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The War for Libya’s West Coast

9:35 AM, Sep 2, 2011 • By ANN MARLOWE
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Libya—Here, west of Tripoli, the revolutionaries are fighting largely without direction from Benghazi's Transitional National Council. I’m traveling with three Sabratha fighters—Rowad, his brother Ahmed, and their cousin Mansur. The goal is to get to the frontline at Adjilat, where they plan to join a large force campaigning against one of the remaining groups of Qaddafi loyalists.

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We pass a burned-out car that held three Qaddafi fighters from Adjilat. They were surrounded during the battle for Sabratha and told to surrender, but continued to drive forward. Reluctantly, Sabratha fighters shot the car, killing the two passengers. The driver survived but, for reasons unknown, remained in the car for two hours as he burned to death. The Sabratha fighters buried their corpses, in keeping with Islamic law. 

Fighters from the Sabratha Brigade say they tell their foes to put down their weapons and save themselves, but they refuse and fight on, either out of mistrust or conviction. They are said to be a mixture of Libyan army soldiers and the notorious “volunteers”—Qaddafi shock troops recruited after February. The people of Adjilat are Qaddafi supporters, I’m told, because they are uneducated and believe what they see on official TV, which is now off the air. 

Mansur is representative of the well-educated young men of Sabratha; he graduated from high school last year and plans to attend the American University in Cairo to study business administration and finance. Ahmed, nineteen-years-old,was kicked out of high school for anti-Qaddafi talk and worked as a fisherman until the revolution broke out.

The first task is to get gas. A week ago, I’m told, the line for gas was six days. The hour wait now is a mere trifle.

It helps that this gas provided by the TNC in Benghazi is just three dinars for 20 liters. In recent weeks gas cost as much here as in the U.S.: 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 by 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 in every market water is sold out. 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 or triple the usual price. There's also toilet paper, which 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 Jones cane-sugar sweetened green apple soda. How on earth did that this boutique-brand soft drink make it to a shelf in a Libyan market?

Finally, we drive east 15 kilometers to Tleel to join up trucks with fighters from Sabratha and Zwara. By now the trucks of the revolutionaries carry far more heavy weaponry than a month earlier, much of it captured in the last week or so from defeated Qaddafi troops. (There are disputes over who gets to inherit the best weapons, with Sabratha and Zwara fighters saying the Zintan brigade, one of the fiercest, has appropriated more than its share.) The remaining Qaddafi forces face a more dangerous enemy now than even a couple of weeks ago.  

Amid 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 on to 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.

Rowad decides to visit some of the town’s elderly and housebound to bring them packaged food, As soon as I get in his car, shells land just behind us. Rowad motions me to get down and guns the engine.

A mile down the road, driving as though nothing had happened, he spots a car full of old men and pulls over. Greeting them civilly, he offers them cans of tunafish and tomato sauce and packages of pasta, the staple Libyan diet. As we drive away, he tells me that they are Qaddafi supporters. By giving them food, the fighters are trying to convince them that the regime’s propaganda against the revolutionaries is false.

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

As we drive back to the center of Sabratha, Rowad pulls in behind a speeding black SUV. It’s headed for the Sabratha hospital. The Qaddafi regime began construction on a giant new hospital twenty years ago and it still stands incomplete. What passes for  a hospital here is a makeshift affair. By the time we enter the ER the wounded fighter is already on a hospital bed and hooked up to an IV.

He is much older than most of the fighters, maybe in his mid-fifties. Unlike the young men, who wear the baggy fatigues with lanky grace, the middle-aged look imprisoned by them. His thick grey beard makes 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, says his wounds were very serious. “We will do what we can for him,” says Ali.

Still, the man died a few days later.

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