Lindsey Hilsum, International Editor of Channel 4 News, may be a familiar face who enters our living room on a nightly basis from the world’s most dangerous countries, but on the first Friday of the Hay Festival she revealed that in covering countries like Libya, her factual demeanor also comes with a maternal toughness.
She was talking to David Aaronovich about the country and her new book Sandstorm, which he described as “an account of Libya’s recent history as she discovered it”. Like many in the UK, she confessed that before going to the country she knew “not a lot” about it. She had met one of Gaddafi’s sons, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi who was seen by the West as a possible reforming influence – and described himself as a “normal young man” who was into falconry and pet tigers.
This eccentricity, Hilsum added, was famously a trait of his dictator father. In one example, she told of how he was fond of green, and left (tragically deceased) journalist Marie Colvin “a little pair of green slippers for her to put on to interview him” (Colvin demurred, saying her feet were too big). In fact, Hilsum said, the new Sacha Baron Cohen film The Dictator “is frighteningly real” – on one occasion, Gaddafi changed the system of calendar so Libyans genuinely didn’t know what day it was.
The regime had also managed to hide some of its worst crimes: in 1996, at ABU SALIM PRISON, there took place “one of the most terrible massacres in history” in which more than 1,200 people Islamist prisoners were gunned down. Asked by Aaronovich how they physically killed so many, she explained – to horrified gasps from the audience – that between 11am and 2pm “they just kept shooting”. She drew further gasps with the story of a family who were strung along by the authorities to bring food and drink to a detained relative who had in reality been murdered 14 years earlier.
Despite this, in the 1970s Gaddafi “started the oil boom” not just in Libya, but in the region, by being the first leader to play hardball with the West. While this brought wealth to many of the country’s (then) four million people, “there was no proper economy”. By the later years, she said, the very pavements people trod were crumbling and with them the state-paid salaries.
So here was a country with a brutal past but that became united with the West after 9/11 thanks to the old adage ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’, and following a programme of dismantling of weapons of mass destruction. Nevertheless, hope that Libya might reform under Gaddafi were false, she said, a misunderstanding of “a mafia state” run by “a pretty badly behaved family”.
After the boom, after the rapprochement, came revolution. Behind the scenes things had been changing. “People watch television everywhere… Gaddafi hadn’t changed, but the people had changed because they had been watching these [Western] things,” explained Hilsum, adding that her favourite piece of revolutionary Libyan graffiti simply read: “Gaddafi, you are The Weakest Link – goodbye.”
On the one hand, there were the brave individuals who got the message of revolution out to the world, like her contact who took photos of statues being smashed, shut himself in the only internet café before the connection could be cut (which it was, for six months) and uploaded his videos to Facebook along with his phone number. He was the first person Western journalists entering the country to cover the revolution met, when events seemed to be steaming towards Gaddafi’s fall within only 24 hours. “Nobody believed it could happen so quickly,” said Hilsum.
On the other hand, said Hilsum, it was a revolution powered by “the most crap guerilla army I’ve ever come across.” When faced with a 17-year-old missing a part from his gun, a wonderfully English Hilsum – “in major old-trout mode” – asked him, “Does your mother know where you are?”
Now the country faces the aftermath. “Libya was the only true revolution,” said Hilsum. “It’s year zero – they’re starting out from scratch.” And its future is far from certain. She painted Libya as a racist country, divided and so used to state control so that nobody is used to making decision. As one woman told the journalist, “We’ve all got a little Gaddafi in our heads.”
And what of the horror now occurring in Syria? “Syrians are paying the price for Libyans’ freedom” because Russia, having allowed a UN resolution that was used as a pretext for supporting regime change in Libya, “won’t be fooled again” – “what they fear most is a Moscow Spring.” Revolution, Hilsum made clear, has its limits.
Sandstorm by Lindsey Hilsum is out now, published by Faber