Exploring a New, But Cautious, Tripoli

Moises Saman returned to Libya on assignment for The New York Timesshortly after the fall of Tripoli at the end of August. Since then, Mr. Saman, a nominee for membership in Magnum Photos, has had the rare opportunity to photograph more freely. That was in stark contrast to the first leg of his Libyan assignment spent in a press pool covering the forces loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi — at times even confined to his hotel room. Lately he has been able to roam through a different, less familiar, side of the country that has captivated him.

“It’s probably one of the main stories of my generation,” said Mr. Saman. “It’s such a historic kind of event that I think the implications are still not understood, to what extent it’s going to change the region. I think I want to keep exploring it and trying to be a part of it.”

James Estrin, David Gonzalez and Kerri MacDonald spoke with Mr. Saman late Thursday evening. Their conversation has been edited and condensed.

Q: The story has really changed in Libya since you returned.

A: It has, yeah. I think for everybody who has been following this conflict, it came as a surprise how quickly this came down. It’s been an intense month, with the fall of Tripoli and all the changes that are happening around here. Even though, as you know, there are still fronts — one in Surt and another one in Bani Walid.

Q: You mentioned before the changes kind of surprised you. How did that effect how you were working?

A: The first couple of weeks, it was very different to work. You kind of had to feel your way around on a daily basis, and obviously move with a lot of caution, especially around Tripoli. Because as I said, this was such a quick surprise that everybody thought that there were still a lot of loyalists around town and this was a strategic lull in the fighting.

Everybody was really scared and that made it very, very difficult to move around. Since then, things have quieted down a lot in Tripoli. Now you’re free to move around pretty much everywhere around town, even though at night there are still sporadic reports of attacks on rebel checkpoints around the city. But it’s become a lot easier.


Moises Saman for The New York Times

Hundreds of displaced people from Tawerga sheltered at an abandoned naval academy in Tripoli.

Q: This new freedom is a lot different from how you first started out in Libya, working with Qaddafi minders.

A: Still every time I think about it, it’s pretty surreal to see this town before and after Qaddafi, as far as all the restrictions that we had and what I spoke about in previous Lens posts, working under Qaddafi’s regime and working with minders. Right now, I’m actually even driving my own car here. (It’s one of the translators’, but I prefer to drive it myself.) Before, we were bused around and very much controlled 24 hours a day.

Q: What do you notice now that you didn’t before?

A: I guess one of the main things is the amount of dissent that was already here in Tripoli against Qaddafi. Before you couldn’t tap into that, because everybody was so scared of talking to foreigners, especially journalists. Overnight, the whole town raised the rebel flag and it was basically like turning a switch on and off. That’s probably what struck me the most in this month, as far as the changes.

Q: Are there any particular areas or themes or subjects that you’re most attracted to now?

A: Well, one subject that I’ve been trying to follow up a lot is the state of the African migrants, as well as other African communities — Libyans of African descent — that have taken a lot of the brunt of this conflict. There are more human stories, trying to find out what’s happening to people now that the rebels are in charge. It’s kind of an unclear situation, as far as where the country’s going to go.

Q: How have you been able to pursue that story now that you have more freedom?

A: This is something that David Kirkpatrick and I have been following even since the beginning. When we first arrived in Tripoli in February of this year, we saw those incredible scenes at the airport of all the migrants. There were thousands of people camped outside of the airport living in what looked like refugee camps.

It seems like not much has changed. They’re not in the airport anymore, but there are at least two or three camps around Tripoli. The rebels seem to think that every black man is either a mercenary or a Qaddafi supporter, so they’re in a lot of danger of being arrested for no reason.

DESCRIPTIONMoises Saman for The New York Times

A worker inside the hull of a Syrian cargo ship delivering wheat in the port of Tripoli.

Q: One of your images is a photograph of a man dwarfed by the hull of a ship. What was going on?

A: That was a Syrian cargo ship that docked in the port here in Tripoli. It was a shipment of wheat they brought into Tripoli. I went to take pictures aboard the ship.

We went to the port because we heard reports that there were ships arriving with cargo, but that they didn’t have enough people to unload them and there was a shortage of workers. The city is not back to 100 percent. The workforce is not out in the street in full yet. There are still a lot of cautious people who feel like they can’t show up for work just yet.

Q: Now that you’ve spent some time in Libya, and this has been an extraordinary experience for photojournalists —

A: — Yes, and a very, very dangerous one, too, as you know —

Q: — Yes. Are there any lessons you take out from Libya?

A: Without sounding too corny, I guess it’s just how terrible war is for the people that are just trying to go on with their lives. And the amount of death and destruction and suffering that this conflict has brought for many people. I don’t know if there’s a lesson as far as my work and approach. But honestly, two good friends of mine died covering this conflict. You always want to keep that with you.

Q: When are you leaving?

A: I’m actually trying to get out of here soon. Maybe sometime next week, I hope. But I plan to continue covering the region. The first elections in Tunisia are coming up.

Q: What are your feelings about leaving Libya?

A: I’m ready for a break. I’m also really eager for some fall weather. I’ve been in this part of the world now for most of the year and the weather doesn’t change much.


Moises Saman for The New York Times

A fax sent from British Intelligence MI6 to their counterpart in the Libyan intelligence service found in a file at the Tripoli home and office of Musa Kusa, the former head of Libyan intelligence who defected to the United Kingdom in March of 2011.

Via: lens.blogs.nytimes.com

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