March 11, 2011

Nicole Tung in Eastern Libya: Fresh To My Virgin Eyes WARNING: GRAPHIC IMAGE BELOW

A car burns on the highway towards Ras Lanuf. March 5, 2011.

Photographer Nicole Tung has been at the front line in eastern Libya with the opposition forces fighting the Qaddafi regime. After returning to Cairo, Egypt late last night, she filed these images and observations:

Note: shabab is the Arabic word for “youth”, “boys”, or “guys” and is colloquially used universally in the Arab world to describe and address groups of young men, in this case the fighters and soldiers of the revolutionary army.

I found the seeming randomness of these air-strikes fascinating and terrifying at the same time. All would be relatively calm, the shabab would be on the lookout, then a fighter jet would be heard and everyone’s head would jerk up. The anti-aircraft fire would go off in every direction and people run for cover, all in a blur. A few seconds later, we hear the plane swing back over again and a bomb would go off followed by the cloud of dust and smoke. It would either kill a family driving by in their car, the bomb nearly missing a gas station, or hit an empty house (because the inhabitants had already fled) very close to the entrance of Ras Lanuf where weapons, food, and of course, people, were all crowded around. And so it would go over and over again. It was hard to tell whether those near-misses were intentional, just to scare the shabab, or if they were actually always missing the supposed target.

Anti-aircraft guns fire at the sound of aircraft flying overhead. Ras Lanuf. March 8.

The other thing you had to watch out for, if it wasn’t enemy fire, was the shabab and the handling of their guns. Guns would go off totally randomly just because they got a kick out of firing them into the air, but everyone had to be aware of the guys who really didn’t have so much of a clue how to use them. Gun barrels would go swinging around at the risk of anyone being shot. This is a ragtag group of rebels with many weapons. Once they heard aircraft or started taking heavy shelling and mortar rounds, they would run back on this strip of road between Brega and Ras Lanuf or Ras Lanuf and Bin Jawad, further west, only to run towards the front again fifteen minutes later when things went quiet and they regained confidence.

Men gather outside the Ajdabiya morgue to mourn the loss of their loved ones. March 3.

A headless pilot at the scene of a downed government MIG outside of Ras Lanuf, which was shot down earlier that day. A part of his face lies near his left hand. Debris could be seen for about 500 yards around as the plane exploded in mid-air. March 5.

Some of these photographs are extremely graphic, so at the risk of just showing war porn sans dignity, I present them here because I myself am trying to process all the crazy shit that I saw, fresh to my virgin eyes. One man had his brains spilling out of his head — they dropped him when they tried to pull him out of the ambulance — right in front of me, and then rushed him into the ER. But what were they going to do? They wrapped his head in a black plastic bag while a doctor stood on another bed and prayed. He had probably taken too much pressure from a bomb or shell landing nearby and his skull imploded.

An dead opposition fighter at the Ras Lanuf hospital. A doctor prays as others cover his body and wrap his head. March 6.

Doctors near the front line, waiting to receive the wounded. March 6.

What amazed me though, was how insistent the doctors and hospital staff actually were to have me photograph all of this. They basically pulled me into the ER and told me to shoot. “Show the world what Qaddafi is doing to us”, they yelled, friends and family standing alongside. Also, the shabab were happy to have me around on the front line, constantly handing out food, bread, water, boxed juice; it was almost like being on a school picnic at times. In all seriousness though, they are roughing it out in small numbers and definitely out-gunned by government forces. Things in Libya are getting shady too, unknown men are running around asking lots of questions and bordering on the aggressive.

Fighters pushing towards Bin Jawad only to be defeated by government forces. March 6.

I realized the enormity of everything as it happened and stopped sometimes. In reality, things were happening so fast, yet in my mind, it almost felt like slow motion. I was trying to think about what I had just seen before pressing the shutter, but I couldn’t force myself to totally switch off.

After two long weeks, there seems to be no real end in sight.

–Nicole Tung


To see entire BagNews series on Egypt and Libya: Middle-East Uprising 2011

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Nicole Tung
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