February 2010

Camping with Qaddafi

Spending quality time with the Libyan dictator is in the realm of living dangerously

Annie
Jacobsen

Radan Popovic Photo by Eric Ogden

Radan Popovic, 45, sits in the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf in West Hollywood, a cup of tea in one hand, the other running through his head of thick, black hair. He’s your average, mild-mannered, former Eastern-bloc cinematographer living the Hollywood dream. A Los Angeles resident of 18 years with a hint of a Serbian accent, he has a beautiful family and a thriving career shooting for such clients as Bacardi and Marie Claire.

But sometimes, when the kids are in bed and the lights are dim, Popovic reflects on an extraordinary event that occurred 20 years ago as he was forging his career: He went camping with Muammar Qaddafi.

Yes, that Qaddafi—the ambitious, erratic Libyan dictator, the pariah known for his material support of terrorism, his flamboyant dress and his gun-toting, all-female band of bodyguards. During his 40-year reign, Qaddafi’s titles have ranged from Brother Leader to King of Kings to the Ronald Reagan–bestowed Mad Dog of the Middle East.

A camping trip with Qaddafi could have been a questionable career move—hell, it could’ve been a questionable life choice. He could’ve wound up being held prisoner by the unstable ruler of a foreign country. Then again, as motivational speakers and hedge-fund managers say, “Go big, or go home.”

In 1988, Popovic was part of a nine-man Yugoslavian film crew invited by Qaddafi himself to shoot a documentary from the dictator’s point of view. “I was excited. We were going to film things people had never witnessed,” Popovic says. “There was also some risk. Qaddafi was notorious for letting people come to Libya but not ever letting them leave. After some youthful consideration—I was 24—I decided to go. We were from Yugoslavia, where Tito had been the guru of all dictators—and Qaddafi and Tito had been the closest of friends.”

So, the film crew headed to Libya, where they initially had unprecedented access to Qaddafi. They began filming: a motorcade to Benghazi of 200 official vehicles racing across the Sahara; a tour of the presidential compound, where Qaddafi’s 15-month-old daughter had been killed by U.S. air strikes two years earlier. Qaddafi even lent them his private plane.

“We landed somewhere in the middle of the desert,” Popovic says, “where we were met by the Minister of Tourism. He had 10 bodyguards draped with Kalashnikovs [AK-47s] shouting, ‘It’s beautiful here in Libya. Look around! Why are there no tourists here?’”

This was, of course, a rhetorical question, because Libya is a country without clear answers. It is a paradox of a nation, rife with rumors and propaganda. “When you turned on the news in Tripoli, you got a screen that showed a map of the world,” Popovic says. "All the countries were green like Libya’s flag, except for America, England and Egypt, which were painted black because those countries were considered enemies of the state.”

Those countries were persona non grata in Libya—unless Qaddafi needed them, in which case an exception was made. When the crew was taken into the desert to see Qaddafi’s Great Man-Made River Project—the largest irrigation endeavor in the world—they saw dozens of American and British engineers. Why? Because those were the best aqueduct specialists in the world.

The oil under Libya is the champagne of oil, drop for drop the world’s most valuable. “Qaddafi is like Castro with cash,” says Popovic. “There was a rumor he was low on soldiers. We heard he hired an entire division of North Koreans and put them in his army. One dictator renting out soldiers to another dictator makes a perverse sort of sense.”

The filmmakers were invited on Qaddafi’s peace-seeking trip to Tunisia to meet President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. They spent the night at a Libyan army barracks that, Popovic says, was “filled with giant insects and had sand floors.”

They met Yadranka, a voluptuous, young blonde who hailed from Zadar, a sea town in Croatia. “She told us she and her friends had been hired to take care of Qaddafi’s massage needs. She said she was happy with her job, but all the girls’ passports had been taken, so none of them could leave. Whoever wasn’t with Qaddafi and his entourage was being held prisoner in a hotel room in Tripoli.”

Back in Tripoli, another rumor surfaced, this one among the filmmakers: The movie’s executive producer might be working with the CIA. One of the crew noticed the footage was being shipped to CBS News in Paris and not to the independent film company in Belgrade, as the filmmakers had been told. To Popovic, this was out of the ordinary: “TV in our country is the propaganda for our country.”

In other words, nothing needed to go to Paris. “Our exec producer, Dragan Havzijevic, was the most influential journalist in Yugoslavia at the time. He’d covered wars. He’d made his name in journalism working with Noriega during the revolution. And if you were working with Noriega back then, it meant you were also working with the CIA. Havzijevic was a foreign journalist with ties to people in the intelligence game. In the Qaddafi footage, he had something he could sell to the West. If the CIA was using him, he was also using the CIA.” Popovic’s theory: Havzijevic got to make his film and some extra money.

Access to Qaddafi tapered off, though whether it was by design or by coincidence was a mystery. Then it came to a halt. Boredom crept in, then paranoia. Except for occasional drinks with fellow countrymen from the Yugoslavian trade federation who were staying at the same hotel, there wasn’t anyone to talk to. Popovic started thinking he was becoming like a character in a Kafka novel. The exhaustive time spent staring at faux-Louis XIV redvelvet walls in his hotel room was making him desperate.

“It dawned on me that, like the beautiful Yadranka, I could easily become a prisoner of Qaddafi,” he says. “I began to think I was being watched. Using my screwdriver, I took all the panels off the hotel-room walls. There was no surveillance equipment as far as I could tell, and I put everything back. But really, I couldn’t take it anymore. My mind was thinking all kinds of terrible things. So I planned my escape.”

The following morning, Popovic told the group’s Libyan minder he’d just learned of an emergency and he needed to go home to Yugoslavia immediately. “The minder got very upset,” Popovic says. “He picked up a phone, spoke in Arabic, then turned back to me and said, ‘You cannot go. Not now. Come, we must film something.’”

Popovic said he had to first get a piece of equipment from his room, that he’d be right back. Instead, he located one of the Yugoslavian trade representatives he’d met earlier. “I told him what was going on. I begged him to get me out of the country. The man hurried me out the back door of the hotel and drove me to the airport. There, he paid some bribes. I was rushed across the tarmac and taken into an empty Yugoslav Airlines plane. Now I was the property of Yugoslavia, not Libya. I was safe.”

Popovic’s jitters were not garden-variety homesickness. His father is the country’s top nuclear physicist, his mother one of its leading film stars. “Before Libya, I had traveled the whole world. I had seen many things. But being in the immediate surroundings of Qaddafi had been a mind-blowing experience,” Popovic says. “The only way to describe it is ‘above and beyond.’ Qaddafi was living his life, but it was also clear that in his hands he had power over everyone else. There is something about that kind of power that words cannot explain.”

But actions certainly can. Barely a week had passed when Havzijevic called him at home. He and the film crew were back in Yugoslavia.

“They just appeared back in Belgrade,” Popovic says. “He said I needed to go back to Libya with them, that it wouldn’t be long, but we had to finish the film. Qaddafi was waiting.” Here’s the crazy part. “I said yes. I actually went back. To this day, I really cannot tell you why. Maybe it is as simple as this: You can’t say no to Colonel Qaddafi.”

Did Popovic worry it could be a trap? That the dictator was pretending to offer an olive branch but was really holding a sword? “That crossed my mind,” he admits. “But I was overcome with a sense of destiny. I just had to go back.” Like the mythical appointment in Samarra, he felt that returning to face Qaddafi was an appointment he had to make.

In other words, if Qaddafi wanted him to come to harm, it could have happened anywhere—Libya, Yugoslavia, France. If Qaddafi wanted him dead, that would have been it.

Upon their return to Libya, the crew filmed for two more weeks, which included a final trip out into the deep Sahara—and the crew went camping with Qaddafi. As for the documentary, it never aired on Belgrade TV.

Then just a few weeks after returning home from the second trip, the executive producer, Havzijevic, mysteriously died. “Officially,” says Popovic, “it was a heart attack, but the events surrounding his death have never been fully explained.”

Popovic immigrated to the United States in 1992, a couple of months before war broke out in Bosnia. By then an accomplished cinematographer with a dozen feature films in the can, he quickly established a career in the glossy world of Hollywood.

“I never worked as a cameraman for political journalism again,” Popovic says. “But occasionally, just for fun, I go camping with my family.”

ANNIE JACOBSEN writes on intelligence issues and intrigue at backstory.latimesmagazine.com.