Ben Wedeman was surely kicking himself on Thursday. The death of Muammar Gaddafi quickly became the dominant world story, and Wedeman, who is CNN's senior international correspondent and who normally would have been in the thick of things, found himself...in New York.
Still, Wedeman got plenty of television time to talk about what Gaddafi's death means for Libya and the Middle East. In an interview with The Huffington Post, he elaborated on some of those thoughts, talking about his experience reporting from the country and the role he thinks the media need to play in the coming days.
Wedeman was the first Western television journalist to enter Libya when civil war broke out earlier in the year. He also covered Gaddaf's fall from power in August. He said that, at first, he was "quite skeptical" of the news of Gaddafi’s death because of the previous false claims that Gaddafi's son, Khamis, was dead. However, he said that the death was a watershed moment for the country.
“This is a big day for Libya," he said. "You’re finally seeing [Libyans] emerge from the shadow of a man who ruled the country…for longer than most Libyans were alive.”
As Thursday morning continued, video footage and photos surfaced of what rebel fighters described as Gaddafi’s corpse. These images, along with video footage that apparently showed Gaddafi in his final moments, flooded news websites and television reports.
Wedeman described the rebels as “young and undisciplined and…high on adrenaline and weapons." He said that it was always clear they "were going to kill the guy as soon as they got their hands on him.” He also said that the press was far more skeptical of Gaddafi's death than the people of Libya, because of their knowledge of the situation on the ground.
"I think people in Libya realized that the noose was getting very tight around Gaddafi's neck," he said. "Basically, since the fall of Tripoli, there was a feeling that he was either in Bani Walid or in Sirte.”
Wedeman said that a city’s “level of resistance” could be seen as a key indicator used to determine Gaddafi’s location. When Wedeman rode with rebel fighters to Sebha in the south, he described the level of resistance there as “symbolic…at best,” in contrast to cities like Bani Walid and Sirte, which he said “were putting up a hell of a fight.”
Before the fall of Gaddafi, Wedeman described Libya as a “black hole” for most journalists “where you could do almost nothing.” He also said Libya was “not a violent place.” However, following the uprising against Gaddafi, he found the anger and energy among the Libyan people was palpable.
“I was absolutely stunned by…this incredible energy and anger and frustration that was coming out of ordinary people,” he said, adding that he had not seen anything like it among the fallen dictatorships he had previously covered in Iraq, Egypt and Tunisa. Wedeman has been covering the Middle East for CNN since 1995 and has lived on and off in the region since 1974.
In the days following the death of Gaddafi, Wedeman said the media needs “to redouble…efforts to see if there will be retributions, wave of revenge killings and abuse and looting and pillage and plunder of the property of those linked to the old regime, especially in Sirte.”
Wedeman also stressed that Libya's new leaders will need to address the hundreds of thousands of Libyans who still support Gaddafi.
“I saw first hand in places like Tripoli and in the south, there are still many people who in one form or another are loyal to Muammar Gaddafi or to the regime and what it symbolized," he said.