Mike Taibbi / NBC News
Salah Mohamed Askar, a fixer for NBC News in Libya before he was killed by a rocket near the town of Tigi, Libya on Aug. 4. He is seen here with NBC's Charlene Gubash during a recent reporting assignment.
By Mike Taibbi, NBC News Correspondent, and Charlene Gubash, NBC News Producer
NEW YORK – Salah went first. He always did. He had a big man’s walk, his long strides straining the folds of his bright white “haik,” the traditional gown worn over trousers by Berber men.
He walked up to the group of men hunkered down on the ridge, some with binoculars trained on the valley below, and explained he was working with a team of journalists from NBC News. He asked permission for us to approach and shoot video of the artillery battle that had just begun. These were not fighters, they were just watching the fighting, but Salah was always polite. Sometimes, when he led us to the front where the battle was engaged, the answer was “no.” But this time he nodded back at us and gestured us forward with a hand signal telling us to keep our heads down.
It was daybreak, July 29, on the outskirts of the city of Nalut in Libya’s western Nafusah mountain range. Salah had suggested the day before that we return to Nalut from Zintan, 80 miles to the east, because his contacts among the Nalut rebels told him they were ready to launch a major offensive against two stubborn strongholds of Gadhafi army troops in the valley towns of Takut and Gazayah.
The Libyan Army troops were massing to attack the one rebel-controlled border crossing with Tunisia, an absolutely critical lifeline. The government troops seemed to have an endless supply of Grad rockets available to lob into Nalut, sometimes 50 or 60 a night, turning the city into a ghost town.
Salah had arranged a briefing with the rebel commander the night we arrived back in Nalut. He took part in the briefing and asked pointed yet polite questions as though he was part of our team. Of course by then he was, and we learned the particulars of the rebels’ strategy and tactics. Salah, a proud Naluti with two brothers among the city’s rebel fighting force, knew the lay of the land – the dozen or so ridgeline “fronts” where the artillery barrage would commence before rebel ground units would move into the two towns.
He knew the risks, as we did – that the rebels’ artillery attack would trigger heavy retaliatory fire from below. We’d seen it weeks earlier, when one of those heavy return rounds exploded a few hundred yards from our position. But though the risk is minimal that a Grad rocket, an old Russian missile, will actually hit a target as small as an artillery team a dozen miles away, Salah was especially cautious this morning and made sure we were, too.
He put on the body armor he’d declined to wear during our previous visits to the front, and slung his assault rifle over a shoulder. Through the hours of the morning and into the early afternoon, the rebel teams who allowed us to join them aimed tank fire and dozens of screaming Grad rockets – the tanks and the rockets seized from Gadhafi’s troops – right back at those same troops. When we saw the pickup trucks of the rebel ground forces below driving toward Takut, moving fast, Salah led us down the mountain, along winding switchback roads to the checkpoint outside the town.
By the time we got there a celebration was already under way: the Gadhafi troops had cut and run, from both Takut and Gazayah. It didn’t get the rebels any closer to Tripoli, they were still 50 miles away at the closest point, and seemingly stalled, but without a successful offensive to take those two towns on this day, getting to Tripoli might have become nearly impossible. Now the border with Tunisia was safe, the lifeline intact. The nightly bombing of Nalut was over; families who had fled to Tunisia could come home.
Salah gave no hint of joining the celebration. He brought us and our camera into the hospital where the dozens of wounded from both sides were being treated. Both sides were still counting their dead. When we got back to our rented house to prepare that night’s report we were discouraged to learn the city was once again without electricity…this time because the night before, as we slept, one of Gadhafi’s last incoming bombs had hit the main generating plant. Our own small portable generator would only run our BGAN satellite transmitters, a camera and a couple of laptops and lights. Salah disappeared without a word – his habit – and came back an hour later with a big capacity generator that could keep our whole operation juiced, even a couple of fans to turn the stale hot air into something like a breeze.
Two days later, the rebel revolution still stalled, but intact and invigorated for the next move, Salah led us across the border to Djerba, in Tunisia. Our assignment in Libya was done for the time being. He collected his mother, to bring her back home to Libya.
Then, last Thursday we got the news. Salah, driving two rebel soldiers to the front instead of a news team, was gone. One of those Grad rockets, fired from who knows where and targeted only by cursed bad luck, had hit his truck as it sped toward the town of Tigi, halfway between Nalut and Zintan. Salah and the two soldiers never knew what hit them.
A problem solver
Salah Mohamed Askar was 28, and unmarried. His mother was concerned about that, and last winter talked him into coming home to Nalut from Sweden, where he’d worked as a driver for a multi-national company for three years. “She wanted me to come home and find a nice Naluti girl,” he told us. But then, five months ago, the war started. In Nalut it began with a few dozen men with old hunting rifles ambushing a marauding team of Gadhafi mercenaries. Salah had fired at two of them, killing one and wounding the other who got away.
Across Libya a real civil war had started, with the NATO airstrikes greatly enhancing the prospects for a successful rebellion against Gadhafi’s 42-year-rule, and the Naluti men with hunting rifles morphed into the beginnings of an actual fighting force. Salah’s two brothers joined the rebels fulltime. Salah, armed and ready, was delayed by a family crisis he was obliged to resolve. When we arrived he became one of our drivers/fixers. A “fixer” is a journalist’s term for a hired assistant whose translation skills, local contacts and other capabilities are an essential part of foreign news coverage.
Mike Taibbi/ NBC News
Salah Mohamed Askar, an NBC News fixer and driver in Libya, seen during some down time during NBC's most recent reporting assignment in July.
In fact, Salah spoke no English, it was on his “to do” list, as he’d quickly learned Swedish when he lived and worked in Sweden (Charlene Gubash, an Arabic speaker, was our principal translator). But his other skills were immense, varied, and subtle. He was one of those men who could fix things, a problem solver.
When the cameramen on our team, Mitya Solovlov and Kevin Burke, sussed out each house we rented, Salah was right there with them, wiring a pump to draw water from the well (when the electricity worked) to fill the rooftop water tanks; using cinderblocks to mount the air conditioner he removed from his own home so our workspace and sleeping space might be tolerable; finding fresh bread or eggs or potatoes or a melon, all in short supply, to augment our diet of rice or pasta and tinned vegetables; finding a hotplate or a skillet; filling our jerry cans with the cheapest gas for our vehicles that he could find from roadside trucks topped off in Tunisia. He cooked for us when we had no time on nights we were filing reports; he enjoyed whatever we cooked for him, usually adding something to spice it up.
But it was his subtle skills that defined him. He understood the roles filled by each member of the team – he found the cameramen the best vantage points to shoot from and found us the contacts we needed to stay informed in an environment fueled mostly by rumors and false hopes. He monitored the Arab language news channels with a critical ear, and kept us constantly updated. He could read motives and personalities in an instant, and after his nightly forays into town or to the mosque, he’d pass along only the information we needed that was demonstrably or believably true. He was a driver by trade who in the space of days clearly understood what it meant to be a reporter.
And, in the three and a half weeks we worked with him, we came to know him. He was a kind and gentle man in a rough and cruel environment. A man who lived comfortably in a land buffeted by the scorching Sahara winds, but spoke dreamily of Sweden’s natural beauty. He was a rules-driven man with a clear sense of fairness. When we’d get a hard time at a checkpoint in Zintan because we were using a “Naluti” as a driver and not a Zintani, Salah said quietly, “I wouldn’t stop any of you from coming to work in Nalut. It is one Libya.” Sometimes he would win a smile and a “go” gesture, sometimes they’d still hold us up, poring over our papers. He sat in on all our interviews, taking part, asking important questions we’d neglected. The quality of our information – and thus of our reporting – was better because he was there.
In quiet moments he would speculate endlessly about the course the war would take until, in his certain view, it would eventually end in Tripoli with Gadhafi gone. He didn’t know when that would happen, didn’t indulge in soft-sided claims that it was merely weeks or even days away, as some soldiers (including one commander) kept telling us.
Ambition: A free Tripoli
Salah knew, as all warzone reporters know, that death is a big part of the story. At the information and military command centers where we’d solicit updates and alerts from our regular contacts, we’d often be told to come back later because the man we were seeking was off at a relative’s funeral.
But it never occurred to us that Salah would be a casualty. We assumed he would become part of the new Libya, with some of the old mixed in (he wasn’t sure it was a bad idea to continue having separate schools for young boys and girls, or for some of the other old customs to be retained).
In his truck, barreling to the head of the convoy wherever we went, he played a mix tape of Arabic, Amazikh (Berber) and American music, and seemed to like it all. We asked about his ambitions: just a good job in a free Tripoli, he said. Nothing more elaborate or detailed than that. Like his truck, a Toyota Tundra with a club cab and a powerful V8 that he drove hard and well, Salah seemed to always have his motor running, ready to go.
And, ready to go again with us. When we left him, after a long and dawdling hotel brunch in Djerba, we traded the usual stay-in-touch-call-us-we’ll-call-you, keeping it light. But, with a man like Salah Mohamed Askar, we needed in the end to say something more: We told him he had our thanks and our respect…and that we’d be honored to work with him again, as the war headed to an end. “Inshallah,” we all said at once.
He beamed a smile at us, those eyes sparkling with life and human connection. Then quickly turned to leave.