Friday, March 18, 2011

Holly Pickett's close call in Ras Lanuf, Libya

Posted on Fri, Mar 18, 2011 at 1:30 PM

Photographer Holly Pickett took a sharp turn towards adrenaline a few years ago during deep rounds of layoffs at the Spokesman-Review, choosing to leave Spokane under her own steam and heading to Cairo to set up shop as a freelancer.

We've written about her before as she's worked in the Gaza Strip, Iraq and Afghanistan. A week ago, the decision had her sprinting for the ridiculously scant cover of a small mound of dirt in the North African desert as a Libyan Air Force warplane was bearing down to bomb rebel positions near the coastal oil town of Ras Lanuf.

The following information comes from an e-mail exchange today between Pickett, briefly back in Cairo, and The Inlander (except where noted):

"The air strikes happen very fast — you hear the plane and then you have a couple seconds to look for cover. But nobody knows where the bomb will land," she writes. "The person who took that photo [above, Paul Conroy/Reuters] was already on the ground next to a mound of dirt, which was where we were all headed."

It's almost comical to imagine five shooters and their gear dog-piling onto the Reuters guy behind a little dirtpile. But Pickett tells it was the most chaotic, intense situation she has ever been in. And she's been in some intense situations.

“Bulletswere whizzing past us. You could see the dust stirring on the groundfrom bullets zipping past our legs. I’ve never taken this much firebefore,” she told the site in a phone interview from Cairo.

The photo was taken mid-afternoon on March 11. It was Pickett's first day of shooting in Libya. She had driven three or four hours through the desert from the rebel-controlled city of Benghazi after crossing into Libya illegally from Egypt. At Ras Lanuf, then the front line in the battle between rebels and forces loyal to Libyan dictator Col. Muammar Qaddafi, Pickett met up with other western photographers, including Lynsey Addario (far left) and Tyler Hicks (right, in glasses) of the New York Times. —-

In fact, the only reason this particular photo became widely circulated is because it is the last-known image of Addario and Hicks before they disappeared Tuesday along with two other NYT staffers, presumably taken captive by forces loyal to Qaddafi.

At Ras Lanuf a week ago, "We were shooting the rebels preparing for battle, reacting to air strikes, bringing in their wounded and dead, and we were trying to get a sense for how it is going from their side. Are they winning or losing? Are they outmatched? Is morale suffering?"

Pickett says the Westerners also discussed darker issues.

"We discussed capture, friendly fire, injury, kidnapping, death. We always talk about possible situations before they happen so that we can prevent them from happening, or at least consider the odds of them happening. We actually thought there was a good chance of being killed or seriously injured if captured by Qaddafi loyalists. A BBC crew was badly beaten and subject to a mock execution when they were captured by Qaddafi forces in Zawiyah."

At the right edge of the photo, Libyan rebel fighters are seen bailing out of the antiquated, hand-cranked anti-aircraft guns that they seemed to have by the score, either on mobile platforms or bolted to the beds of pickup trucks.

Pickett comments:

"Yes, the rebels had a lot of anti-aircraft cannons, but most of the time we couldn't see the plane, so they were shooting blindly into the air. They were constantly firing their personal weapons into the air, either because somebody died, or seemingly just for the hell of it. They lit tires on fire to try and provide some cover from the bombs."

By the end of last Friday, the loyalist forces, with warplanes, helicopter gunships, artillery and tanks, had the rebels in full retreat.

"They seemed unorganized to me. Really they are civilians with revolutionary passion, but without military training," Pickett writes.

During the chaos, the photographers kept working.

"When we reached the mound of dirt, we were still trying to take pictures. Not much else to do."

And, she says, with the promised cease-fire in Libya as of today, she is headed back there tomorrow.

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