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The Fight for Sabratha

Western Libya —- Only about thirty volunteers of the three hundred strong Martyr Wasam Qaliyah Brigade are gathered around former Libyan army general Senussi Mohamed as he outlines the plan for the liberation of the coastal city of Sabratha, about 90 kilometers north from Qaddafi’s forces. Crouched in a pleasant pine grove in Jafara Valley, just north of Zintan, they listen intently. This morning, they struck their camp in Jadu, in the western mountains, to join the Sabratha Brigade and volunteers from other cities in what’s planned as a big operation for this Lilliputian war, where groups of 100 or 200 barely trained volunteers skirmish in the streets of rundown cities.

Sabratha is directly ahead, but the men’s main objective is moving westward along the coastline to liberate their coastal hometown of Zwara, a busy port of 47,000 inhabitants, all ethnic Amazigh or Berber. About 100 kilometers west of Tripoli, Zwara is the first town of consequence in Libya as one enters from the Tunisian border, another 65 kilometers west.

Zwara is historically hostile to the Libyan dictatorship, which suppressed its distinctive language and culture. The townsfolk rebelled against Qaddafi on February 18th and remained free until March 14th when Qaddafi’s forces invaded the city with 700 men and 13 tanks. The government forces used Grad missiles and other anti-armor and anti-aircraft weapons, but the city’s fighters killed 16 of them and seized 300 weapons. Qaddafi’s forces killed seven locals and in the ensuing months have jailed more than 200, including women. There are allegations of rape as well.

Many of the inhabitants of Zwara fled to Tunisia, but a lot of men of fighting age went to Jadu, about 120 kilometers south in the western mountains, to train to retake their city. The inhabitants of Jadu are also ethnic Amazigh, and for the Amazigh this war is about two types of independence: not only freedom for Libya, but freedom to maintain their distinct ethnic identity. For decades, Qaddafi banned the teaching, broadcast or speaking of Amazigh, an ancient indigenous language written in an alphabet that looks like pictographs, called tefenagh. Children could not officially receive or use Amazigh names. Here, all the men speak in Amazigh.

There’s some talk of sleeping in their own beds in a night or two. All talk of the impending end of the war. It was reported just twelve hours ago that Qaddafi’s police fled into Tunisia. (They were later replaced and Qaddafi regained control of the border.) Two days earlier, revolutionary brigades captured the larger town of Zawiyah, 60 kilometers to the east and 40 kilometers from Tripoli. They also took Gharian, the largest town in the western mountains, an operation in which about 20 men of the Zwara brigade participated. Both were strategically significant actions. Controlling Gharian means cutting off Tripoli’s access to Algeria—where Qaddafi is said to get troops and munitions—and controlling Zawiyah cuts off Tripoli’s fuel and food supply lines from Tunisia.

This is supposed to be the Zwara fighters’ final departure from Jadu, so the trucks, SUVs, and passenger sedans that will carry them down to the coast today are full of their belongings. Few of the fighters have anything resembling a military kit: The cars are full of duffle bags and wheelies, even a juicer.

Perhaps the fighter with the most unusual skill set is the tall, 43-year-old Dr. Tarik Alatoshi, who received a Ph.D. in geographic information systems from a Chinese university. He spent 11 years in China and speaks the language fluently. Since he fled Zwara and came here in May, Alatoshi has served the Zwara brigade as an unofficial mediator between the excitable young men who want to rush to the fight, and the three professional army officers who command the brigade. He explains that the men don’t care if they die, but that it isn’t good for Libya if they do. They refuse his suggestions to use the body armor and helmets provided by foreign countries. “They think the helmets make them look like old men,” he says. More understandably, they hate the extra weight of the body armor, but, as he says, “If they are running, it is only for a few minutes. Mainly we are fighting from cars.”

Almost all of the men wear green camouflage uniform pants, but Alatoshi explains that these are training uniforms sent by Qatar. The more usefully camouflaged tan combat uniforms from Qatar are in short supply, as are uniform tops. Many wear patriotic t-shirts, some with the flag of the Amazigh.

Those accustomed to the operations of the U.S. Army will notice a few differences. For one, General Mohamed is pointing to a rough sketch on a clipboard that most of the men can’t see. He could have done what American officers often do in field conditions, and sketched a map on the dirt in front of the men. But it seems that he was trained in a much less participatory style of leadership. There is a culture clash here, pitting the extreme autonomy of the volunteers against what seems to have been the top-down culture of the Qaddafi army, and it’s not mediated by NCOs, who seem not to exist. I have never met a sergeant from the regular army in the other volunteer brigades, only officers ranking major and above. From the briefing, it is uncertain whether the general knows where Qaddafi’s forces are in Sabratha, or where the other forces that are supposed to be converging from different sides are to join up.

There is also an issue of numbers. Contrary to the Clausewitzian principle of concentration of forces, the revolutionaries seem to practice maximum dispersal. Some of the rest of the Zwara fighters are already an hour’s drive down in Jalat, southwest of Surman in the parched Jafara Valley, close to the rapidly advancing front line. About twenty others are part of a larger force that recaptured Gharian. And some remain at one of two well organized and fairly comfortable camps at schools in Jadu.

One problem is political: Since the fighters are unpaid volunteers, who can leave if dissatisfied, commanders have to promise or deliver action or an interesting experience in order to retain them. And they are much keener on fighting for their own village than for someone else’s. A group of 500 or 1,000 fighters from different towns’ brigades might be able to effectively intimidate Qaddafi’s forces sufficiently to force an overall retreat from not just Sabratha and Zwara but the whole coast all the way to Tunisia. But instead, platoon and company sized elements will pick and choose their fights.

On the three hour drive down to Sabratha, the men show decent weapons discipline, pointing their assault rifles in the air rather than at each other. But they are very short on ammunition, so short that most have little practice firing their weapons. Luckily, at this stage in the war, Qaddafi’s troops are often as likely to surrender as they are to fight.

There are six to seven fighters per vehicle. Dismounted, they are supposed to fight as a unit. The 300-man brigade’s three professional officers ride in a black Hyundai Tucson SUV. The little convoy begins with the Tucson, two pickup trucks, two passenger sedans, and one more SUV. One of the pickup trucks has a homemade rocket launcher manufactured by a man from nearby Kabaw nicknamed “Rambo.” While we are still in secure territory, the Tucson leads the way. As we approach Surman, a town newly taken—and not completely pacified—by the revolutionaries, the pickup trucks move to the fore.

Abdullah Dinwari, the second highest ranking of the three professional soldiers in the Zwara brigade, says of the rebels, “It is very difficult to work with these people. It is ‘please sit down’ and ‘please stand up.’ An army must be a dictatorship but they like democracy.” It is not encouraging when he says he is unfamiliar with the crude Qatar-supplied assault rifles in our SUV; he’s used to Kalashnikovs. But with five years of Russian training and a position in the special forces, Dinwari is light years ahead of the 19 to 21 year olds who form the bulk of the brigade.

General Mohamed, a tall, dark-skinned, and fit man in his 50s, known simply as Mr. Senussi to the fighters, explains the plan as he drives. We will go down to Surman and reach Jalat by nightfall, camping there before turning left towards Zwara. He says that we must wait for NATO clearance before advancing further. Otherwise our trucks might be bombed by NATO in the mistaken belief we are part of Qaddafi’s forces.

Assam Baka, a former Air Force operations room officer who’s the third highest ranking officer in the brigade, switches off driving duties with the general. When we stop for a bathroom break by a gully, we’re passed by a pickup truck full of captured African Qaddafi soldiers. General Mohamed points to the passenger sedans heading past us to the mountains. He says they are families fleeing Tripoli. Libya is a sparsely populated country, so a steady stream of refugees amounts to a car every five or ten minutes.

Around 1 p.m., the officers make gradual preparations for the front. General Mohamed changes his cheap black sandals for white sneakers, and all the men put their magazines in their assault rifles. We are waiting to meet up with another convoy of Zwara fighters, but the general’s field radio doesn’t work, nor does his Immersat phone.

By 2:30, a plan is announced: Even though we can’t find the rest of the Zwara fighters, we’re going to Sabratha, to join the Sabratha Brigade in retaking the city. The men are thrilled, and there are many cries of “Allahu Akbar!” By 3, we are in the outskirts of Sabratha. Shops are closed, common during Ramadan in the daylight hours, but there is some civilian traffic, with passengers waving and making the “V” sign or flashing their lights. On a shabby, dusty street of shuttered shops four kilometers from the town center, our convoy pulls into a large open area opposite a huge mosque and a water tower. Everyone gets out of the cars and shouts “Allahu Akbar” since it seems the Sabratha Brigade has done its work.

Suddenly, heavy weapons fire erupts and General Mohamed jumps in the car and drives away along with most of the others, in the direction of the fire, leaving me among a handful of abandoned cars. The fighters who are left on foot motion to me to move forward to the wall of a building where they crouch, trying to figure out where they’re receiving fire from. After a tense ten minutes or so, we break for the main street. The rest of the cars return to park here. The two trucks with homemade antiaircraft guns dart here and there, scouting for Qaddafi troops.

“Qaddafi prisoners!” says one of the fighters, motioning to me to walk fifty yards back in the direction we came to see a pickup truck full of African men in civvies. It wasn’t clear who captured them. As soon as I start photographing the prisoners, gunfire erupts again and everyone falls back to the warehouses.

Just as we run for cover, a 19-year-old fighter from the Sabratha Brigade, Ahmed Sola, whom I met a few weeks ago while visiting their camp, appears out of nowhere with his friend Mansour. It is a trademark “small war” moment. They greet me, pose for photos, and then move toward the sea and the main fight.

At 4 p.m., occasional booms of rocket fire indicate that the fight for Sabratha continues, without the men here having joined it. The general puts some fighters to work with a conveniently nearby bulldozer closing off the main street with two huge dirt piles. This is to make sure that Qaddafi troops or sympathizers can’t hurtle through. Everyone else crouches in the shade or tries to sleep; many got no sleep last night.

Supply convoys pass by twice, providing the men with bottled water, a surprising American Army touch. The Libyans are a lot better with logistics than they are with most of the rest of the infrastructure of military life.

The muezzin of the mosque a few blocks away continues a steady stream of inspirational messages, prayers and calls of “Allahu Akbar,” but it’s not clear how the fight for the center of Sabratha—just 8 kilometers from some of the world’s best preserved Roman ruins—is going.

The men aren’t sure if they will be asked to join the battle in the center of Sabratha, retreat, or go on to Zwara perhaps by another route. They scrounge in their cars for stray bullets to load into clips. Some scrutinize bullets, trying to figure out if they are the size they need. Jalul, a thin, 32-year-old civil engineer wearing body armor and a full uniform, says apologetically, “Today is the first time I fired my gun.”

At around 7:30, the Ramadan fast ends, and a handful of locals come out to offer the Zwara fighters pieces of surprisingly good homemade chocolate cake, cookies, dates, and other food. A half hour later, General Mohammed gets some bad news on his satellite phone: Fifty trucks of Qaddafi volunteers are headed to Sabratha, coming via Jumayil, another Qaddafi stronghold 10 kilometers south of Zwara. These so-called volunteers from Mali or Chad are essentially mercenaries, sometimes given Libyan passports in return for fighting for Qaddafi. The revolutionaries’ tenderness toward fellow Libyans does not extend to the volunteers, many of whom are accused of atrocities.

General Mohamed tells the men to retreat, but some of the fighters object vociferously. They want to go on to Zwara, albeit without communications, and possibly at the risk of meeting overwhelming numbers of volunteers. But the general wins this debate. Our small group will return to Mahmiah, an hour south, to spend the night there. Just one truck with an improvised anti-aircraft gun will stay; they drive off to join the Sabratha Brigade with great whoops and shouts of “Allahu Akbar!”

Once we reach Mahmiah, at about 11 p.m., the general decides that we will return all the way to Jadu, which we reach by 3 a.m. “Long day, long war,” he says. The general offers me a room in his personal quarters, which he shares with his three teenaged sons. There’s electricity and I immediately start to charge my Blackberry. But there is no running water and the conditions are squalid. One of his sons comes in with an iPod and asks me if I have a USB charger, a reminder that the family has fallen far from their former middle class existence.

It isn’t until Monday afternoon that the news trickles out that Qaddafi’s forces have fled the center of Sabratha, although there are reports of shelling from outside. Sabratha is now considered free. Monday evening, the Zwara men send me to break the Ramadan fast at a nearby mosque. About fifty mostly middle aged men—almost all refugees from newly liberated Zawiyah—are gathered around tables of donated home cooked food.

Sadeg Allab, a spokesman for the Zawiyah local council, had just returned from a visit to his hometown. He reported that the road from the Zawiyah Brigade’s mountain camp on the coast is secured. But though Zawiyah is considered free, shelling from Tripoli claimed the lives of nine people Monday. Zawiyah is a spread out town of 25-30 square kilometers, he explains, and not all areas are equally secure. His friend Oun Khair—a physicist who perfected his English in his Canadian education—added that they hope to be able to return to live in Zawiyah soon.

Mustafa Marwan, an Egyptian volunteer with the Arab Medical Union (funded here by Mercy USA), reports that the AMU’s five-person trauma team performed 20 major operations on wounded revolutionary fighters between the 10th and 13th of August at the hospital in Zintan, 22 kilometers east of Jadu, where I encountered him checking his email.

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