AN ambulance raced into one of the few remaining hospitals in Misrata yesterday and a blood-soaked American woman photographer stumbled out.
“They’ve got to go back for Tim and Chris. They’ve been hit,” she shouted.
The next vehicle disgorged the dying figure of Tim Hetherington, 41, the award-winning British film-maker and photographer.
Doctors tried desperately to save him, but it was already too late.
A mortar round had landed on the group of British and US photographers, and their injuries were terrible.
Minutes later, a US photographer, Chris Hondros, 41, was rushed in with a wound to his head.
He later died, Getty Images confirmed to AFP.
Getty said it was “deeply saddened to confirm the death of Staff Photographer Chris Hondros who has died of injuries while covering events in Libya on April 20th,” the agency said in a statement.
Hetherington’s family said in a statement released to Vanity Fair that it was “with great sadness we learned that our son and brother” Hetherington was killed, saying “he will be forever missed.”
US President Barack Obama’s chief spokesman, Jay Carney, said the US leader was “saddened” to learn Hetherington had been killed, in a statement released before the news of Hondros’ death.
Hondros “never shied away from the front line having covered the world’s major conflicts throughout his distinguished career and his work in Libya was no exception,” Getty said in its statement.
“We are working to support his family and his fiancie as they receive this difficult news, and are preparing to bring Chris back to his family and friends in the United States. He will be sorely missed.”
Journalists increasingly have come under fire in the ongoing conflict in Libya.
A spokesman for the rebel Transitional National Council (TNC) said that eight foreign journalists and six Libyan colleagues are being held by Gaddafi’s forces.
This is Misrata, a wealthy Mediterranean port city just a couple of hundred kilometres across the sea from the tourist beaches of Malta that few outside Libya had ever heard of two months ago.
It has become the bloody front line in the Libyan people’s uprising against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the dictator who has ruled them for 42 years and whose brutality is on full display as he tries to grind a terrified civilian population into the ground.
Hetherington, whose Oscar-nominated documentary Restrepo featured US troops fighting and dying at one of the most isolated outposts in Afghanistan, was the first British death of the Libyan civil war.
He was the second journalist killed in Libya in its two-month-old conflict. He was cut down by a round of mortar fire, which wounded three other photojournalists in the western port city, medics said.
When he was hit he was with Hondros, Guy Martin, a British freelance photographer working for the picture agency Panos, and Michael Christopher Brown, a US photographer. They were covering the bitter fight for control of a bridge over Tripoli Street, which Colonel Gaddafi’s forces are trying to retake to give them a clear route into the heart of Misrata.
The group, escorted by a Libyan guide, were on the front line when the regime forces spotted them and fired a mortar round. Hetherington suffered massive blood loss by the time an ambulance managed to reach him and take him through the cratered streets to the Hikmeh hospital, where doctors did their best to revive him.
Hondros, who was due to marry soon, was on life support last night, while Martin suffered serious injuries to the abdomen. Brown was hit in the arm and was not believed to be in danger.
The death of Hetherington came on a day when rebel forces said that eight other civilians were killed in the city of 300,000 and dozens more were thought to have been wounded. On Tuesday a further eight civilians were killed in fighting in Misrata.
On Tripoli Street, once the city’s main commercial centre, a bearded school headmaster in a tin helmet huddled with a sniper rifle. Many of the fighters around him were former pupils, some of them aged just 17, but still volunteering to fight Colonel Gaddafi’s merciless, better equipped army.
A bang and a puff of smoke high over the rooftops has the group of rebels looking nervously at the sky. Ten seconds later there is a rapid succession of secondary explosions. “Cluster bombs,” said Fateh, the teacher. The first round, fired from a mortar, spawns a series of smaller bomblets that spread over a large area and cause massive trauma injuries. They were designed to disable airports and have been internationally banned since last year. On the empty streets of downtown Misrata they explode every 10 minutes.
The sound is not as terrifying as the deafening crash of Grad missiles, unguided rockets that are relentlessly fired on the huddling population of half a million people. They land anywhere, killing men, women and children at random. They are fired with particular frequency at the port, Misrata’s only lifeline to the world.
On the road to the harbour, thousands of terrified African migrant workers still live in ramshackle tent shanties, waiting for a boat to evacuate them. They nervously cock their heads to the boom of rockets. Few ships dare venture here, and the jagged noses of Grads embedded in the concrete docks explain why.
Despite the terror that Colonel Gaddafi is deliberately inflicting on the city, the rebels are determined to fight on, and have become courageous and adept urban guerrillas. Each neighbourhood has its own fighters named after their local leader, who goes by a codename used for radio communications – the Martyr, the Ghost, the Old Man, the Midget, the Militiaman.
The groups are usually brothers, cousins, neighours, local men who know each other and who can spot any attempt by fifth columnists to infiltrate.
Each area’s militia knows the people fighting on its flanks, forming a loose but overlapping army that spreads across the northern part of the city that is holding out against the endless bombardment. The groups have specialist snipers, rocket-grenade firers, men who have mastered the huge anti-aircraft guns mounted on pickup trucks.
Their commanders can radio in to a central operations centre for backup if necessary. But their military commanders’ identities are a strict secret to protect them from death squads who lurk in the divided city. Nouri Abdulati, a judge who sits on the city’s governing council, said his name and those of more than 100 civilian and military leaders were on a regime hitlist.
The guerrillas have chalked up some notable successes, in particular using dozens of trucks filled with sand to block Tripoli Street. That has cut off the main body of the regime army from sniper squads who are still in the centre. They are based in the highest building in town, the Tamim Insurance tower, from where they shoot at anyone they can see moving in the city.
Saleh Rais, 25, a factory worker, is the night patrol leader of the Militiaman unit near the Tamim building. His group is nicknamed the Birds, because their nocturnal excursions take them through the bird market, although all the songbirds have died, their owners having fled when the war started.
Their job is to stop the Gaddafi snipers moving from building to building, in the charred and pocked alleys and rooftops in the ghost town that is the city centre now. His squad of ten has only one set of night-vision goggles, and take it in turns to cut holes in the walls of buildings and fire through them at the regime sharpshooters.
Almost every time they go out, they suffer casualties. Saleh sleeps only a few hours every day. “You can’t sleep when Gaddafi’s forces are so near,” he said at the gym near the front line.
One reason the people here are so determined to fight on is that they know the regime, which once machine-gunned 1,200 prisoners who had dared to protest for better living conditions, will show no mercy if the city falls.
With Colonel Gaddafi’s army to the east, south and west, there is only one way out, by sea. That was how the group of journalists killed and wounded yesterday had come into Misrata on Saturday, after 24 hours at sea from Benghazi.
Hetherington wrote on his Twitter profile on Tuesday night, saying: “In besieged Libyan city of Misrata. Indiscriminate shelling by Qaddafi forces. No sign of NATO.”
On the chartered aid boat, I stood by him as we helped make thousands of cheese sandwiches for the refugees who would be returning on the same ship. “My sandwich slavery hell on a slow boat to Misrata,” joked, a warm, charming man. We all laughed. Five days later, I watched him fade away in front of me in a tent outside an overcrowded clinic in this dying city.