Teargas and Corpses: a Photographer's Journey to Libya and Bahrain

Sunday 3 April 2011

It was during the afternoon of February 14 that Bahraini police opened fire on a funeral procession, killing one and injuring scores of others. As a ripple of unrest spread from across North Africa to the Middle East, authorities in Bahrain were anxious to repress any prospect of revolution. Just a few weeks earlier, Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had been removed from 23 years in power after 28 days of protests. Meanwhile Egyptian protesters, taking inspiration from events in Tunisia, had also managed to force their own president, Hosni Mubarak, to reluctantly resign after 17 days of massive demonstrations and strike action.

In London, freelance photographer and student Michael Graae watched the events in Bahrain unfold. He was on his way to class at the London College of Communication when news broke that riot police had attacked anti-government demonstrators gathered in the capital city Manama. Just three days after the funeral shooting, it seemed like events were beginning to spiral out of control. In the latest incident, it was reported that police had fired live rounds and rubber bullets into thousands of anti-government protesters at Pearl Roundabout in the north west of the city. Protesters had been trampled and suffocated amid clouds of teargas as tanks and armoured vehicles attempted to disperse crowds. At least four people reportedly lost their lives, including a 2-year-old girl who was struck by several bullets as she tried to flee the scene with her parents.

Upon hearing about the violence, 21-year-old Graae made an almost instant decision to travel to Bahrain to document what was happening. He consulted his tutor and asked for some time off, before promptly booking flights and a hotel. Only a few hours later he was on his way to Heathrow; the next morning he woke up bleary-eyed in Manama.

At the airport it wasn’t long before he encountered his first problem. After reading reports of journalists being detained by Bahraini authorities, he had decided to conceal his camera equipment in his suitcase. Making it swiftly through the arrivals lounge, when he reached customs his bag was x-rayed. The authorities immediately noticed his camera and pulled him aside for questioning. Graae tried to convince them he was a student, certainly not a journalist; however, the suspicious officials never bought a word of it. They confiscated all of his equipment, leaving him only with his laptop and clothes.

Cameraless but now in Bahrain, Graae proceeded to make some emergency phone calls. Luckily, he was quickly able to reach a friend living in New York who helped him reach a fellow journalist working in Manama. Within a few hours he had made contact and was eventually able to borrow a small single lens camera.

The unrest in the city was continuing to mount in the wake of the previous day’s violence. Pearl Roundabout had since become the focal point for demonstrators, who continued to gather in the area despite repeated crackdowns from authorities. The morning Graae arrived there had been more clashes between police and protesters. Like earlier in the week, live ammunition had again been fired into crowds of unarmed civilians.

After taking photographs of a funeral in Manama for one of the protesters killed in the unrest, Graae visited Pearl Roundabout before being taken to a nearby hospital where he seen for the first time the scale of the casualties. Crammed full of injured people, the atmosphere in the hospital was chaotic. Graae was allowed total access and tried to keep out of the way as he watched ambulance after ambulance arrive with more injured civilians. Hours later, instead of returning to his hotel, he decided that rather than chance missing any action the best thing to do would be to sleep in the hospital. He was given pillows by a doctor and bedded down for the night on the floor of the hospital’s blood bank.

The following day, after leaving the hospital, Graae had his first encounter with teargas. Walking alongside protesters to Pearl Roundabout, police launched an attack. They bombarded the crowds with a mass of teargas combined with rubber bullets and occasional live rounds. Panic ensued and a protester handed Graae an onion, telling him to rub his face with it to stave off the effects of the gas. His nose and eyes were burning as he turned to photograph a crowd of demonstrators running from police. “It felt almost like someone was almost tightening around my windpipe,” he says. “I could breathe but it was tough.”

Soon after, he managed to escape by getting a lift on the back of a pickup truck. Empty teargas canisters and rubber bullet cartridges littered the streets, and all of those seen by Graae were either manufactured in America or Britain. One of his photographs shows teargas canisters bearing the name Non-Lethal Technologies – a Pennsylvania based company that specialises in “riot control munitions”. But as Graae was well aware, teargas had already proven itself potentially lethal. During the Tunisian uprising in January, a 32-year-old French photographer, Lucas Dolega, was killed when he was shot in the head at close range by a teargas canister.

Returning back to the hospital, streams of injured demonstrators continued to arrive. Many had been caught up in the same incident as Graae, though unlike him they had not managed to dodge the bullets. Despite the government continuing to claim they were not using live rounds, several people arrived with gunshot wounds. Graae photographed one man in intensive care, his eyes glazed with shock and his chest blooded and punctured by pellets from a shotgun. The non-lethal weapons, too, had caused substantial damage. One demonstrator, whose leg veins had been torn apart by a rubber bullet, died from complications resulting from his injuries later that night.

After two consecutive evenings sleeping on the floor of the hospital’s blood bank, Graae relocated to a tent near a makeshift media centre near Pearl Roundabout. One of his first observations was that, unlike the protesters in both Tunisia and Egypt, the people of Bahrain were slow to mobilise technology. While the generator-powered media centre had satellite TV as well as internet access, organisers never immediately harnessed the power of tools like Twitter and Facebook as had their counterparts. Graae was surprised when one asked him how to use Twitter. “I thought they would’ve had it set up long ago, but they hadn’t,” he says. “So I told him: ‘you’ve gotta make a Twitter account and you start tweeting."

By the time Graae left the camp, the organisers had figured out how to tweet and were also blogging frequently. Things had begun to calm down in Bahrain at the time. Thousands gathered peacefully at Pearl Roundabout after the government issued orders for military and police forces to withdraw from the capital. Amid the crowds, Graae met another lone freelance, Alex, and hatched a plan to head west to Libya.

Now February 22, the Libyan unrest was still in its early stages but was beginning to rapidly escalate. The previous day, Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi had ordered warplanes and attack helicopters to launch air strikes on protesters. There were reports of snipers firing into unarmed crowds, and Col. Gaddafi’s son, Saif, gave a live interview in which he blamed the foreign media for trying to “trick” the Libyan people.

The situation was tense and Graae’s journey gruelling. There was no way to fly in to Libya. Foreign journalists were banned from the country, and the runways at the main airport in Benghazi – the focal point of the unrest – had been destroyed by rebels in a bid to prevent Gaddafi flying in mercenaries. The only way in was by car or bus. Graae collected his confiscated camera equipment from Bahrain airport and flew 1200 miles north west to Cairo where he met Alex, who had arrived on a separate flight. The two then embarked on a 400 mile, nine hour car trip to the Libyan border, accompanied by a Libyan doctor returning to his wife and children after years of exile in Ireland.

Chaotic but friendly scenes greeted them as they approached the border. Rebel forces holding rifles welcomed the journalists with peace signs and cheering. Graae, who had been ready to bribe his way in to the country if necessary, was amazed that he was never even asked to show his passport upon entry. He simply wrote his name, nationality and passport number on a form

Finally arriving in Benghazi five hours later, people on the streets were in triumphant spirits. While clashes continued to take place between rebels and pro-Gaddafi forces 600 miles west in capital city Tripoli, Benghazi had been ‘liberated’ after Libyan soldiers were reported to have defected. The roads were clogged with cars, people were honking their horns and those with guns were firing them in the air in celebration. “It was a jubilant mood, everyone was carefree,” says Graae. “No one thought they were going to get bombed or arrested or anything of the sort.”

But the atmosphere was short lived. Reports filtered through of brutal violence in Gaddafi’s Tripoli stronghold, leading to former British foreign minister David Owen calling for an immediate intervention. Thousands of mercenaries were believed to have been flown in from other countries, indiscriminately slaying protesters on the streets and attacking people in their own homes. Horrifying videos appeared on YouTube depicting plain clothes men shooting dead peaceful demonstrators. One eye witness report from website February 17 Voices described how pro-Gaddafi forces had entered a hospital in the city and opened fire on doctors and the injured.

Among the first of the western press to arrive in Benghazi, Graae immediately noted how a sense of paranoia preoccupied rebels in the city. There were rumours that all phone calls were being listened to by Gaddafi forces, and that the 68-year-old dictator had somehow routed all internet connections through his headquarters in Tripoli, where he had a kill switch that could turn off the power at any moment. The paranoia quickly spread. If they had to use phones to communicate, the journalists would speak in codes and would not give names or locations over the phone for fear of being traced. “You would go off for an hour and people would have to hope that you came back because no one could contact you when you were gone,” says Graae.

Yet their fears were far from unfounded. Libyan authorities had successfully been jamming the broadcaster Al Jazeera’s signal for days and every time Graae tried to make an international phone call he had severe difficulty. Luckily, tech savvy groups of young Libyans had set up makeshift internet connections using equipment they had smuggled in to the country from Egypt and Tunisia. It was with their help that Graae was able to send his photographs back to his agency in London.

As violence spread to other cities in Libya, Gaddafi claimed the rebels had consumed hallucinogenic drugs and were operating under the direction of Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden. Meanwhile, in Benghazi, Graae visited a former Gaddafi palace that had been torched during a battle a few days before he arrived. The grounds of the palace compound had been dug up by local people looking for underground prisons. Some dug with their hands, others with stones or anything else they could find. Eventually machinery was brought in to excavate the ground, tearing through pipes and leaving huge craters. Several corpses were later found and four people discovered alive – one of whom had apparently been missing for four years.

Graae was taken through a thick door and a labyrinth of tunnels to be shown some of the prison cells in the compound by a handful of rebels. It was dark and there were no lights, the walls charred from the fire that had ravaged the palace in the days before. “You could tell people had just run through and set fire to the whole thing because they hated it so much,” says Graae, who felt slightly uneasy in the bunker. “Even if there’s only loyal people around you, you never know. There was only one way in and one way out, and if someone is to snatch you, then, well, that’s it.”

The atmosphere in Benghazi remained somewhat calm. But Graae was reminded of the scale of the violence that had preceded his arrival when he later visited the city’s Al-Jalah hospital. There was not enough space in the hospital to accommodate the amount of those needing medical assistance, so waiting rooms had been turned into makeshift operating theatres. And while basic healthcare is provided free in Libya, even in normal circumstances hospitals are understaffed and facilities limited. The situation was dire. With scarcely a bed left, the hospital was teeming with those who had been brutalised at the hands of Gaddafi’s mercenaries.

Graae was asked if he wanted to visit the hospital’s morgue and felt it was his obligation to say yes. “Someone had to document it,” he says. With his camera round his neck he was taken to a small building at the rear of the hospital. As he entered through a heavy green door he was suddenly overwhelmed by an awful smell. The air was thick with a stench of death. In a room to his left, corpses lay on the floor in body bags, most of which were damaged beyond recognition. The walls were lined with large refrigerators, each containing a body – some demonstrators, others mercenaries. While a doctor pointed out gunshot wounds on the corpses, Graae tried to distance himself psychologically from what he was being shown. “It was horrible, absolutely horrible,” he says. “I couldn’t even recognise the people I saw. They had been shot to the point that you couldn’t recognise their face, or burnt to the point that you could barely tell that it was a body except for the fact that you could see teeth.”

Not long later, Graae’s visit to Libya would come to an abrupt end. Having spent a total of nine days travelling across north Africa, an encounter with heavily armed Gaddafi militia stopped him in his tracks. Heading west on a search for territory not yet covered by western media, Graae and his accomplice Alex were stopped at a checkpoint near oil fields, ten miles from the small town of Bishr. A 30-strong unit of Gaddafi soldiers approached them, armed with Kalashnikov rifles, rocket propelled grenade launchers and wearing heavy body armour. “Sahafiy? … Sahafiy? … Sahafiy?” the soldiers repeated. Graae and Alex pleaded ignorance, pretending they did not know ‘Sahafiy’ is Arabic for ‘journalist’. They feared if they acknowledged they were from the western press they would be detained – or worse. “You could tell that if they had to have pulled the trigger they would have done it in a heartbeat,” says Graae.

The soldiers rigorously searched their vehicle, looking underneath seats and inside the boot. They took everything the two journalists had between them. Cameras, laptops, even memory cards. There was nothing the pair could do in response; they had no choice but to accept their fate, and so were forced to turn back to Benghazi. The most important thing, after all, was that they had escaped with their lives.

Slightly shaken, his equipment gone and with no means to get another camera, Graae decided he would have to return to London. He and Alex embarked on a long overnight drive to Cairo, intent on getting the first flight home. At 3am they stopped for coffee at a roadside shisha bar to keep themselves awake. On the television inside a state news channel was replaying a Gaddafi speech from earlier that day, in which the volatile leader decried western journalists as agents of Al Qaeda.

Alex, who had purchased a copy of Gaddafi’s infamous Green Book of political philosophy as a souvenir, stood up and begun mimicking the colonel. Sympathetic to the Libyan rebels, the men in the bar laughed and cheered loudly. Then, in a sudden release of frustration, Alex took a lighter to his book and set it on fire. It was a final symbolic act, greeted with raucous applause from the locals. As the pair left, they approached the bar’s owner to settle the bill for their coffee. He wouldn’t let them pay. “That was worth a million dinars,” he told them. “Thank you!”

Back in London days later, Graae walked the bustling streets for the first time since his return and felt shell-shocked. He was devastated about the loss of his camera equipment, though glad to be back safe and in good health after coming face to face with Gaddafi’s militia. Several journalists were detained by Gaddafi forces amid the unrest – Graae was lucky to get away. Watching closely as violence in both Libya and Bahrain continued to escalate, he returned to university as NATO announced they would impose a no-fly zone across Libya in order to quell civilian killings. “Even now I still look on TV and see the images and think, 'I can’t believe I was there,'” he says. “But I was."

This article originally appeared at: http://www.opendemocracy.net/ryan-gallagher/teargas-and-corpses-photographers-journey-to-libya-and-bahrain