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A Night at the Gravel Pit (Updated)

3:38 PM, Aug 4, 2011 • By ANN MARLOWE
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Ahmed was one of a couple of dozen men on a reconnaissance trip north from the Urwah company base. They stopped for lunch and a swim in a water tank. Ahmed spotted a group of enemy soldiers walking toward them. Though the regular Libyan army uniform is green, apparently enough affiliated groups use camo, or confusion was so great, that the Qaddafi troops thought the freedom fighters were from their own unit.  (Or perhaps they couldn’t believe their supposedly furtive enemy would take a swim in the open.) Ahmed greeted the Qaddafi troops calmly, asking how they were, and then informed them that they were surrounded, got them to put down their weapons, and herded them onto a truck. The capture was a great coup not only for the two colonels taken but also for the weapons, ammunition and money obtained.

Ahmed from Lancashire, ribbing Mohamed Said, from Manchester: “This guy brought a Louis Vuitton bag and belt to an army training camp!”

Mohamed Said: “And a Louis Vuitton wallet, too!”

He and his brother Abdul Said are the sons of Hadi Said, a Libyan doctor in England. He was an outspoken opponent of Qaddafi even in the Seventies, getting into a fistfight with a Libyan diplomat when he went to renew his passport. He was cut off from the regime and lived on the streets for four years, but managed to get a certificate as a blood technician. He married and started a Libyan football team in Manchester. In July, he and Mohamed and Abdul drove a well-equipped ambulance paid for by the Libyan community all the way to Genoa, and then took a ferry to Tunis and drove it on from there through the Dehiba crossing point to the Western Mountains.

Around 1, I move inside to the room vacated by my new friends. Since they each have just one mattress, I sleep on the floor, but my air mattress and sleeping bag keep me pretty comfortable. The problem is the heat, even with a fan directly pointed at my feet.

Mornings are grim at the gravel pit, and no one is in a hurry to begin them. Apparently some of the men rise for the pre-dawn prayer, and some then go on a 15k run through the desert before it becomes too hot to contemplate exercise. But many men are still sleeping past 9:30. There’s Arabic coffee and the peculiar Libyan breakfast of tuna sandwiches, cakes and milk. Then there’s the effort to stay out of the heat.

The mood this morning is particularly down, with the word going out that there is no move north toward Sabratha anytime soon. Worse yet, Ramadan begins at sundown, which means the men won’t be able to eat or drink in daylight hours for four weeks.  While the Koran allows fighters to ignore the fast, this apparently applies only to those at the frontlines who are actually firing their weapons.  

Libyans are volatile; the same men who talked of showing me Sabratha last night are now discussing going back to Tunisia. Ahmed the graphic designer decides to return to Djerba for the first days of Ramadan; he freely admits to finding the life of the camp killingly dull. Ahmed Sola is going to come along too. I imagine the desert camp is even more painful for him, who loves the sea.

A couple of men in their thirties come over and say that the offensive will begin soon. But why would they let one of the best fighters go on leave if that’s true? Why would Ahmed Sola quit the fight now? In fact, the constant talk of an imminent offensive may be one of the few ways commanders have to retain an impatient all-volunteer force.

I weigh my options for a moment. If there’s no offensive, I should go to Benghazi, which has just erupted in violence. And  it’s certainly easier to travel with two Libyan freedom fighters who can get us past the couple of dozen checkpoints on the way to Tunisia. But the dream of Sabratha beckons.

Just then Ahmed comes back with some bad news. Some of the more religious, older men object to the presence of a woman in the camp during Ramadan, when the mind is supposed to be on holy things. I am not welcome to stay longer, “though they thank you for your support and it is nothing personal.” Some of the  young men promise that once they get to Sabratha, they’ll drive back to Zintan to pick me up and show me their city’s famous ruins.  But Zintan is not much of a place to wait.

Leaving is almost as bad as staying. The two Ahmeds find a taxi that has fuel—no small issue, since the freedom fighters have bought up almost everything available—and after a series of Third World delays we leave Zintan, I hope for the last time.

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