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A Night at the Gravel Pit (Updated)

3:38 PM, Aug 4, 2011 • By ANN MARLOWE
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Djerba, Libya—As Saturday night wears on, the young men talk more and more confidently about an offensive they anticipate the next day, the big move 100 km north that will allow them to liberate their city of Sabratha. The mood is exultant, with some speculation that we will move forward at dawn. The men talk of showing me the famous Roman ruins, the beach, the good fish restaurants. I can’t believe my luck: I more or less sneaked into the camp tonight with a British Libyan doctor, Ibrahim, part of a group that took me in from Djerba five days ago. It’s my second visit to the camp in a few days, but my first night there, and it looks as though I’ve lucked onto a major offensive!

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Photo Credit: Ann Marlowe

“We’ve been hearing that all week,” objects Ahmed, 20, a graphic design student from England who drove in with Dr. Ibrahim and me. The mood shifts for a moment, but the sense of the group is that this time the news is true. 

No one will be sorry to leave the camp here in the Jafara Plain, 1,800 feet below the mesa town of Zintan. It’s a former gravel pit that offers almost no shade in the scorching days and little breeze in the barely tolerable nights. No one will be very sorry to leave Zintan, either, a place so conservative that before the February 17 revolution no cigarettes were sold in town. Women don’t walk in the streets usually, and in six days I only see four, three with their faces fully covered.  

We’re sitting outside the concrete block building that holds the Urwah Company’s living quarters, kitchen and bathrooms, perched on dirty mattresses on metal beds. Because it’s dark the pieces of metal scrap and the endless empty water bottles aren’t as obvious, but it’s no beauty spot. The young men have chosen this area to sleep because it won’t be hit by the sun until 8 a.m. Libyans aren’t early risers;  a former Qaddafi Air Force pilot, Col. Juma Ebrahim, complained to me earlier that day that the revolutionaries don’t want to fight at 7 a.m. But luckily,  he added, neither do Qaddafi’s soldiers.

The men of the company are housed four or five to a room, and this group are roommates. They’re one of the less religious groups—one complains that he can’t wear his baggy shorts in Zintan. Several have been raised outside Libya, and most speak at least some English.

There are two short, dapper university student brothers, Abdel and Mohamed Said, from Manchester; skinny, tall Ahmed Sola, 19, from Sabratha, thrown out of high school for anti-Qaddafi talk and one of the most talented fighters in the company, and another Ahmed from Lancashire, a smart, surprisingly mature 20-year-old graphic design student who loves Japanese animation and games. His dad is a dentist and he comes from a prosperous clan. Someone shows me a homemade video of the day’s big news—Ahmed Sola captured seven Qaddafi soldiers bloodlessly.

The video shows the captured soldiers being unloaded from a pickup truck in the camp of the Urwah Company. They have cut off their uniform sleeves at the shoulders to adjust to the crushing heat, though two are colonels. One seems confused, his eyes bloodshot; the brothers say he reeked of alcohol and a couple of them had white pills in their pockets. They look scared, understandably; as one of the fighters here put it, if the shoe were on the other foot, and they were revolutionaries taken by Qaddafi’s forces, they would have already been shot. 

The capture of these seven soldiers was accidental, but owed a lot to the quick thinking and confidence of 19-year-old Ahmed. “Natural born killer,” the other Ahmed jokes, and although Ahmed Sola says he wants to be an inventor, he has a lot of skills useful for war. He was a fisherman after being kicked out of school, and escaped Sabratha by stealing a Libyan navy boat and taking it to Tunisia by himself. Because Libyans fish with dynamite, he knows how to make explosives. And he has a preternatural calm.

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