“I’m gonna try not to get hit by any of those rounds” is not something you hear every day on live television.
Watching CNN correspondent Sara Sidner’s live coverage of the Libyan rebel fighters celebrating the successful storming of Gadhafi’s compound was a nerve-wracking exercise.
Fielding questions from her anchors in Atlanta (both experienced reporters who have been on streets where shots were fired in anger), Sidner was aggressive in her pursuit of the story — but also canny and properly alert to the dangers.
Meanwhile CNN’s Matthew Chance was effectively trapped in the Rixos Hotel in another part of the city, wondering if and when the loyalist soldiers in the lobby were going to be swarmed by rebel forces.
Chance and his fellow correspondents delivered reports from a windowless room on an upper floor. “Even as compound falls to rebels,” he tweeted, “Rixos still in Gadafi control.”
He and some fellow journalists had gatherd, clad in body armor, when gunfire began piercing the hotel’s windows. “Pretty frightened to be honest,” he noted to the anchors in a phone call.
I guess so.
The entire tableau Sidner was observing reminded me, grimly, of two recent bits of war correspondent history.
One: The hideous assaults gutsy CBS correspondent Lara Logan suffered in an Egyptian square where the victory celebration much resembled what Sidner was observing.
There were key differences. Clad in thick body armor and an enveloping tactical helmet jammed over her thick mane of hair, Sidner seemed a force of nature. Cool enough in the chaos to give props to the anchors and say things like, "We’re OK — please don’t shoot sir," to an off-camera celebrant, she ducked and dodged even as shell casings bounced off her.
As the victorious rebels streamed back and forth, seemingly at random, they eyeballed the camera and let loose many a clip of automatic fire into the air — creating a deadly hazard.
There was no sign of the kind of airborne and tactical help NATO has provided in the struggle. But by contrast to Egypt’s street mobs, somehow the Libyan fighters, even accompanied by obvious looters, had a ragged sort of discipline, seeming to lessen the chances of such an incident.
Two: With potential loyalist snipers or sappers still quite possibly in the area, and all sorts of random firepower — much of it looted from the compound — being recklessly discharged, the chances of a stray bullet hitting Sidner or her equally bold crew were far from negligible.
This reminded me of the fate of Tim Hetherington, the ballsy Englishman whose Oscar-nominated documentary film co-directed with Sebastian Junger, “Restropo," so effectively depicted a group of American soldiers perched on a mortar-battered rock that served as an outpost on the eastern Afghan front.
I saw Hetherington present the film in early 2010 in Santa Monica, and I recall being even more impressed than I'd expected to be when it became clear how humble and steadfast a character he was.
He had a serious hitch in his step from a leg injury he’d suffered on patrol with the platoon he’d become virtually part of — he walked all night back to the outpost with them on a broken leg as they escaped a skirmish. When one of my fellow liberals, albeit one from the thought police side of the belief system, grilled him about terming the soldier’s adversaries “insurgents,” Hetherington painstakingly unwound the query by pointing out that he was there as an apolitical observer.
It was April 20 of this year when word came that, while bunkered in what was obviously not a safe sheltering place during a street battle in Misrata, Libya, he was struck by mortar shrapnel. The horrible luck was it caught an artery in his leg, and he bled out before the kind of advanced medical help he needed could be found.
Sidner has to be aware on those tumultuous streets and alleyways of both these ways to get unlucky, and the sacrifice she risks in bringing this story to a curious world should make CNN, and us as her countrymen, and women, quite proud.