Tonight I write with a heavy heart. I am safe in Cairo. Physically more than 1,400 kilometres out of harm's way. But mentally and emotionally I am still in Benghazi and Brega and Aj Dabiah and Ras Lanuf in eastern Libya with the men who are so desperately fighting a losing battle for dignity, honour and freedom.
Imagine 15 days ago I did not know any of them. Never met them - never heard of them. Today they feel a part of me. There is not a day that passes without me thinking of them - praying for them and for Libya.
Why? I have covered conflict before and in other parts of the world - with little or no Indian connection. Sierra Leone, Lebanon, Iraq... why this attachment with Libya? A country that I along with perhaps more than half the world thought was synonymous with Muammar Gaddafi and believed what practically every one said - Libya is a rogue state.
10 days in eastern Libya changed all that. Libya - at least the 500 kilometres of eastern Libya that Headlines Today senior special correspondent Shiv Aroor and I saw is a lovely nation with equally lovely people - yearning for peace and prosperity and freedom from Muammar Gaddafi, Saif El Islam, Khamees and the rest of the Gaddafi family.
Tonight I am upset as reports indicate after Ras Lanuf, the rebels are on the verge of losing Al Brega. It is now only a matter of time before Gaddafi's mercenaries approach Benghazi, the opposition stronghold (our home for the past 10 days). Benghazi cannot be any stretch of imagination be described as a modern city. It is a small dusty port city on the Mediterranean coast. It could have been a beautiful tourist resort - as could perhaps more than half of Libya - a tourist paradise instead of being described as a rogue state. But its ruler for the past 41 years is happy to keep it backward and locked in a time warp. That helps him and his offsprings control the country better.
Can you imagine a country in the 21st century that prohibits its citizens from learning computers and English so that they cannot communicate with the outside world. There is so much oil in the country and so much foreign exchange coming in that if properly spent the country will be more advanced than perhaps the most advanced Arab country - if not Europe. After all Gaddafi only has to look after 6.5 million people spread over a vast African nation.
but Railway lines are still being laid in projects that started in the 1980s. Roads are still laid only on paper. There is a systematic effort to ignore the development of the eastern part of the country.
Revolutionaries love the media, we are told. They see the media as an ally or maybe a tool to carry their message to the world. The people we met saw us as family. Shiv and I walked into Libya with no contact whatsoever. No idea of what lay ahead. In the dead of the night we crossed over into Libya from the Egypt land border. The first welcome was heartening. The border guards, young `freedom fighters' stopped a taxi to take us to Tubruk, 200 kilometres from the border. The driver in the dead of the night took us to Tubruk and despite our pestering him refused to accept money. He was not engaged in psychological warfare. He was not using us as a tool. He was just a Libyan who wanted freedom and willing to lend a helping hand to anyone who could help get his message across. Even when we did pay him the money, he put it in a contribution box towards their revolution. He did not take a dollar or Dinar for himself.
We met many-many people like that in Libya. My story about Libya can never be complete without mentioning my good friend - or brother - Issam Khalil, an expat. He lives in Shanghai, China. Makes a lot of money importing Chinese goods into Libya. He gave it all up to join the freedom struggle. He took Shiv and me across the rebel held areas explaining the movement and the trauma the nation has been facing for the past 41 years of Gaddafi rule. His never say die attitude and fierce commitment for the cause of a free Libya are worthy of mention. I shall write more about him later.
Shiv and I were equally impressed with Dr Suheil Altarash - working tirelessly at the Ras Lanuf hospital - till moments before it fell to pro Gaddafi forces. Shiv, a British freelance photographer James Wardell and I reached Ras lanuf at last light. We filmed extensively in the town and then following ambulance sirens reached the hospital. As one battle casualty after the other was wheeled in, Dr Altarash and his team worked non stop to try and save lives - often literally snatching the seriously injured fighters in heavy arms fire - from the jaws of death. Dr Altarash spoke to us between life saving procedures in the operation theatre. He was calm, composed - matter of fact. He called us his brothers. Thanked us for being there in his hour of need. Have dinner with us. Eat what we have. Stay with us at the hospital, he said. If we have to die, we die together. we are brothers.
Barely two hours after we left that hospital, pro-Gaddafi forces bombed the hospital complex. Shiv and I prayed for the doctor and his team. We have not been able to get in touch with them ever since. These are just some names. There were many many people like that who spoke to us - both off and on record. We saw the Libyan prisons in Benghazi under Gaddafi rule. Heard the tales of horror. Not propaganda for the media. Just victims we sought, found and spoke to. Some did not come on camera. They did not want a story. They wanted justice. And freedom.
Freedom that is under threat today. Shiv and I are both keen students of military strategy and tactics. the rebels clearly have none. The days we spent with them - we saw their bravado. Holding a gun - from an AK series rifle to anti-aircraft guns, anti-material rifles, rocket propelled grenandes and even an odd mortar. But they are not an organised fighting force that can withstand - let alone take on Gaddafi's much better trained, armed and funded forces.
The writing is on the wall. The Libyan dream of freedom from Gaddafi appears to be dying a bloody death. The intervention that was eagerly awaited - desperately sought from the world - is not coming.
Gaddafi's forces are steamrolling all opposition in their bloody and brutal march towards Benghazi. Sitting in Cairo - with my heart in Benghazi - I can almost see my friends - brothers - fighting to their last breath for something that is so dear to all of us - HONOUR, DIGNITY AND FREEDOM.