Paper targets, Lacoste shirts, and homemade explosives.
August 8, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 44
Qasr el-Haj, Jafara Valley, Libya
Colonel Bashir sits on a mat in the shade of a concrete block building, part of a group cutting out small white circles from copy paper. The men, who are half his forty-something years and wearing a mixture of American sportswear (Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren, and Lacoste shirts) and dun-colored camouflage, glue the little circles onto paper spray-painted with big black circles. These are targets. Bashir, a compact, self-contained former colonel in Muammar Qaddafi’s army, is giving sniper training to Urwah Company of the Sabratha Brigade here at their base, a sun-baked Jafara Valley gravel company donated by its owner.
Colonel Bashir made a daring escape into Tunisia and back into free Libya at the Dehiba crossing in June to join this group. He now goes back and forth through free-Libyan held areas regularly. This valley lies below the 1,800-foot-high tablelands known as the Western Mountains, about 50 miles from the most important town in the area, Gharyan, still held by Qaddafi’s forces. We are at the eastern terminus of free Libyan territory here, about 60 miles from Dehiba.
The 40 to 50 men in Urwah Company are part of a couple of hundred in the Brigade of the Revolutionaries of Sabratha. Like Bashir, they’re from Sabratha, a coastal city of 100,000 famous for its magnificent Roman ruins, a far cry from this hazy, parched no man’s land. Because Sabratha was retaken by Qaddafi’s forces after an initial uprising in February, many men fled 60 miles south to continue the fight. Their furthest outposts are three or four miles from areas patrolled by Qaddafi troops. The Sabratha fighters there can hear their enemy over the walkie-talkies both sides use for field communication. Some of the men have tried to convince Qaddafi’s soldiers to surrender, but haven’t gotten far.
The nearest town, Zintan, is a 15-minute drive up hairpin turns through a mesa that looks a lot like parts of the American west. But it’s an insular, conservative place very different from Libya’s coastal cities. In two days walking and driving around Zintan, I see only two women on the street, both with faces covered.
“Zintan: love it or leave it,” quips the youthful-looking, 43-year-old Dr. Ibrahim, part of the group brought in from Djerba by Colonel Bashir. He’s a Sabratha-born, British-educated specialist in neuromuscular disease, who came here from Britain on his summer vacation with aid for the front-line fighters. Unfortunately, the high-quality British running shoes he hoped to donate were confiscated by Tunisian customs as “commercial merchandise.” But his group has succeeded in bringing a third British ambulance here for the fighters.
While in Benghazi and smaller eastern coastal cities like Bayda and Derna, Libyans are exploring larger social changes, in Zintan, life feels more static. Yet here, too, shopkeepers press food on me for free, and there’s a spirit of generosity to foreigners, along with some quasi-Appalachian suspicion.
At the gravel pit, the men of Urwah Company are grateful for electricity and running water and the three simple meals a day prepared by one of their group. They know many other fighters have it worse. Lunch on the day I visited was macaroni with chunks of lamb, followed by green melon and tea. But they are impatient to get on with retaking their home town of Sabratha before the fasting month of Ramadan begins in just a few days. During Ramadan, the company won’t be eating or even drinking water between sunrise and sunset (only front-line fighters are allowed to break their fast).
Baha, 23, tells me that they are getting desperate to do something, so much so that they don’t care if they live or die, “which isn’t good.” Lanky, with stringy hair and a wispy beard, he’s one of a fair number of English speakers at the camp. (“I’m sorry Qaddafi did not give me the chance to become educated and learn English,” another man tells me in Arabic Baha translates; Libya’s public schools stopped teaching foreign languages at one point, with private courses available only to the middle and upper classes.)
Baha, born in England, has a degree in financial computing from the United Kingdom and for the last two years worked with the Libyan Investment Authority in Tripoli. He tried to flee to Tunisia in June. The border police confiscated his Libyan passport, and his family drove him south to the desert instead, where he was met by fighters from Urwah Company on June 19. The company’s namesake Urwah, a 41-year-old Sabratha man killed in Brega near the start of the revolution, was a cousin of his, and his father recently visited him here from London. An uncle, a fighter stationed at the Tunisian border, told Baha not to participate in the most recent action Urwah Company undertook, in Gwalish, because he was too green.
Sabratha is so close that fighters based here used to make their way at night to its outskirts. But a few weeks ago, Qaddafi’s forces tightened security within and around the town. They’ve also arrested an increasing number of citizens, whether on suspicion of trying to flee to Tunisia, as many western Libyans have done, or of helping the freedom fighters. Even taking a phone call from someone at the front is enough for imprisonment. Libya has two phone networks, and one is still under Qaddafi’s control. The other, Libyana, was hacked by the revolutionaries and is free for calls within the network, though it can’t dial out of network.
Almost every man I meet from Sabratha reels off a list of jailed relatives; Bashir’s brother is among them. The owner of the gravel company was promptly arrested when he returned to Sabratha from setting it up for the fighters. Most detainees have been sent to prison in Tripoli. Mohamed al-Fitory, a dignified 56-year-old retired high school English teacher who taught some of the men fighting here, says there are 50,000 prisoners in Tripoli, including his eldest son and four of his nephews. In fluent English, he matter of factly states he expects some of the prisoners will be shot by Qaddafi’s men in the last days of the regime.
When I express surprise that a man of his age, father of eight and grandfather of seven, is fighting alongside men of 19, he says, “Qaddafi makes no difference between the people who fight and those who do not. It is imposed upon us.” He does daily weapons practice from 7 to 11 a.m.
While Colonel Bashir adjusts the positions of three men who shoot at the homemade targets, a fighter who is a fisherman in civilian life tries to make explosives using machine gun rounds and tin foil. We watch as he sets the packet on fire—but it burns rather than explodes. “I guess it needs more work‚ a lot more work!” Baha jokes. The improvised missile bases welded here are more impressive, U.S.-made 2.75-inch rockets triggered by car batteries. The men here received weapons training from Qatari soldiers and Tunisians, but they don’t have enough ammunition to practice as often as they need to.
The Sabratha Brigade men are urbanites, most with at least some college, and they are sophisticated enough to be aware of the possibilities for self-dramatization in their situation. “I’d never held a gun in my life” and “I never expected to be a fighter” are common refrains. Quite apart from Qaddafi’s success at making sure only his guys owned guns, Libyan culture is far less oriented to physical training than American culture. Some of the men don’t even have running shoes, much less army boots; hence Dr. Ibrahim’s donation. Their barracks are filled with black-wheeled suitcases, not backpacks.
Yet they’ve adapted to this new life, with impressive self-discipline and morale. Rotating crews keep the bathrooms and kitchens cleaner than I’ve seen in many small American bases in Afghanistan, and the idea of sneaking in drugs or alcohol is unheard of. (Most of the men pray five times a day.) They do have a satellite TV, but I don’t see anyone watching it on my visit. They drink water from cutoff plastic water bottles.
The Sabrathans have the advantage of being from a small country and a face-to-face society. Even those educated overseas, like Canadian-born Hammam, a 20-year-old student, soon fit seamlessly into the group. Though the men are from every walk of life—I met a fireman, a mechanic, a taxi driver, a cook, a pharmacy student, and a couple of engineers—most knew each other from Sabratha and many are related. This is reminiscent of American militias in our Revolution, and even the Civil War.
But also like those militias, each of the handful of brigades here seems to make decisions on its own, with only loose coordination with the -others or with the titular commanders in Benghazi.
My trip with Colonel Bashir was arranged under the auspices of Benghazi-based Mustafa Sagezli, the American-educated deputy commander of the Martyrs of the 17th of February Brigade. While the term “brigade” in the Western Mountains often refers to a mere couple of hundred men, the Martyrs of the 17th of February actually has the numbers of an American Army brigade, around 3,000, scattered around Libya. But few people in the Sabratha Brigade or in Zintan seem to know who Sagezli is. Decisions are apparently made by the local military council in Zintan, then referred upward to Benghazi.
A young friend who fought around Nalut with the Tripoli Brigade, trained by Sagezli’s men in Benghazi, estimates that all the units in the Western Mountains operate autonomously and don’t add up to 1,000 men altogether.
The good news here is on the ground level: These men from Sabratha are, like the Libyans I met in Benghazi, smart, fairly well-educated, motivated, and self-disciplined. But though there’s vague talk of an upcoming offensive, there’s little discussion of strategy. The plan seems to be to move forward to cut Tripoli off from its coastal link to Tunisia. But no one could explain how 1,000 men could surround a city of two million. Several men asked me to tell the world that they need heavy weapons and four-by-four vehicles that can cross the desert; with these, they explain that they could sneak up on Qaddafi’s forces. This may be true, but even a thousand men with heavy weapons wouldn’t end the war.
Meanwhile, the men here report that conditions in the Qaddafi-held western Libyan coast continue to deteriorate. In Tripoli, men sleep in their cars in miles-long lines for gas, tossing their trash out the window. Garbage trucks work once every week or two, and electricity, says Hammam, is “on and off, mostly off.” In Sabratha, they hear, some food prices have shot up by 300 percent. This Ramadan looks to be a grim one in western Libya.