.
The combination of the fact that no one other than the ICRC had real presence on the ground, and had the ability to move around and talk to both sides [meant it was successful]. You need a more neutral, or neutrally perceived, organisation than embassies. They [the ICRC] had the manpower, the cars and the ability to move in.
The minute you got into their cars you felt this huge burden had gone, that they were there and they knew what they were doing, that they were talking to people on the outside, talking to the checkpoints. It’s not like you were running into a random car on the street on your own – you were in ICRC vehicles with ICRC staff. It was such a relief, more than anything.
It wasn’t because of the ICRC that we were released, but they facilitated it. They played a big role, because they were the only vehicles available out there at that point. They did more than was expected – they were brilliant.
It’s clear that conflicts have changed. Being a journalist doesn’t stop you from getting harmed – it’s actually becoming worse. I’ve witnessed that more during the Arab Spring, whether it’s in Cairo where journalists were being attacked for being journalists, or in other places.
There needs to be more done in terms of international organisations that raise awareness that journalists are targets now more than ever.”
‘We’re not superman’
Although the ICRC helped secure the safe release of the journalists trapped in the Rixos hotel, it was keen to stress that the hotline is not a guaranteed escape route.
Spokeswoman Sarah Cotton said that it was vital for the Geneva-based organisation to maintain an image of neutrality in order for it to be able to operate in as many conflict zones as possible. This means that their main role is to act as a neutral intermediary, allowing dialogue between both sides of a conflict. It also means that sometimes evacuation is not possible.
However, this neutral status does not guarantee safety as the ICRC still does not operate in every country and has been barred from entering some conflict zones in the past.
“Relying on the ICRC is not a good idea,” Cotton said.
“We are in 80 countries, but not all countries. There may be times when we can’t act, because we have no access.”
The confidential ICRC hotline can be used when a journalist is in extreme danger. A member of the journalists’ family or the company the journalist works for can also call for help.
“It’s not always possible to help, and we have to be honest about that. We want [the hotline] to be known about and used but we don’t want to give the impression that once you phone up, everything is going to be OK – we’re not superman,” Cotton said.
The 24/7 ICRC hotline for journalists on dangerous assignments is +41 79 217 32 85
For more information and to visit the ICRC website click here