The call came late in the evening. It was from one of our "minders," those omnipresent government guardians who monitor our every move as we struggle to report the story of Libya's deadlocked revolution. We cannot leave our hotel without them. If we do we risk arrest.
"We are sending a vehicle to pick you up. You must be in front of your hotel in five minutes," the minder told us.
We were being summoned to Bab-al-Azizi, the inner sanctum of Libya's Col. Moammar Gadhafi. It is a 2.5-square-mile fortified compound near Tripoli's airport that includes a military base, administrative buildings and Gadhafi's principal residence.
Thirty minutes later a Toyota pickup truck pulled up in front of the hotel. With driver and minder in front there was room for four others, but our group was six. Several of us volunteered to sit in the back, but the minder would have none of it. We must obey traffic laws. That seemed more than a little ironic in country that routinely practices torture on its citizens.
Squeezed like sardines into the back seat of the truck, we headed for the Bab-al-Azizi. It was late at night, yet the streets in front were filled with enthusiastic Gadhafi acolytes cheering, chanting and waving flags. Our truck was ushered through a gate in the blast wall and we found ourselves a vast dusty parking lot. Before we could go any further our gear and backpacks would have to be X-rayed. An elaborate and very expensive-looking portable X-ray truck sat by the entry gate.
We loaded our cases, backpacks and tripod on the conveyor belt. Suddenly the X-ray truck groaned and went dark. Several other minders joined the gathering, watching in consternation as men in military uniform struggled to get the X-ray to work. They rebooted the computer, they turned the power on and off. They rebooted the computer again. This went on for 15 minutes or more. It was like watching an old Keystone Kops film, except as we've learned, nothing about Libya is very funny these days. I suggested they do a hand search of our gear, but I was told that was unthinkable. More time passed. We wondered whether we'd ever get past the screening machine.
Finally the lights flashed, the conveyor started rolling and our gear disappeared through the X-ray. The relieved minders grabbed us by the arm and hurried us towards a sea of bright lights.
Nothing prepared me for what I saw next. Here we were in the "maximum security" compound of one of the most wanted men on earth, and it was as if we were entering the grounds of a rock concert. In a vast open space, lit with stadium lights, Arabic music and patriotic Libyan songs blared on the loud speaker as hundreds of young men ambled about. When they saw the cluster of foreign journalists they erupted in chants. Their favorite: "Muammar, Allah, Libya, Bas" Translation: Gadhafi, God and Libya, That's Enough. And then "Down, Down Sarkozy!" a reference to French President Nicolas Sarkozy who spearheaded the campaign to enlist NATO to bomb Gadhafi's military forces.
They're not just here to express their loyalty. They're here as human shields enthusiastically protecting their Leader from NATO bombs.