Jessica Sarhan
Last updated: 3 November, 2011

Women on the fronline, part I: Alex Crawford, Sky News Foreign Correspondent

Alex Crawford’s brave and in-depth coverage of uprisings in Libya has become some of the most famous in the world. In March 2011, during attacks by pro-Gaddafi supporters, she was the only journalist to report from the Libyan town of Zawiya. Her coverage of the Arab Spring has involved travels to Tunisia, Bahrain, and Egypt in order to present growing tensions in the region.

Crawford’s diverse experiences have seen her report from some of the world’s most dangerous places and in December 2010 she was named Woman Journalist of the Year by Women in Film and Television. Her coverage of the terror attacks on the Taj Hotel in Mumbai saw her come under live fire on air, and subsequently led to Sky News being shortlisted for a BAFTA and being awarded the international Golden Nymph award for News Coverage.  

She has reported from India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. She has done all of this, as well as being a mum of four.

Here follows my interview with Ms. Crawford:

The world watched in awe and admiration as you reported the Libyan conflict from the back of a rebel-held truck as it roared along a Tripoli highway. The footage will no doubt remain a prominent symbol of a conflict that saw the crumbling of a seemingly indestructible regime, for years to come. Can you tell us a bit about your experience in Libya, the scenes you witnessed and what it was like to be reporting in such extreme conditions?

Every step of the way in Libya, there were an incredible amount of experiences. On the day of the attack on the compound we had two very near death experiences within about eight hours. That was just in one day. The road to Tripoli scenes had started off in Zawiya in the morning. We moved along the road, with all of the rebels and opposition fighters taking village by village (about half a dozen or so) and by the end of the day we were in Green Square in Tripoli.  Again, that was just a single day jam-packed full of experiences.

The thing that really seems to have captured people’s imagination was the fall of Tripoli’s Green Square. The actual getting into Tripoli felt astonishing at the time because when we first arrived on the outskirts of Tripoli, and then finally entered the city itself, the convoy had become very large and it was made up of military-adapted vehicles and civilian cars filled with both opposition fighters and civilians who were supporting the opposition.

There was hardly anyone in combat gear or any type of military uniform.  A lot of them were civilians who were carrying weapons, or sitting on the back of civilian converted vehicles. As we arrived in Tripoli, more and more people were joining the convoy in other vehicles or on foot and it was completely gridlocked all the way. As we entered the capital, the traffic slowed right down and people were coming out of their homes. First it was just a small gathering; just people standing outside, watching. Although they were obviously slightly nervous, there wasn’t any negative feeling from them.

There were no green flags. Everything was very dark because there were no streetlights. All the cars had turned off their headlights and people were just nervously wondering what was going to happen. More and more people began coming out of their homes and there was this tremendous reaction from them. People were throwing their arms around the opposition fighters, hugging and kissing them and giving them water and spraying water over them, holding their children up to them and shouting “freedom!” and slapping them on the back. It was like they were waiting for this moment.

As time went by, more and more people, even the women, were coming out. I remember a group of about six to eight of them stood together, wearing their black enveloping clothes, and they were making this singing noise with their tongues, which is what they do when they are celebrating, in weddings and other big events. They were the first women I had seen in the protests. In fact, they were the first women I had seen all day. It had been a male-orientated fight.

This was after a day of intense fighting; of ducking and diving and shooting all along the road to the city. After all of that, suddenly they were being welcomed like heroes. And I think they were really surprised – we were! There was no resistance, all of these people were simply welcoming them.

Did you find it quite emotional at the time?

Very emotional! There was such a feeling of euphoria. It was very touching and contagious. And of course there was lots of celebratory gunfire. In some places you could hardly hear and there was just this huge symphony of noise, shouting, chanting! It was an amazing display of public emotion.

To go back to the women you mentioned before, there is such limited female presence in the National Transitional Council (NTC) in Libya. From your experience, do you think that a post-Gaddafi Libya will represent a progressive stance towards women’s rights or is it an inevitable reality that women will be pushed out of new constitutions as they have been in Egypt and Tunisia?

It is difficult to say. It is certainly something they have to watch. But you’ve got to remember, a lot of these countries and particularly in Libya, they will need help in developing a democratic structure and need help in developing even an independent media because it is just not the way of thinking there. I got sent some ideas about how we could develop the media in Libya, because officially females would need to be represented within any fledgling democracy, and also in any fledgling independent journalistic ventures, whether broadcasting, newspapers or radio.

And, when I was asked about female Libyan journalists I had met, the reality is that I didn’t meet any. There weren’t any. They might have been on state TV but those were clear branches of the regime. There were full-participating members of the Gaddafi regime, but again, of the many women I saw in the hospitals, they were only nurses. There were no female doctors. They were either nurses or cleaners. I also did not see any female fighters at all. The women were very much bunkered down in their houses. The ones I saw were the nurses in the hospitals and a couple of injured people. One woman had been shot whilst driving through the town with her husband.

It is difficult, because it would be quite unusual to see women fighting and I definitely did not see any. So it was difficult to even know how educated the women were and exactly how much access they had had to education.

So from you’re experience it wasn’t like the revolutions we have seen in other parts of the Arab world, where women were very much at the forefront of protests?

No, not at all. I mean, in Tunisia, it was very different. There were lots of women protesting, and they were women who were quite vocal and articulate. Again in Egypt, there was a lot of highly educated women.

But in my experience in Libya, there just wasn’t. I definitely saw no women in Zawiya because it was all full-on fighting in March. I did not see any again in the more recent period either, because again, it was full-on fighting. I spoke to many nurses who were very upset and distraught. But again in Misrata, it was predominantly men.

Remember these weren’t protests in Libya, this was intense fighting and there were no women taking part in that. But even in the initial protests that I had covered in Zawiya, which had hundreds of thousands of people, I can’t remember seeing a single female and that was before the crowds were being shot at by Gaddafi forces.

It seems that more and more, brave and inspirational women are heading to the frontlines of conflict zones in order to report from the heart of a story. Do you think that the security risks that female journalists face are more than for their male counterparts and have you yourself ever felt that your security was at a serious risk?

Well each trip has been different. And was my security enhanced or threatened more so because I was a woman? To be honest, I don’t think so. I think everyone had seriously high security risks in almost all of the Arab Spring. In Libya in particular it was just constant fighting. It couldn’t get more dangerous really. There were a huge number of weapons that were available out on the street. Massive amounts of ammunition. There was clearly no shortage of ammunition or weaponry. It was very chaotic, with barely any structure.

There was some coordination and organization towards the end, a lot more than what you saw in Benghazi on the road to Tripoli – there was a big difference between Zawiya in March and Zawiya in August, there was much more coordination. They got extra fighters from the mountains and from Misrata. And the fighters from Misrata were exceedingly well organized.

There were gun factories and ammunition factories where they were cleaning and adapting their weapons. In Misrata, they were adapting a lot of civilian cars, there were sheets of metal in front of normal cars as a bullet barrier, they looked very Mad-Maxish! They were all hand-fashioned.  I thought they were very impressive and they – the ones from Misrata – were the ones, when they turned up in Zawiya and then Tripoli, that looked like the hard and tough brigade. That seemed to make the difference.

But were you ever confronted with hostility as a woman?

Well in Egypt it was very different. In Alexandria, myself and Lindsey Hilsum from Channel 4 were there, along with my female producer. We were actually mobbed by a small group of men – they went straight past the cameraman and headed towards myself  – and they were very definitely coming to attack us. They started off shouting in Arabic and I didn’t understand what they were saying, but the body language was aggressive and they were looking directly at us. While the cameraman remained directly in front of us, people were telling us “quickly quickly go, pack up your stuff and get into the hotel!” And we were very close to the hotel.  Then this one man, who seemed to be creating the problems, went straight past the male cameraman and was trying to grab us and had to be held back by three or four men and everyone was shouting, saying “bitch” “bitch” and trying to get hold of us. And we just grabbed our equipment and ran towards the hotel.  But the others were lagging and my young female producer was behind me and they were pulling at her and had her clothes, and the men who were trying to help us were virtually lifting us off the ground and carrying us into the hotel. When we finally got into the hotel, they were banging on the doors.  And by now a huge crowd had gathered and the hotel was very nervous and the army turned up and this big tank fired over their head to get them back.

Is there a thrill to that?

It is not a thrill. It is very dangerous. And in fact, a lot of the coverage of the Arab uprisings has been absolutely terrifying. There has been nothing like it for our generation of journalists. No other war has been like it. No other war has been so unpredictable, chaotic and incredibly dangerous. I did not cover the Falklands war but it cannot have been like this because we are in a different digital era. The Falklands War, even the Iraq conflict, Somalia and all of that – it was not nearly as dangerous as these Arab uprisings. They’ve gone on for so long. It is all the different countries, the unpredictability, the existence of so many weapons, so much firing, and the regimes have all been very against journalists.

But even in Alexandria and Cairo when the protesting started, they then created all these vigilantes, who were setting up their own checkpoints and they were all armed with knives and guns and everything. And that was also very unpredictable and risky because you could not tell who was the good guy and who was the bad guy and there were lots of criminals out there who were exploiting the opportunity to loot, vandalize, murder and settle old scores.