The Living Literature of War
Do you remember July 8, 2011? Where you were? What you did? Whom you talked to? Anything at all?
I couldn’t pin down one single thing for that day. I couldn’t even locate an email I had sent or a photo I might have taken. It’s all evidently lost in the ether, known only to tech and telecom firms. But maybe, unlike me, you have a diary or save your calendars or just happen to have fantastic recall. Maybe you remember it because it was the day NASA launched the Space Shuttle on its 135th and final mission.
Unlike me, Abdul Hamid Frefer recalls every detail of that eighth of July. It was a Friday and he remembers exactly where he was, who he was with, what he saw, what he heard, even what he said. It’s tattooed on his brain, but more than that, it’s written on his body — only not in a conventional sense. Writing isn’t just words. IfItWereJustWordsThisWouldBeEasyToRead. Writing doesn’t exist without the blank spaces between the words. It’s these blank spaces that are especially integral to Frefer’s story because his is a tale of absence, one that’s been retold — and that he’s been reminded of — every day since.
For Frefer, there was life before July 8, 2011, and life after; life, that is, before the moment his world changed forever and then what followed. The last thing he heard before that unforgettable moment was “Run!”
“But there was nowhere to run,” he told me.
After all, no man can outrun a rocket.
When that rocket hit, the shockwave burst his eardrums and he was knocked to the ground. White noise dissolved into unbearable pain. When he tried to lift his left leg, he watched his shoe fall off — with his foot still in it. Only skin held his right leg below the knee to the top of that limb.
“Go!” he remembers screaming at his friends. “I’m dead anyway! Save yourself!” They did go. They saved themselves. But not before saving him. They wrapped Frefer in a blanket, hoisted him up and took off running.
I met Abdul Hamid Frefer in the coastal city of Misrata earlier this year while on assignment in Libya. Bald with lively brown eyes and a bristly, close-cropped white beard, he was dressed in a loose-fitting, baby-blue ensemble that resembled silk pajamas. I noticed his black metal crutches immediately, but didn’t initially grasp that he was missing his left foot and his right leg below the knee.
Eight years before, at age 39, Frefer’s heart had been touched by fire. To be exact, the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian vegetable seller pushed past the brink by corruption and police brutality. On December 17, 2010, a policewoman confiscated his cart and wares, slapped him, and spit in his face. Humiliated, stripped of his livelihood, and deeply in debt, he went to the governor’s office. “If you don’t see me, I’ll burn myself,” he reportedly said. The governor refused to meet him and Bouazizi was true to his word.
When he lit that match, the blaze that erupted would become known as the Arab Spring. When it set Libya alight in February 2011, dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s draconian response to the demonstrations touched off an uprising that soon became a revolution, transforming ordinary Libyan civilians into soldiers overnight.
“In 2011, we fought a war to dispatch a dictator” was how Frefer put it. “We struggled to build a free country. A democratic country with basic rights and free speech.”
On the morning of July 8, 2011, he was sitting in an abandoned home in Dafnia, a town about 40 miles from Misrata on the road to the country’s capital, Tripoli. The battlefront was fast becoming a charnel house for the under-armed citizen-soldiers of the revolution, as Gaddafi’s forces pressed closer to the rebel stronghold.
After cleaning and loading their rifles, Frefer and his comrades stacked the remaining ammunition in pickup trucks, 20 of which began rolling toward Gaddafi’s forces, while about 25 infantrymen, including him, followed. The previous night, however, Gaddafi’s forces had evidently advanced further than Frefer and his compatriots realized. “They must have watched us with binoculars. They saw us, but we didn’t see them,” he told me. Soon, a barrage of rockets was screaming toward them.
“Run!” someone yelled, but there was nowhere to run. His friend Mustafa and a neighbor from Misrata were both killed by the strike. For a while, they believed that a third man, also from the neighborhood, had bolted and never stopped running. Later, his comrades determined that he had, in fact, been nearly obliterated by a rocket. In all, Frefer told me, 36 revolutionaries died at Dafnia that day.
With the trucks involved in the battle and no way for a car to come forward, Frefer’s comrades began carrying — and soon dragging — him for the better part of half an hour before they could stop and tie tourniquets on both legs. Then they set off for a field hospital.
It’s common to lose consciousness from the physiological shock of traumatic injuries, or from blood loss, or both. But for that first mile, as his friends pulled him along the hard ground, Abdul Hamid Frefer remained fully conscious — and in burning agony. It was the same for the second mile. And the third. “I was conscious the whole time,” he told me. “And when I finally got to the hospital and they put me on an IV with a painkiller, the anesthesia didn’t work.”
It took him three years to recover. After one, he was using a wheelchair. After two more, he could finally move about with prostheses and crutches.
Men Without Legs and One-Eyed Women
In my line of work, I meet more amputees, war victims who are missing body parts, and terribly scarred individuals than the average American. There was the woman with bright white hair who survived a massacre by South Korean troops. Her left foot was nothing but a stump. No toes. Hardly a sole. Mostly just a heel. Her right foot was missing entirely. In its place, she had the functional equivalent of a tin can with a rubber disk at the bottom.
Then there was the six-year-old Congolese girl whose arm had been hacked off by a machete-wielding militiaman. And her aunt who lost both hands to the same attackers. And her great-aunt who lost several fingers.
In the same part of Congo, I met toddlers whose faces had been split by machetes. I met an elderly woman with a shattered arm who had been shot in the face with an arrow. And there was that man missing a chunk of his calf, which, he said, enraged militiamen had tried to force him to eat.
There was the South Sudanese man who had lost a leg after being shot by soldiers. And another who had lost an eye.
All of these people were civilians in the wrong place — home — at the wrong time. Abdul Hamid Frefer was not. At least, not entirely. A civilian at the dawn of 2011, by July he was a soldier of the revolution. Given the tremendous price paid by Libya’s rebels, he’s lucky to be alive.
Today, Libya is again — or rather, still — a country at war. For months now, Tripoli has been menaced by the self-styled Libyan National Army of warlord General Khalifa Haftar, a U.S. citizen, former CIA asset, and longtime resident of Virginia (who was lauded by President Donald Trump in an April phone call). Just as in Frefer’s war, the city of Misrata is still hemorrhaging young men. Its militias make up the bulk of the armed forces protecting the capital and the Government of National Accord, the U.N.-backed, internationally recognized government of Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj. (Two years ago, Mistrata’s militiamen also engaged in house-to-house fighting with Islamic State militants in the city of Sirte, as American drones and manned aircraft hunted those ISIS fighters from the skies.)
Frefer and I first ran into each other at his place of business, Misrata’s municipal offices. A member of the city council, he’s very much a man of his town. And both he and it bear the grim scars of that revolution. While the city itself hasn’t seen war since 2011, so much of it still bears battle scars. High-rise apartments pockmarked by thousands of machine-gun bullets sit empty. Other buildings still bear gaping holes from mortars and rockets. A warehouse remains largely roofless thanks to a NATO airstrike, in support of the revolutionaries, on a Gaddafi regime tank that had been parked inside. Almost a decade later, such urban landscapes like Abdul Hamid Frefer’s body, serve as an ongoing testament to war’s long legacy of destruction.
The Medium Is the Message
Since 2001, more than 1,500 U.S. military personnel have lost limbs to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since 1995, the International Committee of the Red Cross alone has supplied 109,303 prostheses to replace Afghan arms and legs.
Giles Duley lost limbs in Afghanistan. Three of them. But he wasn’t an American, nor an Afghan. He wasn’t even a soldier. And to say that he was a civilian doesn’t quite capture his story.
For 10 years, Duley was a music and fashion photographer, shooting the likes of Oasis, Marilyn Manson, and Lenny Kravitz for GQ, Esquire, Vogue, and other publications. Then he threw his camera out a window, burned his film, and resolved never to shoot a photo again. But that decision didn’t last. Instead, he followed a circuitous path back into photography, one that led him into conflict and crisis zones like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, and Lebanon.
In 2011, while on patrol with U.S. troops in Afghanistan, he stepped on an improvised explosive device that nearly killed him and left him with just one intact limb, his right arm. “At first, I was devastated by what had happened, obviously,” he said in a 2012 TED talk.
“I thought my work was over, I thought — everything didn’t make sense to me. And then I realized: I never set out to Congo, to Angola, to Bangladesh to take photographs. I went to those places because I wanted to make some kind of change, and photography happened to be my tool. And then I became aware that my body was, in many ways, a living example of what war does to somebody. And I realized I could use my own experience, my own body, to tell that story.”
War stories like Duley’s have been written on so many bodies. They have been written on the faces of one-eyed women and men whose features were melted by incendiary agents. They are told in the very existence of one-armed children and legless men.
As Abdul Hamid Frefer recounted detail after detail of that distant July 8th, a smile slowly crept across his face. “I was just about dead when I got to the field hospital,” he told me. “The doctors were amazed that I was still alive — and conscious.” He felt lucky, or rather blessed, he said, to be alive. “It’s all God’s will” was a phrase he kept repeating.
For him, that July day eight years ago is always present — as similar days are for so many other victims of armed conflict. Frefer’s body tells a story of one war, one day, one rocket, three miles of being dragged, three years of becoming mobile again. His is the story of one life built on the corporeal wreckage of war. But it says something larger, something more universal, too.
“I’m never going to be well. I still have pain,” Abdul Hamid Frefer told me as he rubbed what’s left of his right leg. His is a war story written on his own body in both absence and trauma. That limb, what remains of it, and its phantom half most certainly tell, as Duley put it, “what war does to somebody.” But Abdul Hamid Frefer’s body, just like Duley’s, says something more. It tells not just a story but perhaps the story of war. “My legs are gone,” said Frefer wincing and gritting his teeth, “but the pain remains.”