BREAKING NEWS
EUROPE

Libya rebels just learning how to use their guns

He had the tough, focused bearing of a combat veteran. Tall and powerfully built, he wore form-fitting camouflage fatigues, sunglasses and combat boots. A Kalashnikov assault rifle was slung across his chest.

Meet Hussam Bernwi, insect exterminator. He drove his pest control truck to the front. He's 36 and never been to war before. His newly purchased weapon was dangling from a strap because he needed both hands to videotape battle scenes for the folks back home.

At a nearby Libyan rebel checkpoint, Hamsa Mohammed Cherkasi looked ready for battle in his blue camouflage police uniform. Cherkasi, 25, was a truncheon-toting riot policeman for Moammar Kadafi's regime before he defected to the rebel cause.

Photos: A close call near the front line in Libya

The day before a rebellion erupted in eastern Libya six weeks ago, Cherkasi was issued a firearm for the first time after more than a year on the job. He uses it now to guard a trash-strewn roadside. He has yet to fire the rifle because he's still learning how.

And across a desert highway, manning an ancient Soviet-made, hand-cranked antiaircraft gun, sat Khatab Abu Baker, an electrician. He's 32. His gun is older than he is.

Two weeks ago, Abu Baker took a break from his duties at the front. He drove back home to Benghazi to witness the birth of his first child, a boy. He stayed home two days before returning to his post behind the big green gun — a sort of combat paternity leave.

This is the army of the revolution, struggling to hold the ever-shifting front lines on Libya's eastern front. Volunteer patriots, they left jobs and schools and parents to join a come-as-you-are "people's army" determined to overthrow the hated Kadafi.

Mostly in their 20s and 30s, they have known nothing but Kadafi, who has held power for more than four decades. They're determined not to end up like their parents, resigned to dreary lives in a police state, quarantined from the outside world, terrified to speak out.

They say they were outraged by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and claim to despise Al Qaeda. Their graffiti and slogans speak of democracy and liberty. Many dream of immigrating to better lives in Europe or, preferably, the United States.

They live public lives on Facebook and Twitter, love rap music, "Dancing With the Stars" and "American Idol." They communicate by text message — at least they did until Kadafi family members who own Libya's cell networks cut most service to eastern Libya.

When they should be shooting at the enemy, they shoot souvenir photos and videos on cellphones and point-and-shoot pocket cameras. Many of them commute to the front, driving their dusty cars back home to rest and freshen up.

But they're deadly serious about their task. They're fighting not only for freedom from Kadafi, but also for their very lives should his regime reclaim control of the rebellious east.

"My name is on a hit list — I saw it on the Internet," said Cherkasi, the defecting policeman. "We're all marked for death if we don't win this war."

Bernwi, the exterminator, said his father practically ordered him to the front. He bought a Kalashnikov and found a military uniform abandoned by one of Kadafi's militiamen. He had never owned a gun or fatigues.

"My father would kick me out of the house if I didn't go fight. He told me, 'Don't come home until you reach Tripoli,'" Bernwi said.

Bernwi was videotaping government rockets exploding outside Bin Jawwad, a miserable patch of ramshackle structures spilling across the windblown desert highway. It didn't occur to him to grab his new rifle and attack the enemy. A rebel carrying a squawking chicken walked past. Bernwi videotaped him too.

He didn't really want to be a soldier, Bernwi confessed, but he wanted to do his part to bring down Kadafi. He joked about exterminating him in Tripoli like a rat.

But he feared the rebels had no chance of reaching Tripoli anytime soon. They had taken a pounding that morning from Kadafi's Grad rocket batteries.

As dozens of volunteers took a break to gorge on bags of donated food, Bernwi was too agitated to eat. He mused about his previous life in the Netherlands, where he met and married an American woman. They divorced, and he returned to Libya three years ago. Now he longs for the same comfortable, stable life here he once enjoyed in Europe.

"For me, that's what this war is about — peace and stability," he said.

At another checkpoint, Cherkasi was toying with his newly issued rifle. He said the Kadafi regime denied guns to many riot cops in eastern Libya because the strongman didn't trust anyone in the rebellious region.

Cherkasi defected in February after his brother was shot by fellow riot police, he said. He smiled and remarked on the irony of his circumstances: The gun that was supposed to quell the rebellion was now supporting it. "This gun is my revenge on Kadafi," he said.

Most of the fighters know nothing of guns because the weapons were banned under Kadafi. Getting caught with a gun meant prison or, in some cases, death.

Illicit but alluring, guns are objects of mystery and fascination for the men and boys of eastern Libya. Now that they at last own firearms — looted from government garrisons overrun by protesters in February — the would-be soldiers fire them randomly and wildly. They have wasted thousands of rounds, prompting commanders to begin charging one Libyan dinar (about 80 cents) per bullet.

"For so long, we wanted guns but could never touch one," said Ibrahim Ahmad, a 20-year-old who said his mother urged him to find a gun and fight. "Now we want to shoot them all day because it feels so good."

At the shabby hospital in the crossroads city of Ajdabiya one day, two of the wounded patients were victims of friendly fire. One was shot in the leg by a fellow rebel, the other stabbed accidentally with a bayonet.

Some fighters in their early teens arrive with weapons almost as big as they are. Imad Hamid, a scrawny lad who said he's 15, struggled to hoist a heavy Kalashnikov. An older boy had shown him how to fire it, he said.

Hamid swore that his mother had blessed his jaunt to the war zone. Asked whether he was afraid, he smiled and announced, "You only die once."

Like many young men on the front lines, Hamid quickly picked up rebel talking points. After several mad scrambles by rebel gun trucks speeding to the rear to avoid enemy fire, Hamid explained that they weren't fleeing. They were reorganizing their forces.

"Troop rotation," he said with a straight face.

The younger fighters strut and pose with their new combat clothes and weapons. Revolutionary chic is popular — cocked red berets, designer sunglasses, camouflage cargo pants.

Abu Baker, the antiaircraft gunner, wore a red kaffiyeh, sunglasses and a camouflage jacket as he manned his position. He missed his newborn son, he said. His wife was begging him to come home again, and he felt torn.

But he refused to leave. He didn't want to let down the comrades. "My brothers," he said.

Several miles away, Cherkasi, the defecting riot cop, was irked that some U.S. politicians have questioned the rebels' intentions and spoken darkly of Al Qaeda influences.

"Al Qaeda? Nobody here has ever met anyone from Al Qaeda," Cherkasi said. "We're all normal Muslims, not crazy fundamentalists like these Al Qaeda in Afghanistan."

If an Al Qaeda operative appeared before him, Cherkasi vowed, he would apply his newly acquired skills with his newly issued rifle and shoot the man dead.

david.zucchino@latimes.com

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
65°