Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, 2011 (Photo: Rachel Beth Anderson)
In 2011, I was living and working in Cairo, Egypt, as a freelance multimedia journalist. I had been covering local news, culture, and politics when the entire Arab region seemed to erupt, and my beat quickly turned to covering tear-gas-filled protests and revolutions.
After 18 intense days, the Egyptian people succeeded in removing their dictator, Hosni Mubarak. And just like that, the story seemed to be over as quickly as it had started.
That’s when I turned my sights to the next uprising kicking off across the border, in Libya. Thinking this revolution might finish as fast as Egypt, I set out in a taxi with two other journalists to reach the rebel-held city of Benghazi on the eastern side of Libya. It was incredibly nerve-racking to be driving into a country that had such a fierce dictator as Moammar Gadhafi. He had stepped up the violence and turned his guns on his own people. He also threatened that journalists caught coming across the border into rebel-held areas would be considered terrorists and thrown in jail — or worse.
The first day of the revolution in Cairo, Egypt, 2011. (Photo: Rachel Beth Anderson)
The rebels whisked us across the border with a few other journalists and took us to a hotel for the night. Early the next day, I went to check out the small city we had slept in, and found the remains of a battle — burned-out cars and bullet holes. The rebels introduced me to a group of ragtag young men who were arming themselves with anything they could find — machetes, guns, grenades, and large machine guns abandoned by Gadhafi’s forces. They were calling themselves “freedom fighters,” and I realized that this was not the same revolution I had covered in Egypt. This was a war with people ready to give their lives in their quest for freedom.
I immediately felt a connection to the people in Libya and their plight. So when my weeklong assignment was finished, I decided to stay and begin my own passion project. I wanted to provide a face and voice to the people of Libya, and I spent time with dozens of revolutionaries, talking to them and trying to find the story.
Unlike the quick battle in Egypt, it became apparent that this conflict wasn’t going to end anytime soon. More and more of the nonviolent revolutionaries started picking up arms and training to fight. This was the story I needed to tell — young men, who had never touched a gun, were now risking their lives for the possibility of changing the future of their country.
Rachel standing on a tank in Misrata, Libya, 2011 (Photo: Rachel Beth Anderson)
Everything changed when I met two young friends named Tarek and Hamid. Neither had ever touched a gun before, and yet both had decided to leave their comfortable lives in Canada to join the battlefield. They had been living as university students in Montreal for years, and had no plans of returning to Libya where they had grown up. However, after watching friends and family suffer from afar, they felt the call to duty and risked everything. I knew they would be the perfect people to help others from around the world feel connected to this war. Thus began the seven-month-long journey.
A freedom fighter in Tobruk, Libya, 2011 (Photo: Rachel Beth Anderson)
I followed the young men as they made the transition to becoming soldiers and taking down a dictator. The most dangerous and active frontline was in the city of Misrata, which was also close to where both boys grew up. This was where they wanted to be, so we jumped on a boat to join the troops fighting in the western side of Libya.
The war was tedious in Misrata, and both Hamid and Tarek quickly realized the cost and reality of this frontline. Their friends were dying, and the city had suffered immensely after being under siege and in rocket range for months. Life felt like the movie “Groundhog Day,” where it was the same routine every day: We’d wake up, they’d grab their guns, I’d grab my camera, and we’d drive to the frontline. They’d fight for the day, and then return home at night to see if their friends also made it back.
I would spend time in field hospitals when they wanted to get deep into battle, and those days were exhausting. I was full of dread that the ambulance would bring back someone I knew who was out fighting.
An injured fighter grasps onto a medic inside a field hospital in Misrata. (Photo: Rachel Beth Anderson)
Hamid and Tarek really looked after me. There was a lot of trust among us, and that’s why I decided to create a film that told the honest story of what Libya endured during their fight for freedom.
“First to Fall“ is the documentary I’ve worked on for over three years that tells their story. The film captures the chaos and giddiness of revolution, and the brutal loss of lives and innocence, and gives a deeply intimate view of these young men’s descent into war. They really discovered who they were and what they were capable of. In Tarek’s words, “The end of the story is different than what I thought.”
The people I met while filming have all stayed in my mind. I think back a lot about the months I spent in Libya, and it feels unreal that this is now my life. I never wanted to work in a conflict zone, but I was catapulted into this world, and it has changed me and how I look at the world forever.
Hamid and Rachel standing in Tripoli after rebels defeated Gadhafi’s army. (Photo: Rachel Beth Anderson)