By Michael Georgy
TUNIS (Reuters) - I have interviewed many victims of Arab autocrats over the years. It was usually done secretly, at an obscure restaurant or by telephone.
I never thought I might witness their suffering in real time. But in Muammar Gaddafi's Libya, anything is possible.
One day last month, I joined the victims. At one point, when I was hauled out of a vehicle at a deserted farmyard, I heard the rifle catches click and thought I was about to be killed.
Reuters photographer Chris Helgren and I were in Libya at the invitation of the government. It previously kept journalists out but changed tack as it fought an uprising. Officials had told us publicly that we could travel wherever we wanted, to see their side of the story. The reality was rather different.
Chris and I, however, took them at their word and on March 5 we found a taxi to take us the 200 km (130 miles) east to the city of Misrata, where rebels said they had taken over.
As we approached the outskirts, our trouble began. We were stopped at a checkpoint by a group of militiamen and soldiers.
Hoping to relax them, I said I was Egyptian, a fellow Arab. Stupid move. Egyptians are now detested by Gaddafi loyalists, since the revolution in Cairo inspired Libyans to rebel.
Then I said I had an American passport, hoping that might impress them. It didn't. The official government document identifying us as journalists didn't work either.
We were made to drive back toward Tripoli under a series of escorts until we reached a police station on the outskirts.
There, a smartly dressed army officer in a brand new sport utility vehicle without license plates told us to follow him. Some minutes later he pulled in off the highway and came over.
"Michael you have nothing to worry about at all. Don't be scared," he said. It wasn't reassuring.
There was a problem with our documents, he said. They had to check we were telling the truth about being journalists. He said: "May I ask you to step into this vehicle, please?."
Chris and I and our very nervous taxi driver climbed into a police wagon. It sped away. A few minutes later I noticed we were driving by what seemed to be a military base, or a prison.
The wagon stopped nearby at an abandoned farmyard. Then we heard guns being locked and loaded. I was terrified. I looked at Chris for reassurance.
The door opened. The officer said: "Out. You alone out." I got out. A pistol and an AK-47 assault rifle were pointed at me.
"THEY'LL KILL US"
One especially aggressive soldier pushed me into a long passenger compartment on a truck that looked as if it had been used for transporting prisoners. It looked like it had been sitting there idle for years.
Then Chris got the same treatment. The driver was eventually brought in, too -- unlike us foreigners, he was handcuffed. A soldier slowly ground the lock of the truck compartment shut.
We sat quietly. I turned to Chris, a London-based Canadian I had worked with in Iraq. I said I thought they would kill us.
A soldier opened the lock and the rear door swung open again. We looked down at the back of a station wagon which had been opened up to reveal some blankets. I thought they would perhaps drive us away. Maybe they were going to free us?
But a closer look showed feet poking under the blankets.
Soldiers then pulled aside the coverings and hauled three handcuffed young men up and in beside us. When we were locked in again, they told us they were Libyan university students.
Later, several soldiers came in. "Who are you?" one asked me. We are Reuters journalists, I said. He is our driver. We have permission. We were invited here by your government.
The soldier shook his head. "Bad time to be a journalist in Libya." Reporters were part of a foreign conspiracy against Libya, he said. But then he made it clear that if they decided we were not journalists but spies, that would be worse.
"If you tell us the truth, it should be fine, God willing. But if we catch you lying, oh we will show no mercy. None."
He left. It wasn't a comfortable time to think. I looked at the students, whom the soldiers had referred to as "dogs."
"Why do you think you were picked up?" I asked.
"We were just driving and they arrested us," whispered one. "You see what Gaddafi does to his people?" another said.
A few minutes later, another new batch of detainees was hauled in. A militiaman demanded: "Who are the dogs? You will see what we will do to you. Get the blindfolds."
It was a time to reflect on how Libyans have lived in fear, day in and day out, during Gaddafi's 41-year rule. This was the type of treatment any critic of Gaddafi might face, a kind of treatment common across many of the states of the Arab world.
In an instant, people can simply disappear into an abyss.
COURAGE TO CHANGE
In that moment, I remember thinking how it was all the more amazing than many foreigners realize that people in Tunisia and Egypt had found the courage to stand up and sweep away the systems of fear that they had become so used to.
The door opened. "You, Egyptian, come here," said one of the more excitable soldiers from earlier. I thought he had calmed down because he had handed out orange juice and bottled water.
But for me, he pushed his AK-47 muzzle into the small of my back and ordered: "Go to that small office." As I got out and walked, I noticed skins of sheep that had been slaughtered.
I walked in to the office and found the officer there. He politely asked me to sit down: "Are you sure you are a journalist and not a spy?," he asked.
My mobile phone started ringing. They had taken my glasses away (as well as the large sum of cash we had been carrying) but I was just able to make out the incoming number.
"Okay," I said to him. "This is proof. That is the Reuters North Africa bureau chief calling. Christian Lowe."
"That is an Algiers code I see," said the interrogator calmly. "Michael, do you know who has a presence in Algeria?"
I saw what he was getting at. Gaddafi has said his enemies are in league with radical Islamists. Al Qaeda has a presence in Algeria, I replied.
Maybe it was the right answer. He sent me back to the truck.
About an hour went by. From the truck, I could see a familiar face -- one of our government "minders," security men whose job it was to keep an eye on the journalists at our hotel. I was called over to him. My nerves eased. It seemed unlikely that he would be there if they were going to dispose of us.
Just as I was relaxing, another militiaman strolled over. "So," he said, "You're Egyptian." I didn't like his tone so I replied: "I'm an American." There was no right answer, though.
He said: "We burn American dogs with chemical weapons."
Still, the ordeal was ending and we would fairly soon be back -- alive and healthy though $700 poorer -- in the unreal world of the luxury hotel in Tripoli.
I spent another three weeks there under government supervision, being told things few would believe about Libya.
Only after I was expelled this week -- quite why, I still don't know -- did I feel free to write about our brief trip that day into the frightening world that for many Libyans is reality.
(Editing by Alastair Macdonald)