Tales behind the lens

  • Nation
  • Sunday, 03 Apr 2011

Photojournalist GLENN GUAN who was in Tunisia and Yemen for a month covering the political unrest in the north African region tells his story.

LOUD gunshots rang out as snipers fired a hail of bullets from buildings, killing and injuring dozens of anti-government protesters at Taghyeer Square in Sana'a, the capital city of Yemen.

I was in the middle of a battlefield with neither a ballistic helmet nor bulletproof vest. The only thing I could shoot with was my camera. Adrenaline coursed through my veins and my heart was pounding rapidly.

There were more gun shots from a distance; I looked around but could not tell where they were coming from in the midst of the chaos.

Thousands of protesters had gathered there after Friday prayers to demonstrate peacefully and demand for the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh before the shooting began. The square was soon filled with thick smoke and the sound of sirens was deafening.

People rushed by, carrying the dead and injured. I saw a bullet hole in a victim's head. There was no time for emotions and I just clicked away on my camera. This was nothing like watching some low resolution YouTube video clips. Everything was happening right before my eyes.

My North African sojourn began when the photo editor called me at home at 10.30pm on Feb 26, asking me to prepare for a trip to Libya. My first response was “Wow! Libya, Gaddafi!” I was thrilled to go on my first war assignment.

I called our war correspondent Shahanaaz (Shaz in short), who would be travelling with me. Shaz offered some helpful tips on the do's and don'ts and ended our phone conversation by calmly telling me that a foreign photojournalist had been shot dead in the head several hours before!

Reality hit me then about the dangers involved. After getting the travel itinerary from the office, I frantically Googled my destinations. Other than the first stop, Dubai, I had never heard of Tunis Carthage, Djebra Melita and others in the list.

For my normal sports assignments, I always travel with two cabin-sized trolley bags, one for my photographic equipment and the other for my personal belongings. This time was different I could not possibly traipse around Tripoli to cover a revolution with my trolley bag. Neither did I expect Colonel Muammar Gaddafi to welcome the media like most sports event organisers do.

I was stressed out trying to stuff a 40l backpack with my belongings, including seven dry fit shirts, a pair of cargo pants and another pair of knee-length pants, a week's change of underwear, three pairs of socks and a thick jacket for the cold weather. There were also my DSLR cameras, lenses, compact cameras and computer notebook to lug around.

By the time I caught the flight to Tunisia, however, my anxiety had dissipated and I was prepared for the challenges ahead. The journey took more than 30 hours. We boarded three planes, flew through four airports and after a 90-minute bumpy ride in a car, we finally checked into a hotel at about 2am (March 1) Tunisian time for a good night's sleep. The hotel looked deserted. We must be the only guests, I thought.

The next morning, I realised how wrong I was. Within minutes of the hotel restaurant opening, scores of Chinese nationals swarmed around it as if they had not eaten for days. All the food was gone within minutes! We later found out that the hotel provided shelter for the Chinese evacuees who had fled Libya.

Our next stop was the border town of Ben Gardane, which had been turned into a “press centre” and was teeming with journalists from all over the world. All were waiting to enter Tripoli.

After stopping at all 11 hotels in Ben Gardane, we finally found one with available rooms. A TV crew was checking out from the one-star hotel to more comfortable lodgings. The rooms were basic but at least they had satellite TV and free WiFi.

After washing up, we headed for the border crossing about 30 minutes-drive away. The situation was chaotic as people on the Libyan side fought to cross the heavily-guarded gates to seek refuge in Tunisia. Some had not eaten or drunk any water for days. Kind Tunisians handed food through the barbed wire fences to them. It was a touching scene.

I squeezed through the crowd, climbed the high wall with my camera and long lenses and documented every poignant moment.

Time passed by quickly and soon it was dinner time. Being a picky Malaysian food lover (and hailing from food haven Penang where standards are high), I must say the Tunisian food was great! Instead of just posting pictures of grief on my Facebook (FB), I created an album “GG Tunisian food guide” that showed a colourful array of the local food. It was also my way of letting people back home know we were safe.

At nightfall, the weather turned cold. There was no heater in the hotel room and the blanket wasn't thick enough to keep me warm. Luckily, the hot shower worked.

We travelled to the border daily and on Day Three we were told the Libyan government may allow foreign journalists into Tripoli. We immediately submitted our names and waited patiently with other press members. After several days, we realised it was just an empty promise.

I was sunburnt by then, and my face resembled a lump of roasted meat! Getting sunblock in Tunisia was not easy. The people speak little English and I resorted to sign language. At a small pharmacy, one eager worker brought out various creams from pigmentation to anti-ageing cream, but not sun lotion.

Ordering food was another challenge as the menu was in Arabic. We looked at other diners' food, pulled the waiter over and pointed to what we wanted.

During one meal, I saw Shaz's face twisting in distaste. “Glenn, (are) you sure this is chicken sandwich? Doesn't taste like it!” After a couple of bites, I realised it was chicken liver. We dug out the liver and re-filled the sandwich with baked beans.

After Ben Gardane, we headed to Sidi Bouzid, the town where the Tunisian revolution started. The journey took five hours by car.

Our next destination was Djerba, two hours away by road. Finally, we found a hotel that offered laundry service. There were times when I wore the same clothes for four days; it helped that the weather was cold and I hardly sweated. When I posted this on FB, a friend cheekily suggested panty-liners for my upcoming assignments. Cracked me up!

After 11 days in Tunisia, we decided to wrap up and leave for Tunis, less than two hours from Djerba by air, to catch our flight home. I was imagining the feast waiting for me upon my return to Malaysia. Oh, I really missed my char kway teow and teh-o ice limau!

The day before we were due to fly home, someone from the office called Shaz to ask if I would like to proceed to Yemen to cover the uprising there. My answer was “bring it on!”

On arriving in Yemen, we found a hotel within walking distance to Taghyeer Square. And that was how I found myself in the midst of the turmoil.

(Glenn Guan is back in one piece and is happily tucking into his char kway teow. Readers can follow him on twitter.com/glennguan or glennguan.com/blog)

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