Humphrey Cheung worked in tech journalism and IT for years. Then, earlier this year, he had enough. But instead of switching jobs, he strapped on a digital camera, armour, and flew to Libya. This is what a real rebellion looks like.
What you’ll see here is a unique crawl through the battle against Gaddafi from the helmet-mounted GoPro Hero attached to Humphrey – a digital camera imagined for ski slopes and skate parks, not warzones. You’ll see rebels fighting not in fatigues and IR goggles, but in jeans and t-shirts. They’re not outfitted with anything resembling a modern arsenal, but with whatever they can scrape together. Jeep and tank hybrids, welded together. Scavenged anti-aircraft guns stuffed onto the backs of pickups. Rusty tech refuse that works – most of the time. And you’ll see it as the rebels see it every day. Improvised, dirty, and effective – and only possible to see like this because of an age in which you can capture hours of HD footage from a little box on your head.
Today we bring you part one of the Battle of Galaa – the rest will follow every day this week. Below, Humphrey’s first-person account of to go with his first-person footage.
Battle For Galaa, Libya — June 7, 2011
“Damn! This is what Marines do,” I cursed. Huddled behind an insignificant sand berm that barely covered my head, I wondered if I should have carried an AK-47. Instead, I was a walking PVR recording the Libyan Civil War with my Canon T3i and GoPro Hero HD helmet cam. A few hours earlier the anti-Ghaddafi rebels began their multipronged assault up Galaa’s Sofitt Hill and I was along for the ride. Everything was going well until machine gun and sniper fire pinned us down.
The typical Gizmodo reader (if there really is such a beast) has probably watched hundreds of war footage videos on television, YouTube and LiveLeak, but those videos are often short sanitised snippets. In these clips, people never miss, guns never jam and soldiers always have enough ammunition. But real warfare isn’t so pretty… in fact it’s much more chaotic and brutal than you could ever imagine.
While I had covered conflicts before with a video DSLR, I discovered that I would always miss key moments like when a rebel makes a particularly funny joke or when someone gets shot in the head (more on that later). For Libya, I added the GoPro HD Hero camera to my “arsenal” and over the next week you’ll video clips that show what really happens on the battlefield.
Prelude – June 6th 2011
I had spent nearly three weeks embedded with the anti-Gaddafi rebels in the Nafusa mountain region of Libya. I ate their spicy macaroni, drank their Pepsi and slept in their houses. I shook hands with hundreds of rebels and took countless hours of video to gain enough trust to be let on the battlefield. We had unsuccessfully tried getting to the frontline battles before, but the rebels kept making excuses in keeping us away. Kinda aggravating when there’s a war going on and you’re not seeing it.
Tomorrow would be different. For weeks, Gaddafi’s army was entrenched on nearby hill raining down rockets, artillery and tank rounds on neighbouring cities. But you don’t just put artillery on top of a hill without protection, so just below the artillery sat an ancient, but very solid Roman fort. Filled with Ghaddafi troops armed with some of the best Chinese, European and Russian weapons the fort was untouchable… and this meant the artillery was untouchable. The rebels had other thoughts.
At dusk, the rebels invited us to a mosque where several dozen rebel fighters prayed to Allah to give them strength. For a Muslim country, going to the mosque happens several times a day and definitely isn’t news, but we knew something was up when the courtyard floor was strewn with ammunition belts, AK-47s and RPG rounds. After prayers, the rebels whispered, “tomorrow, big fight… wake up early.”
5.30am June 7th 2011 – Wakey Wakey!
My friend’s alarm clock jolted us out of bed.. or in my case a simple padded floor mat with an insanely hard pillow. I rose like a zombie and fumbled around the dark Libyan house looking for my body armour, helmet and cameras. Any sleepiness was immediately eliminated when I missed a step going from the bedroom to the living room and came crashing down to the ground. Not a good way to start the day, but hey at least I was awake.
My clumsiness awoke the other reporters in the house. Several Libyans from Benghazi, two Germans, a fellow American and a Brit all began their zombie-like groanings and slowly arose. Tired and sleep deprived as we were, we couldn’t miss today.
We piled into separate cars and sped through windy mountain roads to the Galaa school yard. In the back parking lot, the rebel fighters were doing their weapon, ammo and vehicle checks while we checked our cameras, SD cards and GoPro mounts. It was a beehive of activity. In one corner, an older rebel was filing off a friend’s AK47 to make it less shiny. Across the way, another rebel was cutting up long machine-gun ammo belts into 100-round lengths. RPG rounds were loaded into cars while the big stuff like Milan wire-guided missiles went into the commander’s Toyota. Other rebels, mainly the older ones, were content to sit quietly alone.
Now before anyone gets the romantic notion that the rebels are fighting a David versus Goliath, Last Samurai Tom Cruise versus Gatling Gun type of war, these rebels do have some heavy-duty firepower. Chain guns, 14.5mm anti-aircraft guns and even rocket launchers adorn many rebel pickup trucks. But even these Frankenstein creations pale in comparison to the “tank” pickups we had seen driving around town. These pickups were actually chopped-down Toyota Hilux and Range Rover trucks with a 73mm smooth-bore gun and turret system welded on top.
The mishmash of gear and general lack of uniformity truly showed that these rebels weren’t professional soldiers. Unlike western troops who lumber into battle weighed down with 60+ pounds of gear, these guys were going into battle without helmets and the vast majority weren’t wearing body armour. The lucky few who did have body armour were wearing old Vietnam and Cold-War Era flak jackets. Some wore black/black urban camouflage uniforms while most wore normal street clothes. One guy even show up dark blue mechanic’s coveralls. Many of the younger rebels were tasked with carrying ammunition in colourful Donald Duck backpacks (I kid you not!), laptop cases and olive-green ammo cans. Others only carried RPG rounds and water.
Approximately 70 rebels crammed into the beds of pickup trucks and we all convoyed to a staging area approximately one to two kilometers away from the base of the hill. There, everyone dismounted and did their final gear checks. The sound of racking AK47 slides, magazines being seated and quiet prayer contrasted with the early morning chirping of birds.
It was show time for the rebels and for me as I turned on my GoPro helmet cam and wished everyone good luck. Almost every major battle during the Libyan Revolution has resulted in several rebels dying and dozens getting hurt. While I was supposed to be a neutral reporter, I felt a mix of admiration and sadness these guys. Admiration because they were assaulting a fortified hill. Gaddafi’s army had the high ground, far superior firepower and an almost unlimited supply of ammunition. Sadness because I knew some of them would die in a few hours.
One by one the pickup trucks left the staging area and headed up a long narrow road towards the base of the hill. The bulk of the rebels followed on foot in a silent march. I looked to my right and there was a brand-new bright-yellow ambulance staged to transport the wounded and dead. It would do a brisk business.
8am – First set of buildings, technicals unleash
It took us approximately 10-15 minutes to reach the first group of concrete and stone buildings and it was already getting hot. The 14.5mm and tank pickup trucks had arrived earlier and their crews were preparing their respective guns. Very light small arms fire was heard in the distance. Two other groups were also assaulting the hill from different directions and it sounded like they were already in contact with the enemy.
The 14.5mm gun truck was thrown into reverse so the gun in the bed could aim its deadly barrels up the hill. I felt every bone in my body reverberate – thank god for ear plugs! – as the gunner let off a long volley towards some unlucky bastard downrange. After firing, the driver would drive forward so they wouldn’t be hit by return fire. The pickup would fire several more times, but it was prone to jamming. Each time the gunner would jump off the bed and fiddle with gears and ammo. One time he even poured a bottle of oil into the ammo mechanism to unstick the jam.
After the 14.5mm truck fired, the entire battlefield erupted in machine gun fire and Ghaddafi’s forces returned fire with mortars, rockets and tank rounds. One of these rounds hit approximately 12m away from us while we were filming the pickup truck tank fire. This near hit was captured on the GoPro.
Honestly the first time I saw the tank truck I didn’t think it would ever fire and we originally thought the rebels just drove it around for show. Mounted on four steel beams with dubious cross-bracing, I thought the entire think would collapse after the first show. How wrong I was.
This “tank” fire off dozens of 73mm high-explosive shells at the hill during the battle. Early in the battle, the rebels were having several misfires, but that problem cleared up later.
With the hill sufficiently softened up, our group moved out.
Check back tomorrow for Part II of the battle.
Photo: Colin Summers