Remembering Anton Hammerl and His Work in Libya

A fellow journalist shares his memories from their time together reporting from the front lines


South African photographer Anton Hammerl at work east of Brega, March 31

South African photojournalist Anton Hammerl is believed to have died on April 5 when he and three other journalists were attacked by loyalist forces on the outskirts of Brega. But news of Anton's likely death only came to light yesterday, when American journalists Clare Gillis and James Foley explained in interviews with the Global Post and The Atlantic that Anton had been shot and probably killed. Anton's family has said they believe he is dead.

Gillis, Foley, and Spanish photographer Manu Brabo were with Anton that day, and were subsequently held for six weeks by the Libyan government. They have just been released. During their captivity, South African officials -- based on communications with Tripoli -- appear to have believed that Anton was still alive. Anton's family, and the rest of the world, were given this impression as well. So when Gillis, Foley, and Brabo were released this week without Anton Hammerl, it was a shock.

Anton was a father and an incredibly talented photographer. (Check out his portfolio -- have you ever seen cleverer pictures of Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and the Dalai Lama?) From the short time we spent together, I got to know him as a warm and thoughtful man as well. I spent a day driving to the front with Anton and three other journalists on March 31, six days before his disappearance. This is a story about that day.

* * *

On the long highway between Benghazi and points west, it's sometimes hard to know where exactly the "front line" is. In our big red Ford Flex SUV, we'd drive along that highway -- a lone road through the desert -- to the top of one hill, where a lot of guys were standing around holding Kalashnikovs and other weapons. We'd stop, roll down the window, and ask what was going on. If things looked interesting, we'd get out, talk to people, and take photos. And then we'd see other guys on top of the next hill a kilometer or two down the road, maybe with a Grad rocket launcher on it or some pickup trucks with anti-aircraft guns, so we'd drive on to that hill, after convincing our driver it was a good idea. And so on. We were about 15 to 20 kilometers east of Brega and about 55 km west of Ajdabiyah.

After a while, a shell landed on the hill ahead of us, and opposition fighters started jumping in their cars and trucks and streaming backward. That was our cue too, so after a final few minutes of interviewing and shooting photos, we got in our car and did the same. We retreated a bit with the rebels, and then stopped for more photos and interviews. We spent an hour or so at the front that day doing this kind of thing.

* * *

On the way back to Benghazi, we stopped at Ajdabiyah Hospital, where casualties from the fighting are often brought. Those seriously wounded are stabilized before being sent by ambulance to Benghazi for care. Ajdabiyah itself was shelled by Gaddafi's forces, has changed hands several times, and remains mostly deserted except for opposition forces.

Each of us went off on his own, walking through the hospital. The hospital was quiet that day. It wasn't like the hospitals in San Francisco or Tokyo or even Benghazi, well-lit and gleaming and buzzing with doctors and nurses. Its narrow, gray-green corridors were quiet -- and mostly empty, like the rest of Ajdabiyah.

After walking around for a few minutes, I turned a corner and ran into Anton. He was trying to communicate with two hospital staff from Bangladesh. They were janitors who had stayed despite the war and were working to keep the hospital clean.

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Ryan Calder is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. He is currently conducting field research on the revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa.

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