Lynsey Addario said at Columbia University that her ordeal was no worse than her male colleagues'. (Rebecca Castillo)
Lynsey Addario said at Columbia University that her ordeal was no worse than her male colleagues'. (Rebecca Castillo)

Q&A: NYT’s Lynsey Addario on Libya sexual assault

New York Times photographer Lynsey Addario is speaking publicly about sexual aggression she experienced while detained in Libya last month by forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi. Addario was held for six days with Times colleagues Anthony Shadid, Stephen Farrell, and Tyler Hicks, all of whom were subjected to physical abuse. In this interview with CPJ, Addario speaks candidly about the brutality, focusing particularly on the groping and other sexual aggression she endured. Farrell, her colleague, also spoke briefly with CPJ. All forms of anti-press violence are abhorrent, but the issue of sexual aggression has not been as widely documented or discussed as other types of attacks. Since CBS News disclosed in February that correspondent Lara Logan was brutally beaten and sexually assaulted while on assignment in Cairo, more journalists are starting to speak out in hopes the issue can be more fully understood. Here is Addario’s story:

Lauren Wolfe: What did they do to you physically?

Lynsey Addario: Physically we were blindfolded and bound. In the beginning, my hands and feet were bound very tightly behind our backs and my feet were tied with shoelaces. I was blindfolded most of the first three days, with the exception of the first six hours. I was punched in the face a few times and groped repeatedly. Basically, every man that sort of took us over and was bringing us all to the next–wherever they were taking us–they just basically touched me over my clothes.

It was incredibly intense and violent. It was abusive throughout, both psychologically and physically. It was very chaotic and very aggressive. For me, there was a lot of groping right away. Sort of everyone who had to pick me up and carry me somewhere, they would reach around and grab my breasts and touch my butt–everyone who came near me. There were inevitably hands on my body. I mean I–in my experience working in the Muslim world–I don’t scream and kick and try to be very aggressive back. I usually just plead, because I find the weaker I show myself to be the more sympathy I get. For example, whenever I started crying, they would usually back off. Like, “Please don’t, I have a husband, please don’t.”

It’s something we can’t really conceive of until it happens, what it’s like to be blindfolded and bound. We take for granted how much it’s really demoralizing to not be able to see or move your hands and feet. So, for example, for the first 10 minutes, the people who had me were groping me. I was punched in the face several times, really sort of roughed around, then it would mellow out for some time and in fact, they would come and bring juice and water and a few dates. And then when they moved us, like, for example, on the first night, they moved us from the position we were at in the middle of the of fighting. They put us in an armored personnel carrier, and there were new guys who then took us to wherever they took us–because we were blindfolded again–but they took us to the side of the road somewhere about a 15-minute drive away, and in the APC again then it all started happening again. A guy covered my mouth. He said, “Don’t speak.” He started grabbing me and was, like, spooning me from the backside and touching me all over, and I was really pleading, but he just kept at it the whole time we were in the tank.

That night we were in the back of a Land Cruiser. This guy was caressing my face and telling me I was going to die. Then when we were put in a prison cell in Surt–we were loaded in the back of a pickup truck and driven six hours, from Ajdabiya to Surt. In that drive, it was very violent. Every checkpoint we came across, which was every 45 minutes or so, we were literally blindfolded and bound in the back of a truck. We looked like prisoners being paraded through the streets, and people would just come over and punch us in the face or smack us and they were screaming, “You dogs.” It was just very, very violent. Tyler could see out from under his blindfold, and he saw that on one occasion at least, there were 20 men at least who started chasing after us in the truck. You know, we were scared we were going to get lynched and pulled out of the truck. It was very scary.

LW: You write in your account in The New York Times that the first thing that went through your head is that you didn’t want to get raped. Why was that your first thought?

LA: Because that sort of line, that sort of boundary, of not getting touched, was crossed. Immediately, it started happening.  There are countries I work in, like Afghanistan–I’ve been working in Afghanistan for 11 years now–and no one, except for one occasion where I was sort of grabbed at a rally, I’ve never been touched. Afghans, there’s a line between men and women. Men don’t touch women who are not their wives in that country, and the minute we were taken and they were searching our pockets and they started grabbing me all over, I felt that set a precedent. That set a tone for how the next three days were going to be.

LW: Why three days? What about the next three days?
Because then they flew us to Tripoli. Once we got to Tripoli, we were put in the hands of the Foreign Ministry and the Defense Ministry, and they actually took good care of us. They didn’t beat us. They gave us food, they gave us water, and they put us in a safe house. The treatment changed dramatically.

LW: And what about when all this violence was happening–did anyone try to intervene or protect you?

LA: In the back of the armored personnel carrier, actually, when a guy was groping me and I was crying, one of the soldiers actually pulled me away from him and put his arms around me to sort of protect me from him. And the other soldier pulled me back from him. There was fighting over me. And then the guy came and put his arms around me so the other guy couldn’t touch me anymore. Yeah, I do feel like when it got bad, usually someone would intercede and say, “Hey, lay off.” I mean, I couldn’t understand, but that’s what I inferred.

LW: So the whole time you were there you thought the level of sexual violence might escalate but it didn’t?

LA: Yeah, I mean, I did. Look, you just don’t know. And that’s part of the problem. The worst thing about this experience is not knowing what’s to come. Not to say that it doesn’t suck getting groped while you’re blindfolded and bound, but at the same time, my big fear was, would they then start going underneath my clothes, would they then start taking off my clothes? Would they then drag me away and start doing things to me? Your mind races when you’re in the situation. You just don’t know what to expect.

LW: A lot of people are commenting on the fact that you’ve been saying that what happened to you was no worse than getting smashed in the head, which your male colleagues were. At the Columbia event on Thursday, Tyler Hicks interrupted you and said it was worse for you.

LA: Well, that’s his perception. Who can qualify what’s worse? Who has the right to say what’s worse? For me, when I was getting groped, I was listening to them–and I could only listen because I was blindfolded–I was listening to them get smashed on the head and I can hear them scream, like, grunting, and to me that was so painful. I kept thinking, My god, this is so horrible. Yeah, it was horrible. It was horrible for all of us. I don’t understand why this is so much worse for me? Is it because I’m a woman? I don’t know who has the answer to that question.

LW: I’m curious if you thought twice about mentioning this part of the ordeal.

LA: You know, I actually wanted to shame the Libyans. It’s very important that they understand how embarrassing, how gross it is, and what a bad name it gives to other Muslim countries. I’ve gotten emails from translators and drivers all around the Middle East just saying, “I’m so sorry that this happened to you,” and “I’m so embarrassed that this has happened to you. We are not like that.” Libyans need to be a little more introspective about what kind of society produces these kinds of people. So when I went forward I wanted it to get out that this kind of behavior, which is just unacceptable, is going on.

LW: I’m wondering what you think about the argument being put forward by some women who work in the news business that we really shouldn’t say anything about minor sexual aggression, that groping is part of the job.

LA: I’ve been groped in a million countries and had men grab my crotch and grab my breasts. In Pakistan, they’re incredibly aggressive. But I’ve never said anything because I just say, it’s not the end of the world–it sucks, it’s disgusting, but it’s part of the job. In this particular instance, I was with the country’s military. We were taken by a government military. If soldiers are supposed to be some of the most disciplined people in the country, what does that say? This is not acceptable. It’s not acceptable under any terms, but this is at least an instance where I knew who the people were and you can affect–you can come out on the record and say, look, we know who they are: They’re Qaddafi soldiers.

LW: Right, because if you can come out as a foreign correspondent with a high profile and point fingers it shames them.

LA: That’s exactly why I’m doing it. Because I’m sure it is a huge shame on Libya. You know, I’ve gotten emails from Libya, from Libyan men saying, “I’m so embarrassed.” To me, I’ve worked long enough in the Muslim world to know that it is grossly, grossly embarrassing to hear that men in your country have been touching women who are not their wives. I knew it would shame them, and that’s why I’ve come forward.

LW: So what next–you’re going back?

LA: This is what I cover. I’m not going to turn back to war tomorrow. No, of course, I’m going to take some time and reflect, see my family, spend some time with loved ones. Maybe do some non-conflict-related assignments for a little bit. But I do think that I cover these stories. I will go back, and I’ll exercise as much caution as I can, but I cover conflict.

LW: Is this something you would seek some kind of counseling for now that you’re back?

LA: Yeah, definitely. I think that we should all speak to someone. I mean, it’s a personal decision. I think that we all handle things in a different way. For me, I don’t want to speak to someone who’s never left the U.S. and who doesn’t know anything about being a journalist. If I’m going to speak to someone, it’s got to be someone who has experience with journalists, and especially war correspondents.

LW: When you say you’ll go back and be cautious, what does that mean?

LA: The important thing is to just constantly monitor how far to go forward and to listen to fixers and translators and what reporters on the ground are telling you and to listen to your instinct.

LW: Do you think you would do anything different as a woman? As a correspondent?

LA: As a woman? No. It’s taken me many years to figure out how–what my behavior can be that minimizes the way that I get sort of accosted in the field. I wear hijab, I wear very conservative clothes, I wear long shirts, I cover my butt. I do all these things that sort of minimizes the attention that’s drawn to me.

LW: Is there anything that you’d do differently now then?

LA: No.

LW: I thought it was interesting that Stephen Farrell wrote in your Times piece that a soldier tried to put a rifle in his rear, yet that’s not part of the public conversation. Was that just part of the same kind of torture you went through?

LA: That’s exactly my point. Steve had a rifle butt… I mean, I do understand it’s natural to put all the attention on the woman but I do think it’s important to not discount what happened to my male colleagues. It was traumatic for all of us. It’s important to talk about what happened to me in terms of women’s issues and so people pay attention to these things, but to have a gun put in your rear is not something that’s pleasant.

[To Stephen Farrell]

LW: People are focusing on Lynsey’s sexual assault, but what about this incident?

Stephen Farrell: It was in armored car. It was pitch black. We were blindfolded. My hands were tied; I think my feet were tied. I can’t remember, but I was completely powerless. Yeah, I remember fairly vividly, surprisingly. I was lying face down, I couldn’t see my colleagues. Everyone was terrified and we were keeping really quiet. And these guys were complete thugs–I think the worst we’d met in the whole ordeal. They slapped me once or twice. I felt something go in the vicinity, certainly touch, my rear. I could feel sort of the butt of his Kalashnikov, it was gun-related. It didn’t feel like a barrel–it felt like a sheathed knife or bayonet, and he pressed it in between … hang on, let me get it straight.

First of all, he started fondling my buttocks, I mean really extensively. I was wearing really thin trousers, and he was just stroking one and moving to the other. It was really extensive. He was following the curves. Not like for two seconds or so, this was a good long while. Frankly, that’s not going to hurt me. It’s weird, it’s not desirable, but on the other hand, it’s not as painful as a rifle butt in the face. At a time like that you’re just, like, it’s not hurting me, so I’m going to put it in a place that I’m not too bothered by it.

He didn’t get any reaction. I think all of this is about power. So the stroking of my buttocks got no reaction. Then he took his hand away and I felt a sheathed bayonet or the knife of his gun go into my rear, between the buttocks. I made no reaction. And then he pushed it farther in, and at that point I’m calculating, this guy is a sadist. Is this guy going to get more gratification from me if I scream? Is that going to give him more gratification that he’ll push it farther in? If I don’t scream, will that anger him and he’ll push it farther in? You’re making that calculation. So I thought, I’m going to stay quiet.

And at this point, the trousers were nearly breaking. The seam of the trousers, I could feel them begin to go. Again, same calculation. This is getting dangerous now. I scream or I don’t scream. Which is going to provoke him? One step further and it’s going to be injurious. Not going to give you the satisfaction. I didn’t say anything. I thought I’m not going to give you the satisfaction. It was a 50-50 call anyway. And he was clearly angry.

So I waited and waited and waited. It was a very tense wait. I was really worried at this point. And then either he, I think it was he, or somebody else, then switched tactics and thumped me really hard between the shoulder blades. Now, I played rugby for years. It didn’t hurt remotely. But I thought, you know, I’m going to give him a really hard scream on that, because clearly no scream is not working. So I went “Ahhhh!” and he went, “Wahhh!” clearly in a mocking way, and that was that.

LW: So he wanted to provoke you and he used this way to do it.

He wanted a reaction of pain and fear. What I didn’t know was, was giving him pain and fear provoking him to go one step further or satisfy him?

LW: Do you think that’s along the lines of what they were doing to Lynsey, or do you think that’s a separate power game?

SF: What he was doing to me was totally about power. There was absolutely no sexual gratification from pushing a third-party object into somebody’s trousers. It wasn’t like he was raping me. It was just about making me afraid. And as soon as I let out a sort of roar he was both happy and contemptuous. He laughed and then he went “wahhh,” as in, stop crying like a baby.

LW: In all your years of reporting on conflict, is this the first time you’ve had something like this happen? Something so sexual like that?

SF: Yes. In Iraq they didn’t do anything like that, in Afghanistan… . I mean, I have actually been groped before, but not in a conflict situation. That was on a train in India. Not a threatening situation. This was clearly very, very different.

LW: I’m glad you’re all okay–it is good to see you are all in good health.

SF: It was scary. Unfortunately, I’ve been in this sort of situation before. Fear is kind of pointless. The thing you’ve got to do is work out the situation that will get you out of this. When he thumped me on the back I let out a really loud scream, gratified his power lust, and, thankfully, I was able to do it in a way that didn’t involve a dilemma about whether it was going farther up my rear or not. And it didn’t start again.

LA: See what Steve said? A man getting groped as well. He said that it wasn’t painful, it was better than getting smashed in the face. I mean, that’s my, that’s why…. Do you understand? Does that put it in perspective at all? Steve just explained to you that he too got, you know, he had whatever he had put in his …. I do think it’s important to not make this like, “Oh, the poor woman” thing. Yes, it was horrible but, at the same time, it’s important to bring this up.