The Magazine

With the Sabratha Brigade in Libya

Paper targets, Lacoste shirts, and homemade explosives.

Aug 8, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 44 • By ANN MARLOWE
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Qasr el-Haj, Jafara Valley, Libya
Colonel Bashir sits on a mat in the shade of a concrete block building, part of a group cutting out small white circles from copy paper. The men, who are half his forty-something years and wearing a mixture of American sportswear (Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren, and Lacoste shirts) and dun-colored camouflage, glue the little circles onto paper spray-painted with big black circles. These are targets. Bashir, a compact, self-contained former colonel in Muammar Qaddafi’s army, is giving sniper training to Urwah Company of the Sabratha Brigade here at their base, a sun-baked Jafara Valley gravel company donated by its owner.

Qaddafi Rally Picture

Qaddafi supporters rally in Sabratha’s Roman ruins.

REUTERS / Chris Helgren

Colonel Bashir made a daring escape into Tunisia and back into free Libya at the Dehiba crossing in June to join this group. He now goes back and forth through free-Libyan held areas regularly. This valley lies below the 1,800-foot-high tablelands known as the Western Mountains, about 50 miles from the most important town in the area, Gharyan, still held by Qaddafi’s forces. We are at the eastern terminus of free Libyan territory here, about 60 miles from Dehiba.

The 40 to 50 men in Urwah Company are part of a couple of hundred in the Brigade of the Revolutionaries of Sabratha. Like Bashir, they’re from Sabratha, a coastal city of 100,000 famous for its magnificent Roman ruins, a far cry from this hazy, parched no man’s land. Because Sabratha was retaken by Qaddafi’s forces after an initial uprising in February, many men fled 60 miles south to continue the fight. Their furthest outposts are three or four miles from areas patrolled by Qaddafi troops. The Sabratha fighters there can hear their enemy over the walkie-talkies both sides use for field communication. Some of the men have tried to convince Qaddafi’s soldiers to surrender, but haven’t gotten far.

The nearest town, Zintan, is a 15-minute drive up hairpin turns through a mesa that looks a lot like parts of the American west. But it’s an insular, conservative place very different from Libya’s coastal cities. In two days walking and driving around Zintan, I see only two women on the street, both with faces covered.

“Zintan: love it or leave it,” quips the youthful-looking, 43-year-old Dr. Ibrahim, part of the group brought in from Djerba by Colonel Bashir. He’s a Sabratha-born, British-educated specialist in neuromuscular disease, who came here from Britain on his summer vacation with aid for the front-line fighters. Unfortunately, the high-quality British running shoes he hoped to donate were confiscated by Tunisian customs as “commercial merchandise.” But his group has succeeded in bringing a third British ambulance here for the fighters.

While in Benghazi and smaller eastern coastal cities like Bayda and Derna, Libyans are exploring larger social changes, in Zintan, life feels more static. Yet here, too, shopkeepers press food on me for free, and there’s a spirit of generosity to foreigners, along with some quasi-Appalachian suspicion.

At the gravel pit, the men of Urwah Company are grateful for electricity and running water and the three simple meals a day prepared by one of their group. They know many other fighters have it worse. Lunch on the day I visited was macaroni with chunks of lamb, followed by green melon and tea. But they are impatient to get on with retaking their home town of Sabratha before the fasting month of Ramadan begins in just a few days. During Ramadan, the company won’t be eating or even drinking water between sunrise and sunset (only front-line fighters are allowed to break their fast).

Baha, 23, tells me that they are getting desperate to do something, so much so that they don’t care if they live or die, “which isn’t good.” Lanky, with stringy hair and a wispy beard, he’s one of a fair number of English speakers at the camp. (“I’m sorry Qaddafi did not give me the chance to become educated and learn English,” another man tells me in Arabic Baha translates; Libya’s public schools stopped teaching foreign languages at one point, with private courses available only to the middle and upper classes.)

Baha, born in England, has a degree in financial computing from the United Kingdom and for the last two years worked with the Libyan Investment Authority in Tripoli. He tried to flee to Tunisia in June. The border police confiscated his Libyan passport, and his family drove him south to the desert instead, where he was met by fighters from Urwah Company on June 19. The company’s namesake Urwah, a 41-year-old Sabratha man killed in Brega near the start of the revolution, was a cousin of his, and his father recently visited him here from London. An uncle, a fighter stationed at the Tunisian border, told Baha not to participate in the most recent action Urwah Company undertook, in Gwalish, because he was too green.

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