Battles in Libya Are Hard to Find on Frontlines of the Forgotten War

“In 10 minutes we are leaving.” 

This curt announcement is generally the first indication the foreign media in Tripoli have that coverage of Libya’s civil war will include an outing away from the hotel where the vast majority of the international press is based.

On this day the destination is Sabratah, a Roman ruin on the seaside about an hour west of the capital.

It's not known whether the journey, led by government minders, will take in sight of recent NATO bombing. The bus that transports journalists duly arrives at the ruin to find it not in ruins, but standing resolute as it has done for the past several centuries.

The cameramen film, the photographers take pictures and the print journalists take notes while looking for local people to interview for their thoughts on the fighting. The motive for the visit is still no clearer.

The rattle of a heavy machine gun in the distance is the only hint that this isn’t an ordinary tour group visiting a sight of interest during regular times.

These are not regular times in Libya and this is not a normal group. Most of the journalists are veterans of previous wars. Many have spent months if not years in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Their frustration is palpable.

The anxiety about being cut off from any actual conflict is not helped by the seemingly haphazard way in which these trips are organized.

Having exhausted all potential news angles among Sabratah’s sublime columns and eroded mosaics, the journalists gravitate to the beach and some respite from the 98 degree heat.

Shoes and socks are removed shirts are unbuttoned and inevitably someone goes into the water. The more adventurous of our young Libyan minders dip a toe in the clear Mediterranean. Out in deeper water a local man is snorkeling for octopus.

The scene could not be more normal and at the same time more surreal.  We are meant to be covering a war after all.

Perhaps that’s what our tour companions wanted to demonstrate with this location, a short sharp lesson in the adage that life goes on.

And it’s true, for many in Libya away from the frontlines things are not so far removed from the norm.

In nearby Zuwarah, our next stop and a town once bitterly contested between the rebels and pro-government forces, bored shop keepers sit at the entrances to their stores waiting for infrequent customers.

The traffic comes and goes along the busy freeway, the fruit sellers brush the dust off piles of watermelon, and restaurants serve roasted chicken with rice to lunchtime crowds.

Somewhere, further west and east Libyans are killing Libyans in a bitter power struggle and for control of this country, but not here, not yet.

That heavy reality reemerges at a general meeting of the Zuwarah local government where committee representatives yell Gaddafi slogans wave national flags and chant, “Allah, Muammar, Libya – that is all.”

School teacher Marian Gurgi, who learned her English from British and American colleagues, describes the current schism in her country as a nightmare.

“Is it democracy that NATO comes here and wants to take Muammar Qaddafi away from us. Is that right?”

Back in Tripoli our bus diverts to take in another pro-regime rally. Thousands throng around a stage where dignitaries are assembled and exhort the people to fight for unity and the leader. A host of Libyan media is broadcasting the pictures live.

Many in crowd hold photos of relatives killed in the recent fighting in the western mountains or the flashpoint cities of Mistarah and Brega.

Haitam al-Azraq cradles a portrait of his 26-year-old brother a volunteer who he says was killed by NATO in recent days.

“I’m proud of my brother,” he says.

“He fought and died and has gone to paradise. Inshallah, (God willing) we will win because we are on the side of right.”

It’s not long before the crowd’s cherished choruses are drowned out by automatic gunfire. Nearly all men of fighting age in the square are carrying a weapon and they fire long burst into the air.

It’s a metaphor for this conflict. Those voices calling for a negotiated settlement to the Libyan crisis are for the time being at least, being silenced by the apparatus of war.