The first time photographer Mads Nissen visited Libya, he tried to capture the faces and emotions of those involved in the civil war. Nissen arrived on assignment one week after the uprising of rebel forces in February 2011, amid constant tension and fear of attack.
Rebel forces killed ousted dictator Moammar Gadhafi on October 20, 2011, and three days later, the interim leaders declared that the nation was liberated.
One year later, he returned to the hotspots of the civil war to see the damage after gunfire was no longer ringing in people’s ears.
Trash and old footprints around the rubble noted that “Life was here,” but otherwise, the places were desolate.
Unlike during his first visit, Nissen purposefully avoided photographing people and studied the damaged buildings and cities.
“I was always focusing on the people and their feelings,” he said. “This was somehow scary in a more quiet way.”
The entire city of Tawergha, whose residents had supported the regime during the civil war, had been evacuated. All 30,000 or so residents gone. And Nissen didn’t see a single home in Sirte, Gadhafi’s hometown, without holes in it.
Life didn’t return to normal for Libyans because the war ended, Nissen said.
“The buildings remind you every single day,” he said. “That’s what they told me.” Nissen was inspired by photographs of the destruction from World War II that fascinated him as a child. The silent emptiness captures the manmade destruction of war, he said.
“It gives me space to think, to walk around, make my own story,” he said.
He recalls finding a singed card in an abandoned home and trying to make sense of what had been going on with the people when this card had been burned.
His second visit also gave him a chance to understand the other side. He had been planted with the rebel fighters on assignment in 2011 because the regime forces wouldn’t allow him to follow them. The people in Sirte told him they are fine with Gadhafi no longer ruling the country, but the rebels flattened their city and humiliated them. At least there was peace and prosperity under Gadhafi’s rule, they told Nissen.
He thinks that coverage favors the rebels and that it was healthy for him to see that this demolition was not from one evil side. NATO, Gadhafi’s troops and rebels all contributed to the devastation throughout the country.
“The people you thought were the bad guys, most are pretty normal people,” Nissen said.
- Lauren Russell, CNN