In mainly government-held western Libya, the rebel army largely consists of defectors – people who for differing reasons took the dangerous decision to break with Muammar Gaddafi’s regime.
Braving the myriad security services and their vast network of informers built up over four decades in power, individuals ranging from regular army officers to youngsters, studying overseas, have rallied to the armed revolt.
When the youth of the south-western hilltown of Zintan began demonstrating, Col Juma Brahim, usually based in the capital Tripoli, was in his hometown on leave.
“I saw these youths cry out against Col Gaddafi. It was magic. In the beginning, I simply watched, I didn’t demonstrate. I just watched but my heart was with them,” Col Brahim, 50, said.“One day, my nephew asked me for a gun. I went to my grandmother’s place to look for an old World War II rifle.”
In the early days of the revolt, he simply took his turn manning checkpoints on the edge of town to ward off attack by Col Gaddafi forces, frequently telling himself he was crazy.
His military discipline kept telling him that he was insane to side with youngsters setting up barricades of burning tyres at the risk of execution as a deserter. But he knows he made the right choice:“It was deranged, we had nothing against the tanks. The young men came to fight with knives and old rifles. I saw how much courage they had.”
Col Brahim now runs the rebels’ military operational centre in Zintan, their stronghold in the Nafusa Mountains.
Ismail, a tall muscular 24-year-old, could have easily gone to Dubai at the invitation of his employer, an oil company in Qatar, after narrowly escaping arrest for his participation in an opposition rally in the coastal town of Zawiyah, not far from Tripoli. “One day, eight of Gaddafi’s vehicles came to my place to arrest me. I was at my neighbours’ house. I ran away,” he said.
Ismail managed to leave the country and spent a month in Dubai. But he could not take being far from the conflict so he returned to western Libya to take up arms. That was three months ago.
“I wanted to support my people. I felt such a rush of energy and power during the first battle. It is because we are fighting for a cause. We will certainly beat Gaddafi troops who are fighting for nothing.”
He had led a comfortable life before the revolt – with a good salary, a large car, a beautiful house. But he did not hesitate to abandon it for the rigours of war.
“That is not a problem. We suffered for 42 years but the next generations will live happily,” he said.
On the front line around the hilltown of Gualish, Kalashnikov in hand, Omar, a frail 30-year-old, seems a little bit out of place.
A denizen of the Tripoli elite who was privileged enough to be leading a bohemian existence at a university in Europe when the revolt erupted, he spent weeks fretting how to support the rebellion before finally taking the plunge.
He could not return to the Libyan capital for fear of being called up into Col Gaddafi’s armed forces to carry out his national service but eventually he managed to find a way to join the rebels in their mountain redoubt.“I could not stay abroad and leave my country like this,” he said. “I do not know how I will react in combat. There will be shooting – that stresses me out. I know I can die but so what? We will show that Libyans are not Gaddafi.”
Khalifa, 21, has no clue how to hold a gun. He too had to flee Tripoli for the Nafusa Mountains after his university blacklisted him for protesting. Like others, he wanted to be part of the revolt but contribute in his own way. He became a translator for rebel forces on the front line.
“I believe that a word is worth 1,000 bullets. By working with journalists, I help the rebels be heard across the world,” he said.
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