Humphrey Cheung worked in tech journalism and IT for years. Then, this spring, he had enough. But instead of switching jobs, he strapped on a digital camera, armor, and flew to Libya. This is what a real rebellion looks like.
What you'll see here is a unique crawl through the battle against Qaddafi from the helmet-mounted GoPro Hero attached to Humphrey—a digital camera imagined for ski slopes and skate parks, not warzones. You'll see rebels fighting not in fatigues and IR goggles, but in jeans and t-shirts. They're not outfitted with anything resembling a modern arsenal, but with whatever they can scrape together. Jeep and tank hybrids, welded together. Scavenged anti-aircraft guns stuffed onto the backs of pickups. Rusty tech refuse that works—most of the time. And you'll see it as the rebels see it every day. Improvised, dirty, and effective—and only possible to see like this because of an age in which you can capture hours of HD footage from a little box on your head.
Today we bring you the conclusion of the Battle of Galaa—the rest will follow every day this week. Below, Humphrey's first-person account of the action to go with his first-person footage.
Our building hopping continued, but I somehow got separated from my main group and attached myself to Mr. Binoculars and The Kid. The oldest and the youngest rebels on the battlefield. We ran to a berm next to a large stone block pile and immediately came under heavy fire. Binoculars was amazing as he kept absolutely still while looking up the hill.
"RPG!" he yelled as The Kid plugged his ears and went into a fetal position. I heard the RPG sail over heads and impact a field safely in the background.
We crawled behind the stone block pile and I remember slamming my back into one of the blocks. My camera was slung behind my back and my Zacuto must have been dislodged there. Hopefully some Libyan farmer will find it and put it to good use.
Flag in Sight
We ran to the next building and could see Ghaddafi's green flag at the next building. To show that this section of the hill was clear, rebels needed to replace the green flag with their tri-color flag (which is actually the original Libyan flag before Ghaddafi took over). Replacing the flag was also a proverbial middle finger to the remaining Army guys further up the hill.
With the flag in sight, the rebels were extremely pumped up. Bryan Adams was waving the rebel flag high to warn the people down the hill to stop firing. These guys don't have radios and the mobile phone network is owned by Ghaddafi, so the rebels resorted to picking up handfuls of dirt and throwing them in the air.
Sniper Alley and my cameras run dry
It's amazing how a sniper can crush morale on the battlefield. As the rebels tried to the green flag, a sniper or marksman open up on the group and shot our machine gunner and Mr. Binoculars. Rebel after rebel would take turns shooting at the sniper with their AK47s, but the return fire was incredibly accurate. Pinned down the rebels grew discouraged and started yelling at each other. The Doctor who had so accurately returned fire a few minutes earlier was now simply staring into space.
By now all my cameras had run out of battery and card space. The card space actually gave out first and I cannibalized my 8GB card in the Lumix and put it into the T3i. After I filled up that card, I began erasing uninteresting footage to free up space on the 32 GB cards. This gave me approximately 30 more minutes of shooting time, but by then every single battery was dead. Never before had I filled every card and exhausted every spare battery.
I was now completely useless as a cameraman and was purely an observer. I knew the rebels were bogged down, so I didn't want to leave too quickly. Three more rebels were hit by sniper fire and my group was distraught. They had run out of water, food and were running low on ammo. Sitting in silence for several minutes, I could just feel their sadness. Reinforcements arrived and I went down the hill to a safer house.
Adrenaline is a double-edged sword. It propels you through pain and fear, but when it wears out... you better watch out! We were taking cover in a simple concrete house while tank rounds whizzed over the roof. The first round was very high, impacting a hill far in the distance. The next one was lower... the next lower still. I could see where this was going and eventually the tank would hit the building. A few minutes later another round almost skimmed across the roof. My adrenaline rush was gone and I wasn't really worried... more accurately I just didn't care I was tired, hungry and sleepy.
I waited a few minutes in silence with other rebels. The seemingly inevitable tank round never came. Perhaps the tank couldn't lower the barrel far enough or maybe it ran out of ammunition. It didn't matter, but I was happy. To celebrate, I took off my helmet and vest and lied down to take a nap.
I remember a few rebels laughing at me. I think it was out of amazement that a guy could sleep through small arms and artillery fire on the battlefield. After the battle I was told that some rebels believed that I had been a veteran of so many wars and that this battle was just too boring for me.
When I opened my eyes, the house was empty. "Where the hell did everyone go?" I thought as I slowly plopped on body armor and helmet.
Victory and Revenge
As I walked out of the house, the battlefield was surprisingly quiet. There were no explosions, machine gun fire or the sharp crack of rounds impacting concrete. Perhaps the battle was over. Well no sense in sticking around, I walked down the hill to a nearby road and as luck would have it, the rebel commander drove up in his pickup truck and gave me a ride back up the hill to the fort.
As we crested the hill, it was a scene from Dante's Inferno. Thick, black smoke billowed from burning piles of wood, shot out cars and disabled armored vehicles. As the pickup came to a stop, I saw three prisoners in olive drab uniforms being led down the road towards us. A few hours before they were raining down death upon the advancing rebels, but now they would be the ones facing death. A rebel bent down to pick up a four-foot long ammo box and started walking towards one of the prisoners.
Before leaving for Libya a veteran reporter said I would see humanity at its worst after a battle and he was right. The battlefield is an emotionally-charged cauldron where adrenaline mixes with hatred. These rebels had seen nearly their friends wounded and killed that day and for some rebels the cauldron had boiled over.
Ammo box rebel walked towards the front prisoner and lifted the box over his head. Just as the rebel was about to slam the box on the POW's head caveman-style, the commander threw his pickup into park, jumped out and ran towards the rebel while shouting some incomprehensible Arabic. At the same time, the prisoner realized that his skull was about to meet the corner of a very large and very very wooden box and he began shouting incomprehensible Arabic. Basically everyone was yelling Arabic and I didn't understand shit. I was kicking myself for having dead camera batteries and full SD cards because this would have be THE video to take.
Somehow the commander convinced ammo box rebel to put down the box, but the prisoners weren't out of the woods yet. Their handlers sped up their pace to the pickup trucks all the while other rebels formed a mob around them. A shove here, a tug there, slaps and verbal insults, these prisoners were subjected to everything short of an outright sucker punch.
After 11 hours of brutal fighting, the three rebel assault groups finally took the fort and the loot that came with it. Ghaddafi's forces tried burning all of their gear as they were being overrun, but there was just too much stuff. Boxes of ammunition, rockets, grenades and helmets were strewn inside and near the fort. Several unburnt pickup trucks, Jeeps and armored personnel carriers were there for the taking. It was Christmas time for the rebels.
With huge grins on their faces, the rebels rummaged through the boxes, bloodied clothes and backpacks. One walked up to me, whispered, "Psst psst," and held out his hands. In his palms were two new baseball-sized fragmentation grenades. I saw another lucky rebel cart off two Milan wire-guided missiles while his friend upgraded his baseball cap for a kevlar helmet.
While the rebels had won the fort, Ghadaffi's Army still had artillery positions further up the hill. While the rebels were looting, the artillery went apeshit and launched everything at us. Glowing red tank rounds whizzed above us every few seconds and exploded into the hill below. Mortar rounds exploded all around us. But the most fearsome weapon were the airburst and cluster munitions. I was transfixed the first time I saw one explode. They exploded a few hundred feet off the ground and released what appeared to be several dozen sparklies. After a few seconds, the ground below would erupt into a series of small explosions. The rebels were deathly afraid of these and would dive for cover when seeing any airburst artillery.
It was time to get the hell out of there and a stream of pickup trucks sped up the hill to pick up all the rebels. After climbing aboard, we were a sitting duck for incoming artillery as we went back down the hill. That was truly the scariest moment of the day.
In total, four rebels were killed that day and approximately 30 were wounded. Four to five Ghaddafi soldiers were taken prisoner with an unknown number killed. The rebels said they would be back tomorrow to take the artillery positions, but for me that was enough.