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A strange normalcy inside Tripoli

NBC News producer Yonatan Pomrenze has been reporting from Tripoli since the weekend. He was part of the group of foreign journalists allowed into the country by Moamar Gadhafi’s government ostensibly to show the government’s side of the story. In a phone interview from Tripoli, he reported on what is going on in the embattled capital.

What is the scene like in Tripoli? Is it like a war zone? Are the shops shuttered?
Since we arrived, most of the city actually looks more open. The first day when we drove around, we saw very few people on the streets and not even that many cars. Most people who we did see were lined up outside banks, trying to take out money. Or outside electronic stores, adding money to their cell phone cards.

Patrick Baz / AFP - Getty Images

Libyan anti-government protesters wave their old national flag during a rally the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi on Monday.Click on the photo above to see a slideshow of the ongoing violence in Libya.

But during the past two days, we’ve seen more cars out and more people out – but still very long lines at the banks.

In the parts of the city we’ve seen, it feels tense, but calm. You don’t see a war zone happening. 

Can you see evidence of violence on the streets?
Not in the center of Tripoli. Driving around the center, you don’t see it. We did see a few areas where we saw freshly painted walls – which some people said might have been anti-Gadhafi graffiti that had been painted over. But driving around the city center, we were lead to believe it is still very well under Gadhafi control. You don’t see at a lot of evidence of violence. Even the protests that happened at the beginning of the unrest, they have had time to fix or paint over anything that may have happened back then. The center is well under Gadhafi’s control.

What is interesting is how close areas of the anti-Gadhafi movement are to Tripoli. For instance, Zawiyah, which is only 30 miles west of Tripoli, is held by opposition forces.  


How were you allowed into Tripoli?
When the government decided they wanted to allow journalists in, we were in Tunisia, near the Libyan border, and were told that our names were on the approved list for journalists. We rushed to Tunis to catch the plane out and were met by government officials when we arrived in Tripoli. We were given visas, they arranged cars for us, gave us government minders, and they took us out of the airport.

The first hotel we went to was bizarre – it was like a ghost town. It’s a huge towering hotel, with a cavernous lobby and when we walked in there was almost no one in there. Most foreign staff had left, trying to get back to their home countries. Only the Libyan staff remained and a lot of them are living in the hotel. Besides for that, there was almost no one in the hotel.

Eventually we moved to the main hotel where most of the journalists are staying.

What about the freedom of movement for reporters? Do you have a government minder with you all the time?
Basically, yes. But it’s very chaotic, they don’t really have a central plan for us. Every day we sort of congregate in the lobby of the hotel. They tell us what they plan on showing you that day – but obviously what they think is important is not always what we want to see.  So there is a back and forth. Then they have an organized convoy go out.  On the side, you can try to grab a minder and a vehicle to go off somewhere else.

But the problem is that we really need the minders to get around. There are checkpoints as soon as you try to go outside the city-center that are controlled by pro-Gadhafi forces – so it’s risky to go through the checkpoints without a government minder. On our drive to Zawiyah, we went through probably five or six checkpoints.  Since we had the government minders with us, it gave us more freedom and less risk, but then we  also have to take everything with a grain of salt because of what they will show you and what they won’t show you. 

But the minders have been saying, “We are here and want to show you everything.”  And the trip to Zawiyah was the most surreal thing. We were sure we were being brought there so they could show us that there are no problems in Zawiyah – that the government really was in control – but what we saw was the exact opposite. We saw how the anti-Gadhafi movement was in charge in this area. 

Before we reached the center of town, we stopped near a roadblock and all of a sudden our minders said, “OK, there are guys with guns up there, you go up there. We’ve spoken to them and told them you are press – so it’s OK.” We only realized as we got closer that it was the opposition.

As we started to walk toward them, we heard shots ring out. So a few of us, myself included, jumped for cover.  Then some of the local people said, “No, no, no – these are welcoming shots! We are trying to welcome you!”  I told them I prefer a handshake, but…

The protesters were very happy to see foreign press. Everyone rushed up and was eager to tell us they had video of the violence here, video of when Gadhafi forces attacked them there. Some 60-year-old man dressed in very traditional garb took out his cell phone and kept saying to me “Bluetooth, Bluetooth” because he wanted to transmit the video to my phone. We were actually able to use the video in our Nightly News spot Sunday night.  They very much wanted to get the word out about the violence against their protests and they wanted to try to facilitate it as much as they could.

Then we crossed the no-man’s land of the roadblock back to our minders and they took us off to a pro-Gadhafi protest. So it was very bizarre to have them facilitate that.

But they said it was because we want you to see the truth, we want you to see both sides.

One minder said to us, “Listen, I’m neutral. I speak English and someone asked me to help out. So I came to help out. I want you to see the truth and this is the truth and the pro-Gadhafi protest is the truth. So we want you to see everything.”

Have you seen or met any pro-Gadhafi supporters? Were they paid by the government?
The pro-Gadhafi protests that we have seen did seem much more organized. There were people singing songs and women and children. They clearly had a lot of energy because when we left, they also got into cars and followed us for a couple miles – honking, ten people packed into a car and sitting on top of the car. So they clearly had a lot of enthusiasm. I didn’t get an opportunity to ask them if they were paid or not.

But a colleague of mine was at another pro-Gadhafi protest and he was talking to one person who was saying all these amazing things about Gadhafi. Then at the end of the interview, the reporter asked him, “were you paid?” The person replied with a big smile, “Yes, I was paid to say this.”

What is the situation with people trying to leave Tripoli?  
When we landed at the airport, we could see how chaotic the place had been. On the ramps as you walk into the airport, there was garbage everywhere.

As we walked in, we passed one of the last U.K. chartered flights on its way out. Then once we came out of the airport, there was just a sea of people trying to get out. We later heard reports that there were up to 30,000 people trying to leave. It looked mostly like Asians and other North Africans – Libyans, Egyptians, mostly probably contract workers trying to get out. There were people waiting with a luggage cart, as if they are on line, but there were a thousand people in front of them, a thousand people to the their left and right and they had no place to go.

Our government minder, I guess he wanted to put some sort of positive spin on it, said “we are bringing them free water.”