CAIRO, Egypt — For the past five years, I've had a standing visa application with the Libyan government of Moammar Gadhafi.
Unlike in other dictatorships, where the rejection of journalists is immediate and nonnegotiable, my Libya application simply languished until the message was clear: Don't even bother working official channels to gain entrance to a nation that's been shut off to most foreigners for four decades.
Once in a while, the government would approve press junkets that involved strictly controlled visits to oil facilities and ancient ruins, but almost no chance for unfettered conversations with ordinary Libyans.
Or, we'd glimpse Gadhafi at the annual Arab summits, such as the 2008 gathering in Syria, where the flamboyant colonel warned other leaders, "Your turn is next," a reference to the U.S.-led ouster of Saddam Hussein. Only exiled dissidents and anonymous bloggers provided any real window into the lives of Libya's 6 million citizens.
So it was with a perhaps juvenile glee ("Ha! So much for visas!") that I walked across the Egyptian-Libyan border and into the opposition-controlled eastern territory last week without anyone on the Libyan side even glancing at my passport.
The border guards who'd defected from Gadhafi's regime embraced the group of American and Japanese reporters I entered with, urging us to take pictures of graffiti that read, "Welcome to free Libya!" Soon, dozens of other journalists would make the same trek, exhilarated by this first opportunity for independent reporting in the closed-off North African country.
I wasn't prepared for the sheer beauty and variety of the vistas: the impossibly blue Mediterranean, glittery deserts, verdant mountains and bush-dotted plains. Eastern Libya's urban centers, by contrast, were dingy and neglected. We soon learned that one of the main frustrations was the lack of infrastructure development in a country awash with petrodollars. In Bayda — the third-largest city — there's just one hospital.
When Gadhafi's government took note of the influx of foreign reporters, Libyan officials warned that any journalist who'd sneaked into the country would be prosecuted as an al Qaida collaborator.
Why would we be considered operatives for a terrorist group? Because Gadhafi paints the hundreds of thousands of protesters as drug-addled followers of Osama bin Laden — a tactic to scare the West into backing his bloody operations against what began last week as peaceful anti-government demonstrations.
In my four days of reporting among hundreds of Libyans, I didn't meet a single person who expressed anything but disdain for extremism. Unlike conflict zones where Western reporters are viewed with hostility, Libyans welcomed us as long-lost friends and joked that, under Gadhafi, the only time they'd opened their mouths was at the dentist's office.
I met a driver who preferred Abba over the Beatles. I saw bands of teenage boys with their baseball caps cocked hip hop-style, and with Converse sneakers on their feet. Professors, attorneys, engineers and opposition-allied military commanders spoke flawless English as they introduced themselves.
A teacher who hadn't received a raise in 24 years welcomed us into her home for a lunch of lamb and pasta. I heard stories from the families of political prisoners kept incommunicado for years, from local journalists who had intelligence agents supervising their every report, from neighbors of a 10-year-old girl who was shot and killed while watching clashes from her balcony.
Some scenes were startling — a 13-year-old manning a checkpoint, for example, or adolescent boys taking a captured army tank for a joyride. Tribal elders and prominent intellectuals are calling for the return of the heavy weapons seized during battles with Gadhafi's mercenary-backed security forces.
The free flow of arms in such a fragile, divided nation raises fears of a catastrophic civil war. Libyans, like the Iraqis in 2003, vow to stand together, to work as "one hand." Reporters have little opportunity to examine such claims of national unity. The capital, Tripoli, and other government-held territories to the west remain off-limits to all but the most foolhardy independent reporters or the handful of journalists invited by the government.
Certainly, there are Gadhafi supporters. We saw them on TV Friday as they filled Tripoli's Green Square, waving flags as Gadhafi appeared in the flesh to rally his loyalists. Without being able to interview the pro-government groups, we can't ask their motivations for supporting a man who's being denounced by a growing number of his own diplomats, Cabinet members and military brass.
The restricted movement isn't even the biggest obstacle. Gadhafi's government has severed Internet service and international cell-phone calls in order to prevent opposition organizing and newsgathering. Without the Internet to double-check facts and history, we have to rely on the local consensus of events. Most days, we can't reach hospitals to gather casualty figures, so there are no firm tallies of the dead and wounded. Have hundreds died by now? Thousands?
After reporting all day, I'd dictate my stories over a fuzzy landline to Washington, a laborious process ("Yes, that's B as in Benghazi"). Videos and photos that backed protesters' claims of the regime's use of deadly force and African mercenaries couldn't be sent for days.
Still, even this limited media presence offers an unprecedented platform for Libyans in the east to voice their long-simmering fury against a leader who's clung to his seat for 42 years. They consider Gadhafi a violent egomaniac and call for international action to prevent him from causing further bloodshed.
Now if we could only get the same uncensored access to Tripoli and western parts of the country, we'd know whether residents there agree.
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