Behind his aviator shades, the driver of the silver sedan had that hired-killer stare as he pulled up alongside our minibus. He kept pace as the bus, ferrying 13 journalists away from Libya's crazed capital in June, lurched toward the sanity of post-revolutionary Tunisia. He pointed his rifle directly at us.
We dived for the floor or crouched down in a pathetic bid for cover, but there was no escape: The Kalashnikov rounds would penetrate the bus' skin like hot arrows tearing through papier-mache.
The moment was both sinister and ridiculous, like so much in Moammar Kadafi's Libya.
We'd just gotten our release papers from the Rixos al Nasr Hotel, a pseudo five-star compound where all foreign press visiting Libya's capital were obliged to stay.
In the waning days of Kadafi's reign, "Planet Rixos" was the surreal stage for a daily drama pitting edgy journalists against a cadre of regime information managers, some true believers, others just hired hands.
The minders' singular sales job involved depicting Kadafi's Libya as a kind of egalitarian haven and Brother Leader himself as nothing more than a beloved figurehead, somewhat like the queen of England, eager to preside over Libya's transformation into a European-style social democracy. In this narrative, anti-Kadafi rebels were traitorous, bloodthirsty fanatics, the foreign press corps a pack of liars and spies, and the NATO bombing campaign an imperialist, Strangelovian assault on Libya's people.
The Rixos boasted emerald lawns, a gym-sauna complex, serviceable Internet and an expansive deck where, each evening, guests dragged on cigarettes and shisha pipes while sipping coffee and tea in this agonizingly dry nation. But a palpable hint of menace lay beneath the veneer of gentility. Conversation tended toward the conspiratorial.
I was still a Rixos novice when I was approached by a Brit of beefy countenance and heavily tattooed arms. He worked as a "sound man" for a British television network, one of several martial blokes accompanying TV crews, and he bore a message of solidarity.
"Look here, we're all in this together: I know your room number," the chap confided in hushed tones. "At the end of the day, we're all Westerners."
He then outlined, unsolicited, a plan should our hosts move to take us hostage: We would all scamper out back, hurdle a wall or two, carjack a few vehicles, make our way to the port two miles away, commandeer a vessel and sail off into the Mediterranean — where we would find refuge on a NATO warship.
"It should work," he said. "Keep a small bag packed and ready to go."
"Attention, all journalists!"
The disembodied call to coverage piped into rooms at the Rixos soon became a tonal embodiment of journalistic frustration.
Journalists leaped from their beds at the sound of the Orwellian directive, inevitably issued after midnight, rushed out half-groggy to a waiting blue Mercedes bus —of the type normally associated with coach tours of Devon —and were soon hurtling toward an event approved for coverage. On my first night at the Rixos, we were taken to a pair of government buildings engulfed in flames after a bombing by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Officials swiftly acknowledged that one site (the Ministry of Fear, I dubbed it) was a security headquarters, seemingly a legitimate target for NATO and its charge to protect civilians. But the other structure was, according to the government, something else: an anticorruption bureau where fraud was tirelessly investigated.
Why had such a laudable institution (I thought of it as the Ministry of Truth) been targeted for annihilation? To conceal financial skulduggery by ex-ministers who had defected to the rebel side, Libyan officials explained. This seemed a stretch: Had NATO really been duped by insurgents into bombing a ministry to obliterate evidence of corruption?
A few days later, we were bused back to the site, where a supposed anticorruption czar pointed to salvaged boxes of files detailing ministerial wrongdoing. Given the apparently vast scope of graft, I asked whether any investigations were targeting members of the Kadafi clan, some noted for their extravagant spending.
The bureaucrat's gaze was that normally reserved for a naive child. "I can assure you," he responded, "that no one from the leader's family has ever stolen."
A renewed uprising in Tripoli is imminent: That was the whispered buzz from clandestine conversations in smoke-shrouded cafes amid the patter of songbirds — Libyans fancy the caged creatures. As in Benghazi, the rebel capital to the east, entrepreneurs and Web-savvy youths seemed to be at the forefront of dissent. "It's happening soon," one businessman assured a colleague and me over tea, his eyes inspecting other patrons who might be eavesdropping. "Don't leave Tripoli yet."
Rumors spread of nightly attacks on police checkpoints, of clashes in restive districts. Every night, we heard gunfire. Yet the streets would be calm come daylight. I started wondering whether some of our informants were themselves plainclothes agents, spreading misinformation or trying to discover what we knew, or whom we knew. In Kadafi's Libya, paranoia seemed the appropriate default reaction.
But in Tripoli, unlike in Benghazi, there was another side: Some people stood with Kadafi, or at least professed to be loyalists.
The celebrations that greeted the rebels in Tripoli notwithstanding, a lot of Libyans fear the kind of chronic instability and violence that have gripped Iraq since the ouster of Saddam Hussein. Some believed the rebels would wreak revenge on Tripoli and slash social benefits in what had been a relatively stable society.
On one occasion, I went to an official women's rally; several of the participants bore portraits of sons or husbands lost in battles with the rebels. Their men did not die in vain, they vowed. It was a propaganda event, yet I didn't doubt the sincerity of these grieving widows and mothers.
Directing the official information strategy at the Rixos was the indefatigable Musa Ibrahim, a singular fusion of Kadafi stalwart and British-educated technocrat. He speaks an idiosyncratic English with a trace of London hip. Though his vision of truth may have been notional, the always sartorially correct Ibrahim skillfully parried the demands of perpetually irritated journalists (that is, until he dropped out of sight, along with the minders, as insurgents entered Tripoli).
"Guys, guys," he would sigh in exasperated fashion, as if addressing a group of unruly schoolboys. "Yes, you have to work with minders. We get it. Now let's move on."
Ibrahim lived at the Rixos with his German wife, Julia Ramelow, an ethereal redhead who doted on her infant son, carrying him about in a sling. The couple met while both were bicycle-loving peace activists studying in Britain. As NATO bombs shook the Rixos, Ramelow too seemed a prisoner, wary of the cynical journalist crowd but also apart from the imperious pro-Kadafi crowd who came to the Rixos in increasing numbers, viewing the hotel as immune from NATO bombs.
She recently told the German magazine Stern, "We are drawn ever further into this sort of whirlpool."
Did she ever imagine that the poetry-loving, New Agey peacenik she fell in love with back in Britain would become Kadafi's chief interlocutor with the outside world?
The Rixos is conveniently situated less than a mile from Kadafi's Bab Azizia compound, a vast, walled-in fortress of official buildings, barracks and valiant Kadafi images.
We were taken amid great fanfare to Kadafi's inner sanctum the day that South African President Jacob Zuma visited Tripoli in late May. Inside the gates, civilians bearing pro-Kadafi banners and badges danced to piped-in African pop music. We waited five hours in this party atmosphere for a Kadafi appearance that never materialized.
NATO officials would get a bit defensive when asked why they keep hitting Bab Azizia — surely Kadafi wasn't foolish enough to frequent the site or its subterranean passages. "No, we are not bombing rubble," a testy NATO official told me by telephone one evening from the alliance base in Sicily, Italy.
The nocturnal bombings of Tripoli unfurled in three phases: the sound of unseen jets, flashes of light and ground-shaking concussions. After a while, we all got used to it.
But no one anticipated the nerve-jangling blitz of June 7, when NATO jets bombed Tripoli from early morning until late evening. The Rixos trembled. Late in the afternoon, there was a call for a bus trip to smoke-shrouded Bab Azizia. Most declined the offer, fearing the government was setting us up as human shields.
Fighter jets were still streaking overhead. Half a dozen buildings had been reduced to smoldering piles of smashed concrete and twisted metal. "We may all be doomed!" our shrieking host declared as fighters soared low in the skies, heard but unseen.
"Calling all journalists! … The bodies are still in the rubble!"
That was the summons in the early hours of June 19. Our transport sped through Tripoli's darkened streets, finally stopping near a determined crowd combing through floodlighted ruins in the middle of a residential block. Neighbors in dressing gowns and flip-flops tossed aside stones with their bare hands, seeking victims, alive or dead. Many glared at us.
"I'm against Kadafi, but this was a mistake," whispered one witness. "I know the family who lived in this house. There was no military here."
The government was keen to disseminate the propaganda gift. Here, the regime argued, was proof that NATO was killing civilians, not saving them.
"Have you seen the bodies?" Ibrahim asked as we were all herded off to a hospital to view a handful of corpses, including that of a 9-month-old girl, clothed only in her diaper. All were caked in dust. NATO later acknowledged that one of its precision-guided munitions had probably gone astray.
Tripoli partings were laced with a touch of sorrow. Tempering the elation of escape was the melancholy sense of leaving behind both friends and a compelling story still awaiting its ending. Colleagues said goodbye in the style of inmates wishing the best to comrades about to embark on a jailbreak.
Our farewells complete, the minibus, featuring a martial image of Kadafi in the windshield, went through the Rixos gates and into the streets of Tripoli, poised to negotiate the many military checkpoints on the way to the Tunisian border. Later, several passengers recalled seeing a silver-colored sedan pull out of the parking lot.
"He has a gun!" was the cry 15 minutes later when we saw the man in the aviator glasses pointing a rifle at us from the car window.
To my mind came the disagreeable recollection of a Baghdad minibus attack: The killers had stopped the vehicle with gunfire and then detonated a bomb inside in a coup de grace.
Belatedly, our driver made some mildly evasive maneuvers. The sedan was behind us. We frantically dialed our cellphones seeking contacts at the Rixos. Word came back: The hit man from the B-movie dustbin had wanted only to scare us.
It was all a misunderstanding. "Dr. Ibrahim sends his apologies."
From May to mid-June, McDonnell stayed at the Rixos reporting on the Libyan civil war. On Tuesday, a group of international journalists remained trapped at the Rixos as fighting raged on the streets of Tripoli.