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.
Just a few days ago when a group of reporters travelled to the besieged city of Misrata, we were surrounded by a crowd of passionate pro-Gadhafi supporters feverishly waving the ubiquitous Gadhafi solid-green Libyan flag. On that day, just like this one, we were clearly meant to report that there is wide-spread affection for Gadhafi in Libya. But when we quizzed the enthusiastic crowd, we learned that they were soldiers who had been commanded to appear in civilian dress and cheer for Gadhafi. They weren't even from Misrata. At times the feeble deceit of our government minders seems endearingly naïve.
Behind the screaming throngs who encircled us at the compound: a huge bombed out building. It was targeted on the orders of President Ronald Reagan in April 1986 after Gadhafi was implicated in the bombing of Berlin disco earlier that month. Four people, including two U.S. soldiers, were killed and 230 were injured, including 79 American servicemen. Reagan had hoped the bombs would kill Gadhafi, but the Libyan leader was forewarned by the prime ministers of Malta and Italy and he and his family escaped into a bunker before the bombs dropped.
In an act of characteristic defiance and cunning propaganda, Gadhafi has turned the bombed out building into a kind of shrine. A monument erected in front shows a fist crushing a U.S. fighter jet.
On a huge video wall behind the chanting crowd, images of Gadhafi played in an endless loop. In his 41 years as this country's dictator, Gadhafi's single biggest accomplishment has been the creation a personality cult around his own image. As one passionate Gadhafi supporter said to me a few days ago: "There cannot be a Libya without Gadhafi, he is our oxygen." Massive billboards of Gadhafi are on every street: Gadhafi the Soldier, Gadhafi the Father Figure, Gadhafi in Cool Sunglasses. They look almost comical, like some cheap caricature that you'd find in Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum. But you quickly learn that Gadhafi's odd choice of clothes and eccentric manner are a convenient cover for a man capable of staggeringly ruthless acts.
Our minders pushed us through the chanting crowds. As is typical throughout this region there were almost no women around, just young men of military age. And this being a conservative Muslim country there is no alcohol. (At least officially. It's easy to find on the black market.)
As we passed the mosh pit, we went through another gate and entered a tranquil area of grass and date palms. All illuminated by elaborate night lights. We were hurried across the lawn where a huge steel wall protected what was clearly Gadhafi's residence. A thirty-foot-high solid-steel gate was wheeled open just enough for us squeeze through. We were ushered down what felt like suburban street, into the stone courtyard of an modern home that must be part of Gadhafi's official residence. Other journalists were waiting.
The occasion for this invitation was the visit of a delegation of leaders from the African Union, the 53-member pan-African organization that tries to speak with one voice for Africa. Five countries were represented in what was billed as an effort to establish a "Road Map for Peace." The organization has little credibility on the world stage. Gadhafi helped create it, Libya's oil money had financed it and its leadership is stacked with Gadhafi allies. The AU, as it's called, has a checkered history of supporting dictators rather than democrats.
In a manner that we have come to accept is typical of the way things are handled here, there was no effort to organize the media availability. No podium, no microphone, no amplification. Just a hundred frustrated journalists left jockeying for a clear camera angle and chance to hear. The minders looked on disdainfully, as if the chaos was yet more proof of the vulgarity of the media. It never occurred to them that their total lack of planning had pre-ordained the mayhem.
Jacob Zuma, the President of South Africa, appeared. He talked affectionately of his meeting with "the Brother Leader," the curious honorific the Gadhafi's followers use to address him. Zuma said Gadhafi had agreed to the AU "roadmap" that includes a ceasefire and talks with the rebels. He called on NATO to stop its bombing. But there was no mention of Gadhafi giving up his leadership. And then Zuma disappeared.
What about Gadhafi? We asked. "We are done here," we were told. And throng of media was quickly ushered out the way it came: down the street, through massive steel doors, across the manicured lawn, back into the screaming mosh pit of Gadhafi followers ("Down, Down, Sarkozy!") and into the dusty parking lot where our cramped pickup truck was waiting.
Our visit to Ba-al-Azizi was over.