In rebel-held Libya, men find new identities as warriors

He is a soft-spoken 22-year-old with a massive Belgian machine gun.

Allahu akbar!” Radwan Othman cries out as he opens fire in response to a barrage of rockets fired by Moammar Kadafi’s troops less than two miles across the valley.

Afterward he goes silent, staring into space with glazed eyes. He doesn’t talk much, and his friends at this front-line position at the far eastern edge of rebel-controlled territory in the Nafusa Mountains worry about him.

Until the uprising against Kadafi’s 42-year rule began in February, Othman sold women’s clothes at a shop in Tripoli and had never handled a gun in his life.

“The war changes you,” said Mesbah Sassi, a 28-year-old fighter who was unemployed before the war began and is among the volunteer fighters here in Kikla. “It turns you from a nice person into an aggressive person. I was a civilian. Now I have a gun and shoot to kill, and for us it’s getting too easy.”


The drive to oust the longtime ruler has subsumed nearly every aspect of life in these long-sleepy mountains, a 100-mile-long rebel-controlled region of pasturelands, tiny farming villages and close-knit towns that has become the focal point of the NATO-backed effort to weaken and oust Kadafi.

War has turned shepherds into hardened volunteer fighters, bent the economy to fit battle needs, replaced long-planned weddings with somber funerals for young men.

And it has raised the question of how, or even whether, those taking part in a conflict that has lasted nearly five months and shows little sign of a quick resolution will be able to simply turn in their weapons and go back to civilian life.

Already there are signs of an emerging warrior caste, young men who have forged identities in war, and found self-respect in toting weapons and pushing people twice their age around.

The creation of such a generation can change not only the individuals but the trajectory of the country. In the most chaotic Third World examples, nations have been beset by roving groups of heavily armed men long after the conflict ends, while in other countries, such as Iran after its 1980s war with Iraq, the fighters have become today’s leaders, now pursuing an assertive and some would say belligerent security policy.

Here in the mountains of Libya, young men alternate between giddiness and horror at their new selves.

“When they ran out of ammunition, we warned them to give up. But they didn’t give up,” Hadi Mohammad, a 22-year-old fighter, said with dismay, describing a recent battle against Kadafi’s forces. “We killed so many of them.”

One of the fighters confided to his friend Madgis Abouzakher that he was becoming too enamored with the daily rhythm of war, that he was feeling too much violence inside him, that he felt he was becoming a “monster” to others.

“Everybody is worried about the front and thinking about the front,” said Abouzakher, the co-director of a cultural association in the town of Yafran. “They can’t communicate with their wives or their children. It’s an important issue. What happens after the war?”

Already, just as in eastern Libya, the fighters’ unruliness and lack of discipline have contributed to a number of battlefield debacles. But unlike eastern Libya, the Nafusa Mountains are hemmed in by Kadafi’s forces to the north, south and east. The risks are even higher for these poorly trained volunteers, who sometimes appear heedless of the danger.

“They want to do anything anytime,” said Jumaa Ibrahim, spokesman for the Zintan-based rebel command. “It’s difficult to stop.”

Mohammad, the 22-year-old at the front lines of Kikla, said all aspects of his life had been taken over by war, and even during the three or four hours of fitful sleep he has each night, he’s often startled awake by gunfire, rushing to grab his gun and hurry half-awake toward the front line.

“In this town, there’s no celebratory gunfire,” he said. “It’s not allowed. Every bullet is to be used for Kadafi’s men.”

In areas where there is relative security, such as the towns of Jadu and Qala, the rebel administration has reestablished police forces in an attempt to bring some sense of normality. “The point of getting guns is to get rid of Kadafi,” said Mohammad Abul Qassem, a 26-year-old former engineer and fighter. “After that we don’t need guns. Hopefully, the law will prevail then.”

For now, men with guns rule these rustic mountains. In Zintan and Nalut, pickups mounted with antiaircraft guns stream up and down roads largely devoid of people. Children who should be in school serve tea and water to young men at military positions.

But many of the women and children have been sent to Tunisia or to safer cities, to clear the men’s minds of worry for their families as they head into battle.

“Because of this fighting and killing and shelling, a lot of the women go,” said Mokhtar Fakhal, a quiet former schoolteacher who is considered one of the elders of Zintan. “They go out of town and live in caves. They go underground.”

His son, Hisham, 25, was shot in the neck during a battle, a clean wound that didn’t hit any major arteries or nerves. He’s recovering at a clinic in neighboring Tunisia, once a medical tourism destination for Libyan plastic surgery and cancer patients and now serving as vast triage for the war-wounded flooding across the border.

“We chose this way and we will never go back,” Fakhal said. “That is life.”

A grim aesthetic has taken hold of the region. Pickups once used to haul produce to market are smeared with mud to make them blend in with the high desert landscape. Bulldozers and backhoes that once contributed to a small boom in new housing form dirt mounds at checkpoints. Unemployed cooks prepare aluminum trays, each with rice and beans and a clump of fatty mutton for fighters on the front.

Rebel commanders here predict that the war could be finished in three weeks. But the incremental nature of the rebels’ battlefield advances suggests that such a timeframe could be wishful thinking; and the rebel administration itself appears to be preparing for one that could last months. They have built training bases for young recruits in Nalut, Jadu and Zintan and are preparing another in Kikla.

Recruits stream in from across Libya, including some from the rebel stronghold, Benghazi, bored by the lack of action on the front to the east.

Bundoq Assem Bundoq, 26, came from the northwestern coastal city of Zuwara. He arrived in the mountains after a perilous journey by boat to Tunisia, spending weeks settling his family abroad before heading back to Libya. He wore a red beret as he underwent three weeks of basic training in Jadu.

He speaks near-perfect American-tinged English, picked up from countless television shows, action movies and pop music recordings. He used to play guitar, an aspiring musician who loves Pink Floyd, My Dying Bride and traditional Arab folk music.

“That part of my life,” he said, “is over for now.”