Unbowed Aboathba became a journalist after seeing Kevin Carter’s haunting 1994 image of a starving Sudanese girl stalked by a vulture. (Manisha Aryal)
In January, Abdullah Ali Aboathba, a Libyan television journalist in the southwestern desert city of Sabha, heard from his military sources that militia loyal to former dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi had attacked Tamanhint, a military base 20 miles outside the city. As he dashed out with a driver and a cameraman to document the aftermath, Aboathba passed a convoy of some 40 pickup trucks, returning from the direction of the base. Later, as he and his colleagues made their way back to town, Aboathba feared they would be stopped and questioned by the fighters. He removed the memory card from his camera and slid it into his sock, then called the elders of his father’s tribe, giving them his location, the route he was taking back to Sabha, and the names of the men he had recognized in the trucks.
Sure enough, just outside the city Aboathba’s car was stopped by the fighters who attacked the base. They confiscated his camera and cellphone, accused him of siding with revolutionaries who overthrew Qaddafi, then kicked and beat him repeatedly with iron rods. As his captors began to argue over his fate—the younger ones advocated slitting his throat; the older commanders believed he had value as a hostage—tribal elders called the rebel commanders and threatened to wipe out their families if Aboathba or his colleagues were harmed.
Aboathba’s nose was broken and his body was badly bruised. As his colleagues drove him to the hospital, Fezzan TV, the two-year-old commercial channel that hosts his popular weekly program, repeatedly broadcast news of his attack. Two days later, when Aboathba was released from the hospital, he learned that his mother had gone into shock after hearing the news of his capture. She died 28 days later.
Aboathba remembers the faces of his captors. Some live in his neighborhood. “It makes me sad that they continue with impunity,” he says. “We protect their wives and children when they are not home, and I continue to defend their right to speak.”
Aboathba has been trying to practice journalism in Libya since 1994, when he saw photojournalist Kevin Carter’s iconic shot of a starving girl in Sudan, stalked by a vulture as she crawled toward a United Nations food-distribution center. He saw journalism’s power in that tragic photo. “To me, that photograph presented a stark reflection of hopelessness in a country ravaged by war,” he says.
For most of the intervening 20 years, Aboathba struggled—first to become a journalist, and then to do journalism that mattered in a country with no tradition of press freedom and a brutal regime that meted out harsh punishment to anyone who tried. But when the Arab Spring uprisings reached Libya in February 2011, ousting Qaddafi and ushering in the country’s first free elections a year later, Aboathba figured his days of being arrested or attacked for doing his job were over.
Instead, nearly three years after Qaddafi’s capture and summary execution, Libya has descended into something that looks increasingly like a full-fledged civil war. Fighting among heavily armed groups—former Qaddafi loyalists, both pro- and anti-government tribal militias, and Islamic extremist groups—is threatening to destroy the fragile post-Qaddafi transitional government. And Aboathba is squarely in the middle of it all, both because of his lineage—his father’s tribe is battling his mother’s tribe, which happens to also be Qaddafi’s tribe—and because he is a journalist trying to cover the story.
Abdullah Aboathba was born in 1969, the year Qaddafi took over Libya in a bloodless coup against King Idris as-Senussi. He was the fifth of 10 children. Growing up, he was fed a steady diet of Qaddafi’s pan-Arab, pan-African ideals, and later his intense dislike of the West. The Green Book, a thin volume of the leader’s political, economic, and social manifestoes was required reading for all Libyans, including schoolchildren. “We spent hours trying to make sense of The Green Book,” Aboathba says with a smile. “I’m not sure I ever understood it.”
His father was a security guard in a government garage, and his meager income was barely enough to feed and clothe the family. Aboathba knew early that he had to learn a trade to help out, and enrolled in a technical-vocational school in Sabha to train to become a mechanic. In his spare time he doodled and dreamed of becoming a writer and an illustrator of children’s books.
This story was published in the September/October 2014 issue of CJR with the headline, "Man in the middle."