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June 6, 2011

From the Front Lines of Libya

American photojournalist Lynsey Addario survived six days of hell while being held captive in Libya. Now she shares how she coped, what's next, and why it matters for women.


Lynsey Addario (seated, at left, with New York Times correspondent Somini Sengupta) in a truck full of Sudanese Liberation Army rebels in Darfur in 2004.

Photo Credit: Jehad Nga

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Lynsey Addario stands in front of a roomful of journalists at the Mandarin Oriental in New York City. She has just received an award from the Overseas Press Club for her photojournalism, and she's having a hard time getting through her acceptance speech. Two of her friends and fellow photographers, Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, were killed a week earlier during a mortar attack in Libya. The moment Addario says their names, her face crumples, and she begins to cry.

Addario barely got out of Libya alive herself. Held captive for six days in March, she and three other journalists, on assignment for The New York Times, endured intense physical and psychological abuse. The ordeal began when Libyan soldiers detained the journalists at a checkpoint near a rebel-held town of Ajdabiya, beating them, forcing them to their knees, and ordering them to lie facedown on the ground — to be shot. The journalists' lives were spared that day, but the week that followed brought beatings, sexual aggression, and threats of murder. Bound and often blindfolded, they were moved from truck to truck, before finally getting released amid international pressure.

Addario, a 37-year-old Connecticut native, certainly knows the risks of her profession: For the past 15 years, she has traveled the world covering conflict and women's issues for publications such as National Geographic, Time, and Newsweek, in addition to the Times. In 2004, she was held captive by gunmen for eight hours in Iraq. In 2009, while on assignment in Pakistan, her collarbone was broken in a car accident when the driver fell asleep at the wheel, killing himself in the process. We talked to Addario as well as her husband, Paul de Bendern, a Reuters bureau chief in New Delhi, India, where the couple is currently based, about how they got through the latest ordeal — and what drives them to report from war zones.

Lynsey, you were lying facedown on the ground with your colleagues when you heard a Libyan soldier say: "Shoot them." What goes through your mind when you think you will be killed?
Lynsey Addario: For me, I just pray. And I'm not very religious at all — I was raised Catholic, but probably haven't gone to church since my Holy Communion, when I was about 6 or 7. I think that there's nothing you can do when you're in that situation, so for me, I go into this sort of altered state, almost begging: Please. Please. Please. You can't do anything. You really can't. So you just hope that they don't kill you.

During your captivity, soldiers were alternately groping your breasts and punching you in the face. At one point, a soldier caressed your head while threatening to kill you. How did you keep your sanity?
Lynsey: I was lucky because there were four of us. We were together, and that really helped tremendously in terms of dealing with things along the way. There were many times when we weren't allowed to speak to each other, but just the fact that we knew the other people were present was a big help. When we could talk, we said just a few words like, "We'll get through this. You have people at home who love you. Don't worry, we'll be fine." We constantly were reassuring ourselves, and each other.

Did you think, If I get out of here alive, there's something I must do — or did you think, I just need to get out of here alive?
Lynsey: I was thinking I need to get out of here alive. I was also thinking, Maybe it's time to get pregnant. I was thinking I've had a lot of close calls, and maybe this is a sign.

Paul, what did you do when you heard Lynsey had been captured? How do you keep your thoughts from going to the darkest place?
Paul de Bendern: I've been a journalist for Reuters for about 16 years, living in North Africa, Latin America, Europe, and now in Asia. So I've been in difficult situations and have had to make decisions about reporters in harm's way. But of course it's a very different thing when it's the person you love most in the world. The first moment you realize something is wrong, everything goes through your mind: What happens now? Am I ever going to see her again? There's a series of worst-case scenarios. The first night I had quite a few whiskeys, but that didn't really help. Then it was continuous calls — to the Times, to colleagues on the ground in Libya. I tried to keep my mind busy. I focused on getting her home. I tried to keep it together — it doesn't help to break down and completely become a basket case. After 24 hours, when no bodies had been found, I knew it was likely that they were alive. Most likely the government had taken them, because the it wasn't in the rebels' interest. But this was not confirmed for several days, and it felt like years.

Lynsey, when soldiers were groping you, you knew not to fight back, but to plead for mercy. How did you know to do that?
Lynsey: I've worked for over 11 years in the Muslim world, and the one thing that I feel like I've learned — who's to say if it's true or not true, it's just my experience — is that men don't like to see really strong, aggressive women in that area of the world. So I think that when I elicited the most sympathy, and when they did in fact stop, was when I was crying and pleading. I didn't even try and scream and kick, because that's never worked for me in that part of the world. Also I know that it's against Islam to touch another man's wife, so if I said, "Look, I have a husband. You are Muslim," those are things that I felt would garner more sympathy and support to leave me alone.

Your instincts might have helped keep you alive.
Lynsey: I don't know; I think a lot of it also is luck. At the end of the day, the fact that we weren't killed in the crossfire in the first 15 minutes or the first eight hours when they just held us on the front lines, tied up, it's pretty miraculous that none of us were killed.

Paul, at one point you went on CNN to appeal to the Qaddafi regime.
Paul: Yes, you have to be careful what you say publicly, but a friend of mine at CNN said, "Look, the Qaddafi regime is weird and unpredictable, but they care about America and this kind of stuff — if you do a personal appeal, it can be very powerful." It was very difficult to do and very emotional. I didn't know if I could deal with it.

Paul, you met Lynsey in Tunisia after her release. What was it like to be reunited?
Paul: I met her at the airport in Tunis. No one realized how bad it had been — the Times had warned me that they had suffered beatings and gropings, but we didn't know yet the full extent of it. When I saw her, I ran up to her, kissed her and hugged her. It was very emotional. But I think both of us were kind of in a state of shock. It wasn't like a complete breakdown when we saw each other. It's not like the movies, where it's all dramatic. We went to the hotel that night and got champagne and sat on the balcony, and rested. Over the days and weeks it's something we digested. I think we still are.

Lynsey, when you were freed, the blogosphere started buzzing with comments about how women shouldn't be covering war — and the Times shouldn't have sent you there.
Lynsey: Mortars and artillery don't discriminate against gender. We all saw what happened to Tim and Chris. Journalists dedicate their lives to covering war — they make many personal sacrifices, and it's not something that's gender-based. In a place like Libya where there's heavy fighting, it doesn't matter if you're a man or a woman.

But there are stories where gender makes a difference, in a good way…
Lynsey: Absolutely, for example when I'm working on women's stories in a Muslim country. In a place like Afghanistan where the society is completely segregated, women have access to women. Men cannot always photograph women and cannot get the access that I get.

Paul: When you hear that women shouldn't cover this or that, it's a joke. When you look at some of the stories Lynsey has covered — maternal mortality in Sierra Leone, burn victims in Afghanistan — do you think a guy who's a macho photojournalist is gonna make that happen? No. It is very important that these stories are communicated. And reporting these stories, this is not easy stuff. Lynsey is helping people understand that.

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