The forgotten war for Libya’s West Coast

(A bad edit (rare at the Standard) of this appeared in the Weekly Standard blog, 9/2/2011, at

In the forgotten war for Libya’s west coast

By Ann Marlowe

Monday, August 22, Sabratha

The black SUV ahead of us is shockingly fast even in this country without speed limits. Ahmad Sola, 29, a muscular, bushy-haired fighter from the Sabratha Brigade, trails the car. Sitting next to Rowad, I’m not sure what’s going on. It is typical of this forgotten war west of Tripoli, fought largely without direction from Benghazi’s Transitional National Council and almost entirely without foreign or domestic media attention.

Since leaving the Gamar Hotel at 11 – the dark glass of many of the windows, including one of mine, bearing two foot diameter holes from missiles fired by Gaddafi’s soldiers on August 14 in the battle that freed the city – I had been driving with three young Sabratha Brigade fighters, Rowad and his brother Ahmed and their cousin Mansur. Their ostensible goal is the frontline at Adjilat, where they plan to join a large force fighting against one of the remaining groups of Gaddafi fighters. Fighters from the Sabratha Brigade say they’ve told them to lay down their weapons and save their lives, but either out of distrust or conviction they continue to fight. They are said to be a mixture of Libyan army soldiers and the notorious “volunteers”, Gaddafi shock troops recruited after February by any means necessary.

“They know the area very well,” Mansur ElFathily explains. “But today some people from Adjilat have come to explain to us how to move.” Mansur is representative of the well-educated young men of Sabratha; he graduated from high school last year and will attend the American University in Cairo soon and study business administration and finance. He and others say that the people of Adjilat are Gaddafi true believers because they are uneducated and believe what they see on official TV (now off the air).

First I ride with 19-year old Ahmed and in a car without doors or any windows while Rowad borrows a normal passenger sedan from a neighbor. Ahmed – kicked out of high school for anti-Gaddafi talk and working as a fisherman when the revolution broke out – is a natural tinkerer and hotwired this confiscated Gaddafi militia car after it was nearly destroyed in the August 14 battle..(SEE PHOTO) Just around the corner from the Gamar, we pass one of Sabratha’s grimmer new tourist attractions, a burned-out car that held three Gaddafi fighters from Adjilat. They were surrounded during the battle for Sabratha and told to surrender, but continued to drive forward. Relucantly, Sabratha fighters shot the car, killing the two passengers. The driver survived – and for reasons unknown remained in the car for two hours as he burned to death. (In accordance with Islamic law, the bodies of the three were buried by the Sabratha fighters.)

The first task is getting gas. As thuar or revolutionary fighters, the two men take their cars to the head of a mile- long lineup. “It was six days in the line a week ago”, I was told; everyone regards the hour wait now as a mere trifle. It helps that this gas provided by the TNC in Benghazi is just 3 dinars for 20 liters – in recent weeks it had gone to American price levels, 60 dinars or $40 for 20 liters. This is still the price if you buy it on the street, from the pickup trucks that sell plastic containers. Ahmed funnels the gas directly into the tank – removing the back seat cushion and opening the tank underneath – because the usual side opening isn’t working.

Next we do some food shopping. As fighters going to the frontline, the men aren’t fasting for Ramadan. But water is sold out of every market – in the weeks leading up to Sabratha’s liberation on the 14th, the electricity had been on only a few hours a day, which meant that water pumps didn’t work. There is also no fruit. Otherwise there is a reasonably full selection of the monotonous stock of small town Libyan food, at prices double and treble the usual (a can of tuna for 2.5 dinars or about $1.70 as opposed to 1 or 1.23 dinars or $.70 to $1). There’s also toilet paper – something I haven’t been able to buy in a week, since there is none in Jadu where I have been staying. Leaving one shop I see something that makes me think I’m hallucinating: a bottle of the boutique brand Jones cane-sugar sweetened green apple soda. How on earth did that make it here?

Finally we drive east 15 kilometers to join trucks of fighters from Sabratha and from Zwara, the westernmost city in Libya, at Tleel. This is an unattractive stretch of highway about 20 kilometers from Sabratha and 40 from Zwara. Adjilat is a few kilometers south of here.By now the thuar trucks boast far more heavy weaponry than a month earlier, much of it captured in the last week or so from defeated Gaddafi troops. (There are internecine disputes over the best weapons, with Sabratha and Zwara fighters saying the Zintan brigade, one of the fiercest, has appropriated more than its share.) The remaining Gaddafi forces face a more dangerous enemy now than even a couple of weeks ago.

Amid the countless shouts of “Allahu Akbar”, booms of incoming fire ring out. I’m told not to stand in the opening between two buildings while taking photos, though many fighters mill about. Mansur, Ahmed and Rowad now say they won’t go onto Adjilat. Ahmed’s car has been deemed unworthy of the front and apparently Rowad doesn’t have permission to take his borrowed passenger sedan, which already had a thick crack running the length of the front window. Instead, Rowad decides to visit some elderly or housebound people to bring them packaged food, As soon as I get in his car, shells land just behind us.. Rowad motions me to get down – the front seats are already conveniently set at first class airline recline levels – and guns the engine.

A mile down the road, driving as though nothing had happened, he spots a car full of old men and pulled over. Greeting them civilly, he offers them a handful of cans of tuna and tomato sauce and packages of pasta –the staple Libyan diet. As we drive away, he confides that they are Gaddafi true believers. The food distribution – which seems to come from the fighters’ now-no-longer needed provisions – is meant to convince the diehards that the regime propaganda against the revolutionaries is false.

Closer to Sabratha, Rowad pulls into a group of middle-class houses. No one is around. Then we spot a solitary man sitting in a traditional mejlis on the floor. Rowad stacks a few days’ worth of food and water in front of him. His name is Mohamed El Jar and his two sons were impressed into the Libyan army, he says. He is 76 and alone and hasn’t been out in eight of nine days.

As we drive back to the center of Sabratha, Rowad pulls in behind the speeding black SUV.
It becomes clear that its goal is the Sabratha hospital, a makeshift affair; the Gaddafi regime began a giant new hospital near the sea twenty years ago and it still stands incomplete. By the time we entered the ER the wounded fighter is already on a hospital bed and hooked up to an IV.

He’d been shot at Tleel. He was much older than the norm, maybe mid fifties. Unlike the young men, who wore the baggy fatigues with lanky grace, the middle aged look imprisoned by them. He had a thick grey beard which made it difficult to see the wounds to his carotid artery and larynx. Dr. Ibrahim Ali, a Sabratha native returned from his home in the UK to treat the war wounded, said his wounds were very serious, “but we will do what we can for him.”

A few days later, I find out that he died.

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