A Q&A with Tom Lee, An Amateur War Correspondent in Libya

A gap year is all about new experiences. It's about going out into the world and doing something different. It doesn't matter whether that's travelling, volunteering or working abroad, as long as it's something that you have a passion for and something that you believe in.

Tom Lee, 24, from Sydney, Australia, had a very different gap year in mind when he travelled. He didn't travel to Bali like most other Aussies; nor did he volunteer in South America. He travelled to Libya to work as a freelance war correspondent and photojournalist. Why? Because the freedom of Libya was something that he was passionate about and it was something that he believed in.

When Tom travelled to Libya last September 2011, it was in the middle of a civil war with Muammar Gaddafi in hiding. With no training, no media organisation behind him and no contacts, Tom packed his bag and travelled anyway.

Tom spent six weeks in Libya travelling from one battle site to the next, witnessing people who were willing to give up everything, including their lives, for the freedom of their country.

Armed with nothing more than his iPhone, his honour and sympathy for the anti-Gaddafists, he travelled a vicious war zone, using social media along the way to report his progress.

Tom's only proof that he was a journalist was a letter of accreditation from his student newspaper in Sydney. What he came back with was a portfolio that could beat most aspiring and start-up journalists, all because he was willing to do something different.

It has to be said here, this is not something that we would recommend to anyone. You should always check with the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office before you travel and make sure you take all the relevant and required safety precautions. But Tom’s trip is still one of the most remarkable gap year stories we’ve ever come across, that's why we present to you this Q+A. It just goes to show, a gap year really can be anything...

A rebel in Libya

Hi Tom, thanks for letting us interview you. First up - what made you want to travel to Libya?

I think for everyone swept up in what was happening in North Africa in 2011, and for interested Western audiences watching on television, there was a sense that what had come to be called the Arab Spring was a momentous and historic event. I think everyone enthralled by the drama of Libya in particular; a pro-democracy rebellion against one of the most iconic dictatorships of modern times, against Moammar Gaddafi, who made no secret of his intention to crush the rebels. What was so moving to Western audiences was how much like us the young rebels appeared to be - wearing jeans and t-shirts, immersed in pop culture and espousing the rhetoric of freedom and democracy - I think we could see ourselves in them a little bit.

Maybe that was a bit rose-tinted in hindsight, but at the time I regarded them as companions in a struggle for liberal internationalism, and rather than just watch from the safety of home and wish them well from afar, I thought I should try to get over there to share in their fortunes. I looked at my own situation in Australia and thought to myself "dude, I could spend another year drinking and sunning myself, or I can do something important and get to a revolution where good dudes are dying right at this very moment."

But all that sounds a bit high-minded, so I needed a more readily comprehensible reason for going. That's where the war correspondent thing came from, because I didn't want to be seen as just some stupid war tourist. I had written for the student paper at university before, so it made sense. I'd go to Libya as Sydney uni's man on the ground. It had a bit of romance about it, a lone student in Libya getting amongst the battle to write it up, but turns out I wasn't the only youngish person there. There were apparently dozens, but I never met any of them. As it went on though, and I saw proper journalists at work, it struck me that this foreign correspondent thing was really fun, and maybe should be something to aim at professionally.

Before you left, what did you tell your friends and family?

I don't lie to my mum, but when I told her I was going to Libya she lost her shit. She thought I was crazy, like certified insane. She wanted me to go to a psychologist and everything! It was actually a really tough period, those weeks leading up to when I left. I was always really close to mum and having her treat me like a mental patient was quite upsetting. I thought she'd be cool and supportive but instead she came up with crazy schemes to stop me from going.

I couldn't take it anymore, so I told her that instead of going to Libya I would just go to Tunisia instead. That got her off my back at least, but she broke down again as soon as my sister told her I had crossed the border into Libya. It didn't help that my sisters also taught her how to use Twitter, so she was able to watch with increasing anxiety as I got closer and closer to Sirte, which by the time I got to Libya was where the fighting was concentrated.

My friends were cool with it though. I drew a lot of confidence from them. People our age I found were generally supportive; it was older people who thought it was stupid. I don't know why that was. That said, there were a few close friends who said I shouldn't go, but I think deep down it was only because they were jealous and wish they were going as well.

A sunset in Libya

What was your best and worst experience while in Libya?

I enjoyed myself wherever I went. Mass celebrations in Tripoli, lunching in Berber ruins in Jebel Nafusa, street by street fighting in Sirte, seeing Gaddafi's body in Misrata. I can't say I had any bad experiences, but I did make poor decisions at times. I let myself languish in Tripoli for too long. The action was in Misrata and the road to Sirte, but the Misratans were very security conscious as a result of the huge damage their city had suffered earlier on in the war, so none of the Tripolitian guys I knew had the clout to find me a place to stay there. I was reluctant to leave the guys in Tripoli as they were the only Libyans I knew and I didn't want to be out on my own, but I should have recognised sooner that they weren't really the hardcore rebels I was looking for. None of them were keen to get to the fight in Sirte, so I ended up having to part ways with the Tripoli guys and start looking for some Misratans. I found them, but I should have found them much earlier on.

I was in Sirte from the 13th to the 19th of October, and I will always regret heading back to Misrata on the night of the 19th. The plan was to come back the next day, but on the 20th Gaddafi made his breakout attempt and it was all over. I missed the chance to be present at Gaddafi's capture, but then so did the all of the professional media that was there.  

What was the most dangerous moment of the trip Tom?

The seven days in Sirte were the most dangerous. As far as battles go, conditions in Sirte were very good, at least for all the foreigners present. I had got there late in the piece, the then-rebels had the upper hand and the Gaddafi loyalists were out of artillery and mortars. Artillery and mortars are dangerous in that there is not a lot you can do to avoid them; you either get lucky and don't get hit or are unlucky enough to have something land right next to you. The only weapons they had left were rifles, machine guns and RPGs, and for those weapons to be effective the user has to be able to see you, so as long as you are taking cover, or if not taking cover moving about so as not to provide a fixed target to aim at, then you are pretty safe.

A problem was that a situation could change very quickly. At one moment a street would be full of rebel fighters milling about, but as soon as a man was killed they would pull back in headlong flight, so that there would only be a few guys left. There was a danger of being left behind, and foreigners had been captured in this way.

Simply being around that many weapons is also inherently dangerous. Not being professional soldiers, many rebel fighters didn't bother with the safety catch on their guns, which made having the barrel of weapon casually pointed at you when someone turned around a bit unnerving.

Taking aim in Libya

After your experiences in Libya, do you still want to be a foreign correspondent / war correspondent?

I think I was lucky in that I was only present for the last seven days of the fighting in Sirte. I can't imagine what it was like for the journalists in Misrata in April and May when the Gaddafi regime was still strong and you are on the receiving end of artillery fire, which is what killed Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, and more recently Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik in Homs, Syria.

I would like to give it another go, and this time do it properly - not just an iPhone but a proper camera. If I go again I need the right communications equipment so I can actually get my photos and columns online from the battle, rather than having to hike back 200km to an internet cafe and miss out on the action. I also didn't have any body armour or a helmet when I was there, so it would be nice to get some. It would be pointless to be killed by a chest wound if it can be prevented by good armour.  

What is your response to anyone who criticises you for doing something dangerous?

I think there's an unbridgeable cognitive dissonance between people who think doing something dangerous is always a bad idea, and people who are less concerned with danger or the risk of injury. I'm not sure what leads to such divergent views on the notion of danger; maybe it's different upbringings and different educations. I try to argue the point by suggesting there is the potential for danger wherever you go. Two Australians were killed in Indonesia recently, one by a pygmy elephant and the other by touching an electrified pole in Bali. I'm sure neither of them imagined that they would end up in such dangerous situations.

I can image being so close to the action affected you. What did you get out of the experience personally?

I don't want to pretend I was cruising around the streets of Sirte in a state of sublime self-realisation, but there was a moment there of gushing satisfaction when I was on the back of a gun ute on the way back from the battle one afternoon. When Tripoli fell I was afraid I had missed all the action, but I had got to Sirte instead, where Muammar Gaddafi was making his final stand. Nobody knew that then, but to look back on it and think that he was just streets away from me is pretty cool. 

There's also a new appreciation for how good life is in Australia and how good being at peace is. It was great to come home to beautiful cities with buildings that weren't blown up or riddled with bullet holes, and without the sound of guns firing all the time. The English-speaking world has done really well for itself, I worry that sometimes we lose sight of that. 

Freedom in Libya

Would you ever recommend someone else to head out to a war zone on their gap year?

If it's something they want to do then sure (Ed's note - again, heading out to a war zone on your gap year is something that we don't encourage here at gapyear.com). But it's important to get an idea for what the situation on the ground will be like. I can't stress enough how comparatively safe Libya was by the time I got there at the start of September. The Gaddafi regime had fallen, all that was left was Sirte and a few other loyalist towns. For anybody considering giving it a go the obvious candidate at the moment is Syria, but Syria is incredibly dangerous. The rebels there control only a few towns, and government troops move freely throughout the country. Bashar Assad's military is notoriously sadistic. For a foreigner claiming to be a journalist the risk if captured is extreme. If the Syrian rebels can eke out their own territory with a capital city out of artillery range to use as your base, as happened in Libya, then it would become much safer to go. Until then Syria remains a risky proposition.

It's also important to keep in mind what impact it will have on your family. If you think your mum or dad won't understand and will oppose it, it's best not to tell them where you plan to go. 

Big question - would you do it again?

I'd love to go to Libya again now that the place has calmed down and do some legitimate tourism. There were a lot of places I would have liked to have seen but didn't, like the town of Gaddames in the desert or the Commonwealth war graves in Benghazi and Tobruk (which have sadly been desecrated by vandals recently - in my eyes there's an added poignance to a place if it's not going to be around for much longer). 

Do you have any plans to go on another gap year?

No - I really need to finish uni!

Tom Lee in Libya    

Now to some of the nitty gritty details - what did you eat and drink out in Libya?

I ate very well. The basic meal in Tripoli was a tuna, egg and harissa sandwich. There were lengthy bread queues for a while, so you would have to line up for about 45 minutes to get inside the bakery, but things gradually started returning to normal, in Tripoli at least.

Another regular meal was ful, fava beans with egg and whatever vegetables were on hand to throw in the pot, and the Libyans also do a great couscous. I was told that the national dish is something they called bahbouki, spaghetti with chilli and lime, a clear legacy of the Italian colonial period. For a special occasion or deliberate gathering a chicken is broiled in an underground stove.

There were Tunisians who came across the border to sell fruit. I remember the pomegranates and the dates being especially good. The butchers have a macabre practice of placing the heads of the animals they have slaughtered that day out the front of their shops to indicate what meat is available - goat, cow or camel. 

In Misrata, a women's organisation would prepare thousands of meals every day to be sent down to their fighters in Sirte. They would arrive on trucks throughout the day and be handed out to everyone, and they always made sure any foreigners with them were well fed, which was incredibly kind. In addition to this there were people just bringing food down in an ad hoc manner. I recall one man wandering around the battlefield armed not with a rifle but with a tray of bananas, offering them out while the fighting raged just a block away!

Who did you stay with while you were there?

I stayed with locals. On my first night I slummed it in a garden, but on the second night I met some guys in Martyrs' Square in Tripoli and they let me stay with them at their farm house. Houses are built in a simple cube shape with besser blocks and concrete, and sometimes whitewashed to give them a nice render. The farmhouse was rundown but had some charm about it, and it even had an intermittent wifi connection. The Arab style of sleeping, at least amongst an all-male group, is just to throw some thin mattresses on the ground and sleep in the same room. I got bed bugs at one point which were incredibly itchy but I was able to rid myself of them with persistent showering and by avoiding a few suspect blankets. 

A few of the guys spoke some English so it was easy to communicate and they were happy to have me with them. They were exactly the forward-looking democrats I had envisaged they'd be; some more liberal, some more Islamic conservative. As I mentioned before though, they weren't keen to get to the battle, probably because they had had enough of it by that point, so I had to leave them to find some guys that could get me to Sirte.

I found them at the military base at Tripoli airport. They were happy to help me out and let me stay with them in their homes in Misrata, and then put me through to a group of fighters on their way to Sirte. In Sirte, we stayed at abandoned workers accommodation servicing a half-constructed power plant 10 km outside the city. It was absolutely squalid, the place was full of waste and goat carcasses, but I had a good mattress and clean water. It was shared between different groups of fighters and African families that had fled the bombardment of of the city.

Arabs have a culture of hospitality, for them it is a matter of pride that a visitor is fed and housed well, and I really had to argue for them to accept me paying for anything. They would never have accepted me paying for accommodation, and it was only with huge reluctance and insistence on my part that I was allowed to pay for any food, and even then only a small amount. I ended up spending very little; most of my money went on recharging my phone credit to call my girlfriend.  

A walk in the desert

Can you describe a typical day and what you were doing over there?

My daily routine varied depending on what city I was in. In Tripoli I'd tag along while the guys did their thing. The fun days were when we'd go to a night time rally at Martyrs Square or pick through the ruins of Gaddafi's Tripoli residence at the Bab al-Aziziya compound. The guys I stayed with would stay up late into the night smoking pot on a communal sheesha, something I couldn't bring myself to take part in, and would sleep well into the day in a drug-induced torpor. At times like that there wasn't much for me to do but wander about the farm watching the goats and chicken graze while waiting for them to wake up, but it did give me plenty of time to write some stories.

At other times they'd be buzzing with energy and would gather everyone in the neighbourhood for a game of volleyball. They had some decent home-made gym equipment as well, things like a heave bar set between the walls and weights made from concrete dried in paint tins with a bar joining them together, so occasionally we would spend some time working out. It was a pretty leisurely life in Tripoli. Everyone would watch the progress of the battles in other parts of the country on Al Jazeera, but Tripoli itself was secure apart from a few sporadic skirmishes at night. Gunfire would ring out every day, but you could never tell whether it was in anger or just celebratory.  

Once I got access to the battle in Sirte, the day would start with pre-battle breakfast in Misrata. Several utes would be loaded with weapons and ammunition, the gun utes would have their anti-aircraft guns loaded with belts of ammunition, and we would set off on the 200 km journey south-east to Sirte along the coastal road through the desert. We would have to drive around sections of road that had been destroyed in air strikes and any camels that seemed to take great pleasure in forcing cars to drive around them.

Once in Sirte, the men (and boys) I was with would divide their time between participating in the battle or looting the parts of the city that had been captured. They would loot the homes of non-combatant civilians as well as regime loyalists, which I felt uneasy about, but I was in no position to voice my concern. It was clear that many people present at Sirte weren't actually there to take part in the fighting at all, but just to loot what they could and haul it back to Misrata. They did feel a sense of shame, the more scrupulous going to some effort to conceal what they had taken. Fortunately for me the people I was with felt an obligation to spend at least some of their time in the fighting. In their conception of justice, the shame of looting could be absolved by getting amongst the battle.

Preparing for war

We would spend a few hours each day in the battle. Untrained as they were, the anti-Gaddafi fighters had a habit of congregating in a huge group around a corner from where they were receiving enemy fire, and would take turns jumping out from around the corner in a display of Hollywood-style heroics, firing wildly in the general direction without actually being able to see what they were shooting at.

I imagined many of the pro-Gaddafi fighters were doing the same thing, because we had plenty of fire coming back at us, but it was all high, cracking harmlessly over our heads. Only occasionally would an accurate burst strike close, evidently fired by someone with some experience and training.

The manner of fighting meant there was no conclusive result. It was just two groups of men firing inaccurately at each other for days on end. It fell to small bands of brave guys who weren't afraid to get close, running around the backstreets and pushing the pro-Gaddafists further and further back. On the bigger roads they were able to use the gun utes, with guns designed to shoot down aircraft kilometres in the air used against buildings at close range. It was incredibly loud and chaotic. The back-and-forth of street-to-street fighting, guys being shot and rushed back to aid stations, it was really intense.

Have you met anyone on the road that you've thought "yep, you're totally awesome. I love what you're doing..."?

There were some individual acts of utter gutsiness during the fighting in Sirte that totally awed me. There was this once guy who was fighting barefoot with an RPG, and he seemed to be completely without fear. Time and again he would fire a round off despite accurate enemy fire, and accurately as well. Unlike the others he wouldn't nervously jump out from behind a corner to fire off his weapon as soon as he could to return to safety, instead he'd crouch low and shuffle into position, taking his time to get the RPG steady on his shoulder and fire it off. The last I saw of him he was running off along the beachfront in Sirte trying to flank District 2 from the north. I hope he survived. 

Thanks Tom. Great Q+A - really enjoyable. Oh, and good luck with uni...

Here are a few more of Tom's photos that he took while in Libya. They really capture the moment of a country in the throws of civil war:

Sitting on the gun ute

War wounds

A gun ute