A light mist of cold rain started falling on us from the moment we reached the cemetery. If I hadn’t felt it on my face, I probably wouldn’t have even noticed it, as the hardscrabble stretching throughout the grave yard appeared just as parched as one might expect in a desert country.
I had driven to the southern outskirts of Benghazi to visit the grave of a friend -– a virtual friend who I had never met in person, and quite honestly, had only interacted with on a limited basis. His name was Mohamed “Mo” Nabbous, as he was the first independent journalist to come out of Libya’s revolution.
At the start of the revolution — one year ago today, as it happens — Mo set up a satellite Internet connection in the heart of Benghazi. Protesters were getting killed on the streets around him, yet Mo and a small group of friends had the composure and courage to begin streaming live video from the scene.
Over the next four weeks, Mo, his friends and online volunteers from around the world turned his video stream into the most important real-time source of news coming out of Libya. For part of that time, it was the only reliable source of live video, as journalists from the outside had yet to enter the country.
Then on March 19, 2011, exactly one month after he began his broadcasts, Mo went out to record some video of a firefight taking place in southern Benghazi, to document Gadhafi’s violation of a UN-brokered ceasefire. As he narrated what was happening on his phone, which was streaming directly to the Internet, he was killed by a sniper. He left behind a wife who was pregnant with their first child.
Though Mo and I were online acquaintances at best, I probably saw more of him than almost anyone else except members of my family over the course of that month. I was online for upwards of 18 hours a day, seven days a week, and there was rarely a time when he wasn’t online as well. His death affected me greatly, and I promised myself that if I ever visited Benghazi, I would pay my respects at his grave.
So here I was, walking across the arid landscape of this cemetery with a small group of Mo’s friends. It reminded me of a U.S. military cemetery, but one that had just been created because a war was still in progress. Neat rows of graves pocketed the landscape, all of them numbered and in chronological order. Many had headstones and were decorated with plants and flowers. Others were barren, marked only by a cinder block with a grave number scrawled on it. The grounds weren’t maintained; there was shattered rubble, stones and other debris between the graves.
We walked for five minutes down the one road that bisected the graveyard; it was unpaved. No one said much until we reached about three-fourths of the way through the cemetery.
“This is Mohamed’s grave,” said one of his friends. “This one here.”
It was alongside the road on the right. The grave itself looked like so many of the others: a concrete rectangle with dirt filling the inside, like a flower bed. There were a number of red roses on the grave, some fresh, some not, while a handful of decorative plants sprouted from the dirt.
Directly in front of the headstone was a small plastic bowl that had collected some rainwater. Submerged in the water were a handful of seeds, probably for the local birds. The headstone itself was in the style of all of the others: a grave number and his name: Mohamed Nabbous, Martyr. It marked the date of his death, March 19, 2011, and all of the graves in the same row had the same date on them.
I wasn’t sure what emotions I’d feel upon my visit; the only way I can describe it is as sober; that alert feeling you get when stark reality confronts you and have have no choice but to look it in the face.
We stood there for a while and talked about Mo. His friends recounted stories about him — his bravery, his confidence, his stubbornness. One of his friends said that he’d even hidden Mo’s camcorder to prevent him from going out into the field. It was too risky, he explained, and Mo was doing his part by anchoring the video stream from his home. But Mo figured out his friend had taken the camcorder and demanded he return it to him. It was not long after that that Mo went out in a pickup truck to shoot some footage when he was targeted by a sniper and killed.
I could tell that Mo’s friends were ready to go; I knew this had to be so much harder on them then it ever would be for me. I went over to the grave with a handful of stones from the ground, placing them one by one on the grave itself.
“Why did you do that?” his friend asked.
“It’s a tradition in my family,” I explained. “It’s a way of saying that we’ve been here, we remember you. And I imaging you could say the stones represent the permanence of that bond.”
“That seems like a good tradition,” he replied.
As they got ready to leave, I approached the grave one last time and quietly said the mourner’s Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. There was certainly some irony in me doing so in a Muslim cemetery in a country where Gadhafi actively used antisemitism as one of his propaganda tools. But it needed to be said. I needed to say it, and given all he was I fighting for, I think Mo would have understood that.
With Twitter and other social media, NPR’s Andy Carvin monitored immediate, on-the-ground developments during the upheavals of the Arab Spring from Washington, D.C., through thousands of tweets and an army of followers that numbers in the tens of thousands. Now, he is in Libya, meeting face-to-face with some of those activists. He’ll be sending us periodic updates on his journey.