There was a collective sigh of relief on Wednesday when dozens of journalists were freed after five days being held held captive by armed guards loyal to Col. Muammar Qaddafi in a Libya hotel.
Staffers from the BBC, CNN, Fox News, Reuters and even a former U.S. congressman were unable to leave Tripoli's Rixos Hotel after fighting in the Libyan capital began to escalate late last week.
Fox News' Tadek Markowski, just released from the Rixos, talked with TheWrap about scrounging for food, the sudden appearance of Qaddafi's son Saif al-Islam and watching "Point Break" on a laptop while held captive by armed loyalists.
The conversation was ultimately cut off as Markowski had to try and find a safe house to stay in.
What were the last few hours like for you?
The word relieved comes to mind. We were brought out by the IRRC in a convoy through Tripoli, which is an incredible thing. There were very few people on the streets but lots of gunfire. We were brought to the hotel where all the other media are and were relieved to see friendly faces, people we know, journalists we've worked with before. It was nice to call to my wife and let her know I was out and that I'm going to be coming in.
So why was the Rixos picked as the hotel for those stationed in Tripoli?
It's hard to put your finger on it. The government wanted to control the media that were in Tripoli ahead of the last couple days’ recent events, this recent uprising, and wanted to show us what they wanted us to see — their version of events, what was going on here. They particularly wanted to show us the amount of support that Qaddafi did have, telling us 'look at all these people waving green flags and stuff. Another reason is they were keen to show us that the bombing by NATO was hurting civilians.
Did you get an opportunity to get your own take on the events?
Often times figures are inflated, sometimes scenes shown of bombs hitting buildings taken hours afterwards. It was hard to tell if what we were looking at was a true depiction. We were given the government line of events and spoke to people who had nothing bad to say in front of these areas. We could go to some areas where people were more outspoken in opposition to the regime, in certain suburbs at the beginning of this where there were protests. There were still quite a few people who were hostile towards the regime, but wouldn’t do it openly in front of our minders. They'd do it in scerect.
How long have you been embedded in Libya?
Coming up on five weeks, it was four weeks this Saturday gone. When I first arrived — prior to the last couple of days — all foreign media had to apply for a visa, were vetted and then basically had no choice in anything really. You came to the Tunisian border, were met by government minders who drove you to Rixos and that’s where you stayed. It was never a, "Can we stay at…" There was no negotiation or discussion.
How significant was the presence of Qaddafi loyalists at the hotel?
Pretty significant. At the end of the day you had people there — not just people in charge of looking after the press but government-appointed translators, visa officals, all these other people at the Rixos, state TV in the basement, a satellite truck outside. They were thinking they'd always stay on air because Rixos would never be hit by NATO because journalists were staying there. There were significant propagandists working out of there, government spokespeople who lived there with their wife and child. We even had peace envoys staying there, had a group of Italian models who belonged to an Italian hostess agency who had been traveling to Libya as part of a culture exchange. It was a real odd assortment.
At what point did you sense the mood inside the hotel shift?
There was a real shift, a tectonic shift on Saturday evening when on the Friday before, the night before you had this uprising in the city where pockets of the city were certainly in opposition hands. On Saturday you had this headlong rush of rebel troops, forces coming into Tripoli to support the uprising, had all these people rushing in with very little resistance there in Green Square, rejoicing.
That’s when the media came in with them and state TV was showing Qaddafi rallies from previous days while just a few kilometers away you had this huge groundswell of opposition support for the rebels. That was when there was a complete turnaround in the way we were treated. Suddenly VIPs melted away, government minders melted away, the secret police melted away.
The following day you walked through to find the hotel empty — just a few chefs, a few dinner plates from the evening before on the table, ashtrays hadn't bene emptied. It was like the place had been frozen in time. We found documents, piles of paperwork, in rooms that we hadn't been permitted to go into, which were basically emails and evidence of electronic surveillance as well.
A couple of minders did hang on, but as soon as it looked like the rebels were starting to advance, they melted way. The guards out front suddenly were in civilian clothing and didn't have guns anymore. We were told not to leave because it was dangerous outside.
Whenever journalists made a move to leave the hotel from Saturday evening on it was "No no you can't." The closer you got to the door, the more aggressive the body language, more vocal they got.
That was the line for five days.
After Saturday when it looked like hotel was still firmly in Qaddafi territory, the guards were suddenly armed again, green banners came out. A tense situation is the best way to describe it. We were going around corridors of hotel and there'd be somedbody else coming up with a sniper rifle.
It was intimidating. We thought they posed a very real threat for us because if it became a straight shootout, there would be injuries and perhaps even deaths. We confined ourselves to one corner of the hotel where things got tense and fighting close.
Things started to go downhill when we lost power completely. The toilets didn’t work, there was no way to see in the hotel at night and we were going around with little electric candles, which we scavenged from the gymnasium.
One thing that lifted the mood was that surpisingly, amazingly, Qaddafi's son Saif al-Islam suddenly just turned up at the hotel. We were told there would be a press conference and then there wasn’t. Then this armed convoy with Saif al-Islam sitting in the back of an SUV We asked him "Where's your dad?" and he said "He's here, he's with us."
We asked, "How do you see the battle?" He said, "The rebels are trapped. We've broken their backs."
Morale was better in the sense that it gave us something to do, something to report, something tangible we could say to our offices.
There were obviously issues with food and water, but we basically just scrounged around through hotel fridges and the basements looking for water supplies and any food we could muster together.
The mood was lightened when someone managed to rig a laptop to watch "Baywatch," no not "Baywatch" but "Point Break." One chef cooked french fries and it was a big moment.
Markowski then had to speak with a colleague about escaping, but proceeded to talk about Wednesday's release before having to depart.
As far as today is concerned, there were a lot of false leads in terms of us getting out. One thing we didn’t really understand, even when Qaddafi's compound had been taken, we didn’t get why we were being held. It didn’t seem to be making sense. There was lots of speculation about troops fleeing from the compound and coming to the hotel because instead of having a dozen armed men we would have dozens if not hundreds. That was the hard part of it, the uncertainty of knowing what would happen to us.