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!
“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.
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.
We take an exhausting nine-hour drive through a dust storm into Tunisia, and arrive in Djerba—location of the Sabratha exile community—at 3 a.m. Just before the turn off to Djerba is a road sign pointing to Tripoli, just 237 km east. We all exchange emails and Tunisian phone numbers, and the next day I call Ahmed from Lancashire. You guys should come to my hotel to go swimming, I tell him. Great beach. “Ahmed went back to Zintan a few hours ago,” Ahmed says. “He got a call early this morning saying that they need him.” I feel for the lanky teenager, on the verge of taking a swim at last, pulled back to the grimy camp. Maybe the offensive is beginning at last.
UPDATE: Dr. Ibrahim writes: "I came back home. I feel I should stay to help the guys. The advance toward the north started yesterday early morning. The guys took the Al-Mahmaya (a Qaddafi military base, between our base and Sabratha). This is good news. But a few are injured, 2 are missing, and one from Zintan was killed. Masood, who was supposed to accompany us to Djerba and see his family, but had been asked by the leader to stay, is one of the missing guys. Very nice man who used to live in Holland before 17th Feb. One of the injuried by land mine is Hasan. He is one of the leaders. Very nice and brave guy, known by the other guys as Sarkozy! I am trying to sort out a few things here so that I can go back soon."
UPDATE II: Dr. Ibrahim again writes in: "I have got news from the the guys. The missing guys have been found safe this morning. Qaddafi's troops tried to attack our fighters new position again, but the guys were ready and pushed them back. Yesterday's fighting left more than 200 hundred soldiers killed (most of them were from Chad and Niger!). News from Sabratha & Surman mentioned that hospitals are full of injuried from Qaddafi forces. I hope that Sabratha will be soon under the hand of its people..."
Ann Marlowe is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute and blogs for World Affairs.