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The Fight for Sabratha

2:26 PM, Aug 16, 2011 • By ANN MARLOWE
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Around 1 p.m., the officers make gradual preparations for the front. General Mohamed changes his cheap black sandals for white sneakers, and all the men put their magazines in their assault rifles. We are waiting to meet up with another convoy of Zwara fighters, but the general’s field radio doesn’t work, nor does his Immersat phone.

By 2:30, a plan is announced: Even though we can’t find the rest of the Zwara fighters, we’re going to Sabratha, to join the Sabratha Brigade in retaking the city. The men are thrilled, and there are many cries of “Allahu Akbar!” By 3, we are in the outskirts of

Sabratha. Shops are closed, common during Ramadan in the daylight hours, but there is some civilian traffic, with passengers waving and making the “V” sign or flashing their lights. On a shabby, dusty street of shuttered shops four kilometers from the town center, our convoy pulls into a large open area opposite a huge mosque and a water tower. Everyone gets out of the cars and shouts “Allahu Akbar” since it seems the Sabratha Brigade has done its work.

Suddenly, heavy weapons fire erupts and General Mohamed jumps in the car and drives away along with most of the others, in the direction of the fire, leaving me among a handful of abandoned cars. The fighters who are left on foot motion to me to move forward to the wall of a building where they crouch, trying to figure out where they’re receiving fire from. After a tense ten minutes or so, we break for the main street. The rest of the cars return to park here. The two trucks with homemade antiaircraft guns dart here and there, scouting for Qaddafi troops.

“Qaddafi prisoners!” says one of the fighters, motioning to me to walk fifty yards back in the direction we came to see a pickup truck full of African men in civvies. It wasn’t clear who captured them. As soon as I start photographing the prisoners, gunfire erupts again and everyone falls back to the warehouses.

Just as we run for cover, a 19-year-old fighter from the Sabratha Brigade, Ahmed Sola, whom I met a few weeks ago while visiting their camp, appears out of nowhere with his friend Mansour. It is a trademark "small war" moment. They greet me, pose for photos, and then move toward the sea and the main fight.

At 4 p.m., occasional booms of rocket fire indicate that the fight for Sabratha continues, without the men here having joined it. The general puts some fighters to work with a conveniently nearby bulldozer closing off the main street with two huge dirt piles. This is to make sure that Qaddafi troops or sympathizers can’t hurtle through. Everyone else crouches in the shade or tries to sleep; many got no sleep last night. Supply convoys pass by twice, providing the men with bottled water, a surprising American Army touch. The Libyans are a lot better with logistics than they are with most of the rest of the infrastructure of military life.

The muezzin of the mosque a few blocks away continues a steady stream of inspirational messages, prayers and calls of “Allahu Akbar,” but it’s not clear how the fight for the center of Sabratha—just 8 kilometers from some of the world’s best preserved Roman ruins—is going.

The men aren’t sure if they will be asked to join the battle in the center of Sabratha, retreat, or go on to Zwara perhaps by another route. They scrounge in their cars for stray bullets to load into clips. Some scrutinize bullets, trying to figure out if they are the size they need. Jalul, a thin, 32-year-old civil engineer wearing body armor and a full uniform, says apologetically, “Today is the first time I fired my gun.”

At around 7:30, the Ramadan fast ends, and a handful of locals come out to offer the Zwara fighters pieces of surprisingly good homemade chocolate cake, cookies, dates, and other food. A half hour later, General Mohammed gets some bad news on his satellite phone: Fifty trucks of Qaddafi volunteers are headed to Sabratha, coming via Jumayil, another Qaddafi stronghold 10 kilometers south of Zwara. These so-called volunteers from Mali or Chad are essentially mercenaries, sometimes given Libyan passports in return for fighting for Qaddafi. The revolutionaries’ tenderness toward fellow Libyans does not extend to the volunteers, many of whom are accused of atrocities.

General Mohamed tells the men to retreat, but some of the fighters object vociferously. They want to go on to Zwara, albeit without communications, and possibly at the risk of meeting overwhelming numbers of volunteers. But the general wins this debate. Our small group will return to Mahmiah, an hour south, to spend the night there. Just one truck with an improvised anti-aircraft gun will stay; they drive off to join the Sabratha Brigade with great whoops and shouts of “Allahu Akbar!”

Once we reach Mahmiah, at about 11 p.m., the general decides that we will return all the way to Jadu, which we reach by 3 a.m. “Long day, long war,” he says. The general offers me a room in his personal quarters, which he shares with his three teenaged sons. There’s electricity and I immediately start to charge my Blackberry. But there is no running water and the conditions are squalid. One of his sons comes in with an iPod and asks me if I have a USB charger, a reminder that the family has fallen far from their former middle class existence.

It isn't until Monday afternoon that the news trickles out that Qaddafi's forces have fled the center of Sabratha, although there are reports of shelling from outside. Sabratha is now considered free. Monday evening, the Zwara men send me to break the Ramadan fast at a nearby mosque. About fifty mostly middle aged men—almost all refugees from newly liberated Zawiyah—are gathered around tables of donated home cooked food.

Sadeg Allab, a spokesman for the Zawiyah local council, had just returned from a visit to his hometown. He reported that the road from the Zawiyah Brigade’s mountain camp on the coast is secured. But though Zawiyah is considered free, shelling from Tripoli claimed the lives of nine people Monday. Zawiyah is a spread out town of 25-30 square kilometers, he explains, and not all areas are equally secure. His friend Oun Khair—a physicist who perfected his English in his Canadian education—added that they hope to be able to return to live in Zawiyah soon.

Mustafa Marwan, an Egyptian volunteer with the Arab Medical Union (funded here by Mercy USA), reports that the AMU's five-person trauma team performed 20 major operations on wounded revolutionary fighters between the 10th and 13th of August at the hospital in Zintan, 22 kilometers east of Jadu, where I encountered him checking his email.

Ann Marlowe is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute and blogs for World Affairs.

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