[media-credit name=”Associated Press” align=”alignright” width=”300″][/media-credit]Weber State University was represented on the ground in Benghazi from the outset of the civil war — not by soldiers, but by WSU alumnus Neil Brandvold.
Brandvold, an employee of the Middle East Policy Council and aspiring freelance photojournalist, headed to Libya shortly after the war began to document the crisis and hear the stories of the rebels.
“We went to the rebel training grounds, where you can see them giving maybe two hours of training to civilians and kids on how to use a gun or how to fight,” said Brandvold in an interview on Al-Jazeera.
In late December 2010, a Tunisian merchant named Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire in the middle of a crowded street. Earlier that morning, Bouazizi had been confronted by local police, who harassed him and stole his produce. His self-immolation was his symbol of protest, his last stand against what he believed was a corrupt and tyrannical government.
What started as an isolated tragedy quickly grew into one of the most important chain reactions of the decade. Bouazizi lit the fuse of a frustrated and forgotten generation of Arab youth and began a string of protests throughout the Middle East and North Africa, protests which have collectively been called the “Arab Spring.” Thus far, the protests have led to the ouster of dictatorial regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, and have empowered reform movements throughout the region.
However, the events have also triggered tragedy and controversy in another North African nation: Libya.
What began as peaceful protests in Libya quickly escalated into massacre. Soldiers loyal to Muammar Gaddafi, Libya’s strongman since 1969, were ordered to snuff out the protests by any means necessary. Soldiers fired into crowds indiscriminately, and the Libyan air force engaged in sorties against unarmed civilians.
But many in Gaddafi’s military were not especially keen on murdering their countrymen and began to defect from his forces. The defectors quickly gained control of the eastern city of Benghazi, creating an East-West rift which has rocked Libya ever since.
This isn’t the first time Brandvold has gone directly into a crisis zone. He had previously documented the 2009 coup in the Honduras, Zapatista guerillas in Mexico, and post-earthquake Haiti. But Brandvold said the conflict in Libya was unlike anything he had previously seen.
“There was a young boy who was maybe 7 or 8 years old who had a bandage across his nose. Apparently, shrapnel had come up and hit him in the face. He was tending his cattle and got caught in the line of fire, and it killed his twin brother and shot his father too.”
Though Brandvold is now the program manager of MEPC’s “Teach Mideast” program, the beginning of his tenure with the organization began as something seemingly mundane. Brandvold’s first experience with MEPC began with a student internship, a position currently filled by WSU senior Kirsten Anderson.
Anderson has been serving as WSU’s intern to the council throughout the summer. She said that so far, she has really enjoyed the experience.
“I wanted to do a summer internship because it sounded interesting. Besides having to move across the country to participate, it’s been a great experience because I’ve gotten a new perspective, because this organization is focused entirely on the Middle East.”
Due to her experience and the opportunities it has opened up for her, Anderson said she would recommend an internship to her fellow students at WSU.
“Doing an internship instead of just chilling out for the summer does a lot for you. It’s so much more connected out here (in Washington, D.C.). It’s a great experience if you’re open to it and looking for opportunities.”