A busy homecoming for New York Times journalists captured in Libya

Joe Pompeo
Media Reporter
The Cutline
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Around 3 p.m. on Thursday, several hundred employees of The New York Times filed into the atrium that houses their newsroom, snaking up the stairwell and around the balcony where the third floor opens up to the the fourth, and gave a round of applause to four of their colleagues.

The veteran war correspondents seated before them—reporters Anthony Shadid and Stephen Farrell; photographers Tyler Hicks and Lynsey Addario—had been freed 10 days earlier from a harrowing six-day captivity in Libya. They were blindfolded, beaten, and psychologically brutalized by soldiers loyal to the country's embattled dictator, Muammar Gadhafi. Their captors had also repeatedly groped Addario, the sole woman in the group.

Several weeks ago, the four Times journalists were swept up by Gadhafi loyalists while they worked in  the eastern city of Ajdabiya. The Times team had been shadowing rebel forces in the area, and were taken captive when government troops mounted a sudden advance on the rebels' position.

For the next three days, as the journalists have recounted, they feared for their lives virtually every waking moment. ("You're going to die tonight," one of the soldiers whispered to Addario in Arabic while gently stroking her hair.) Even after being transferred to more humane accommodations in the nation's capital, Tripoli, the captives would wait another three days before the Turkish Embassy helped secure their safe exit to neighboring Tunisia. The group was finally released on March 21.

Yesterday marked the journalists' first stateside public appearance since the ordeal. Several Times employees in attendance at yesterday's newsroom homecoming described the 25-minute ceremony as emotional and uplifting.

"It felt like the gathering of a relieved family," one staffer told The Cutline. "It was apparent how they leaned on each other throughout the ordeal," another remarked.

Their day had begun a little after 7 a.m. at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan, with an appearance on NBC's "Today" with Anne Curry.

"Imagine you're about to get into a car accident," said Hicks, describing the moment he and his companions were yanked from the automobile they were traveling in. (The whereabouts of their driver, 21-year-old Mohamed Shaglouf, remain unknown.) "You have that second where you kind of realize it's happening, but you almost don't think it is."

Later that afternoon, Farrell, a U.K. native who was kidnapped by the Taliban while reporting in Afghanistan in 2009, sat down in a classroom at CUNY's Graduate School of Journalism in midtown Manhattan to field questions about the Libyan ordeal.

Why did they try to run away at first? Isn't that precisely what you're not supposed to do under such circumstances?

"There is no rulebook for this," Farrell replied. "It's a cliche, but your mind moves incredibly quickly."

Does he show emotion in these situations?

"Yes. When it suits me," he said. "There's just no point in panicking. You're definitely going to die if you panic. If they sense fear, they're gonna do more to you and you're not gonna think straight. So, don't panic."

Would he consider going back to the front lines of this war or any other?

"It would be rash for me to go back immediately, quickly, anytime soon ... when there may be flashbacks or trauma ahead."

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For the late-afternoon Times reunion, the four journalists sat side-by-side in directors' chairs in the center of the third floor bullpen. Managing editors Jill Abramson and John Geddes each spoke in appreciation, and Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. hailed the group as model journalists.

"Lynsey, Tyler, Stephen and Anthony," he said, "you embody the very core of what the Times stands for. It is our enduring belief that journalism, at the end of the day, is about bearing witness. It is about sending our very best, our most experienced, our most thoughtful and courageous people into places--often very dangerous places--so they can tell us what is happening there. ... Only in this way can we test truth against rumor and illuminate the dark corners of our world."

Two hours later, the group arrived to a packed lecture hall uptown at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism. Ann Cooper, a professor there and the former executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, guided them through yet another recollection of their journey. At Columbia, the group discussed the still-unknown fate of Shaglouf, their driver.

In a front-page first-person account collectively bylined on March 23, the journalists wrote: "If he died, we will have to bear the burden for the rest of our lives that an innocent man died because of us, because of wrong choices that we made, for an article that was never worth dying for. No article is, but we were too blind to admit that."

Hicks said that C.J. Chivers, a fellow foreign correspondent for the Times who recently embedded with the rebels in Eastern Libya, was now on a "mission" to find out what had become of the driver. Chivers has been in touch with the young man's family, he said.

"The New York Times has put all of their energy behind trying to figure out what happened, and that's not going to end until we get an answer," said Hicks.

Still, the guilt is sinking in.

"I was shot 10 years ago," said Shadid, "and I found that much easier to handle than this because someone else didn't have to suffer for the choices I made."

By 6:30, the four journalists headed back downtown to the Time Warner Center for one final Q&A, with CNN news anchor Anderson Cooper. The first part of the lengthy interview aired on his primetime show last night.

"Does this experience change the way you see things?" Cooper asked them toward the end of the interview, the second and third parts of which are set to air this weekend.

"It definitely changes the way I see people and prisoners," said Addario. "I've photographed prisoners with hoods on and their hands bound, and I've never thought about what it feels like to be—to be completely removed of all of your senses. It never dawned on me. Not that I'm insensitive, but I just—it's never happened to me before. So definitely, I think that all of us sort of thought, 'Oh my God, I can't believe we never realized how horrible it is to be blindfolded and bound.' I mean it's just—it's a horrible feeling."

(Top photo provided by the Turkish Embassy; center right photo from Nick Bilton via Instagram)