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August 24, 2011

Nicole Tung in Eastern Libya. Next Stop: Qadaffi’s Hometown

With what appeared to be surprising ease, Libyan rebel forces broke through on the western and central fronts and began to liberate Tripoli, and scenes of ecstatic celebration broke out both in the capital and in Benghazi. Hopes are high that the seesaw battle between the Qaddafi regime and the uprising against him has finally ended with his downfall and a decisive victory for the rebels and NATO.

But once again, there is the lurking and troubling reality that such jubilation may be premature, as Qaddafi remains at large and defiant, while son Seif mocked reports of his arrest by publicly appearing in an armored limousine and grandstanding for foreign journalists.

Photographer Nicole Tung has been covering the Libyan Revolution since it began with similar peaks of enthusiasm and high emotion in March. She filed these images yesterday from Benghazi and the eastern front, where it all started, but from which there is now little reporting as the focus shifted so dramatically to Tripoli.

Near the front line, Nicole saw that the rebels regained and advanced beyond their previous furthest points west on the coastal towns of Ras Lanuf and Bin Jawad. Their next objective is the Qaddafi stronghold of Sirte, where he was born and where it is feared that his most loyal supporters will continue to fight and hold out.

She found a dozen tanks and hundreds of rebel soldiers congregating near the recently retaken Brega oil refinery, waiting for reinforcements. Compared to now-ubiquitous images of disparately armed young men in civilian clothes on board pick-up trucks, it appears that the rebel forces have at last become better organized.

But these fighters, as she noted over the phone, even the tank crews, are mostly former civilians with only a month of training for their heavy weapons and complex war machines. “I could feel their adrenalin and their excitement to advance, but they don’t know if Sirte will resist. They don’t really want to have to fight. News is that the rebels are negotiating with heads of tribes to surrender in Sirte, including the Qaddafa and Ferjani tribes. Ferjani is not loyal to Qaddafi, and some of Qaddafa tribe not loyal to him either. But the latest reports indicate that they are facing resistance at Bin Jawad, a hundred miles before Sirte.”

From the beginning, as in Iraq under Saddam, the fractured political culture of disinformation and dictatorship under Qaddafi has bequeathed a legacy of exaggeration, fear, lies, and rumor. Victories and defeats come quickly in the desert terrain with little cover from which to hide or hinder military movement. The emotional upheavals are equally extreme.

Six months into the war, Benghazi without Qaddafi has had time to restore some rhythms of daily life, which may give a taste — in the best case scenario, of what a post-Qaddafi Libya might be like — a normal country again. At the moment, though, unfurling “Mission Accomplished” banners may be naive.

–Alan Chin


To see entire BagNews series on Egypt and Libya: Middle-East Uprising 2011

To see Nicole’s previous BagNews posts on: Libya, Pakistan, and 9/11.

About the Photographer

Nicole Tung

Nicole Tung (b. 1986) is a freelance photographer born and raised in Hong Kong. She graduated from New York University in 2009 after studying journalism and history and currently freelances for clients including The New York Times, The Sunday Times, Human Rights Watch, and The Wall Street Journal. Her work has also appeared in Vogue (UK), The Telegraph, The Global Post and other international publications. She has traveled to Bosnia and Kosovo to examine post-war reconstruction, the Thai-Burma border, Pakistan, Xinjiang in China, and has most recently covered the revolutions in Egypt and Libya, and continues documenting the Arab uprisings in 2012. Her work has been recognized and awarded by the International Photography Awards, The Maybach Foundation, Women in Photojournalism, the Hearst Foundation, the NYPPA and other organizations. She has been a part of two group exhibitions; one showcasing the documentation of the World Trade Center, and another featuring work from Kashgar with Sombra Projects at the New York Photo Festival 2010. Her work from Libya was part of group slideshows at the Prix Bayeux Photo Festival in France, and the Bursa Photo Festival in Turkey both in October 2011. See more of Nicole's work for BagNews here.

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  • Josh


  • Anonymous

    When I saw the photo of the (premature) celebration, I was reminded of something I heard recently on Amy Goodman’s show: that the images we’ve seen include almost exclusively young men, unlike what we saw from Egypt. Worth thinking about, for lots of reasons.

    • omen

      right, women and little kids really were fond of the brutal dictator. you can’t compare tripoli with cairo. egyptians attended rallies for weeks before mubarack finally stepped down. gaddafi didn’t tolerate any
      protest rallies from taking place at all. they were immediately mowed
      down. he even strafed down a crowd with machine gun fire for attending a funeral for the
      people murdered who attended a protest rally. gaddafi snipers even took down random people for crossing the street, people who weren’t even protesters at all.

      civilians aren’t out yet en masse because it’s still not safe yet, what with all the celebratory gun fire. there are still sporadic battles and sniper fire by remaining gaddafi loyalists.

      cnn today showed some of the populace starting to trickle out. i saw some kids out. plus, you don’t switch off 40 plus years of conditioning to be fearful overnight.

      have you forgotten the crowds celebrating their freedom in benghazi? it was full of women and children.

      what is it with progressives being more comfortable with the status quo of ruthless tyrant remaining in place? preferring that to the uncertainty and unpredictability of a new libya. foreigners not living with a boot on their neck prefer the devil they know. our discomfort is a small price to pay for libyans to seize their chance to work towards a different path.

  • Anonymous

    When I saw the photo of the (premature) celebration, I was reminded of something I heard recently on Amy Goodman’s show: that the images we’ve seen include almost exclusively young men, unlike what we saw from Egypt. Worth thinking about, for lots of reasons.

  • omen

    At the moment, though, unfurling “Mission Accomplished” banners may be naive.

    first of all, they’re not operating off our timeline. they’ll get it done when they get it done. secondly, libya is not iraq.

  • omen

    another wall of martyrs.


  • Fahrender

    i will be very happy if the rebellion in Libya goes well but often things like this don’t go well. how will this sort out? and how many years will it take? read a little Algerian history and get back to me.

  • Anonymous

    Ouch! But yes, I get your point. That’s why I said, “Worth thinking about, for lots of reasons.” Didn’t have time to write a longer post, exploring those reasons, and hadn’t got to the point of lining up specific exemplars. Your suggestions are helpful in that respect. Many thanks.

    (BTW, I comment only as an individual, never as a representative of any particular social/political persuasion.)

  • omen

    it’s not an islamist uprising. they don’t want to emulate another iran.

  • omen

    i don’ know how many years. of course it’s going to be a long, uphill climb. difficulty and lack of guarantee of success shouldn’t be an excuse to roll over and die.

  • omen

    should have softened my tone, sorry.

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