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For Libyan rebels, a funeral is no somber event

A long convoy of dust-caked gun trucks descended Wednesday afternoon on downtown Benghazi, horns honking and guns blasting skyward.

Rebel fighters had driven nearly 150 miles from Libya’s eastern front to celebrate the glory of 11 dead comrades — shuhuda, or martyrs. The dead men, killed the day before, lay in caskets that bounced in the beds of the trucks.

They had come home to be buried.

Gunmen accompanying the caskets fired assault rifles and pistols over the rooftops as women on balconies ducked for cover. The men chanted, “A martyr is loved by God!”

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In most societies, a funeral is an occasion for solemnity and grief. In eastern Libya, the funerals of martyrs are celebrations, displays of firepower and emotional rallies that curse and condemn Libya’s autocratic leader, Moammar Kadafi.

The caskets snaked through the city toward the Hawari cemetery. The convoy had driven through the desert from Port Brega, about 140 miles southwest, site of pitched battles between the rebels and Kadafi’s forces.

The gun trucks, mounted with antiaircraft batteries and heavy machine guns, rolled through the cemetery gates, past rows of bleached white headstones. Thousands of assembled men and boys greeted them with whoops and shouts.

A whiteboard bore the names of the 11 dead men, from Martyr 1, Ahmed Sharif, to Martyr 11, Mustafa Fouzy. Martyr 4, Col. Adel Rajab Gheriani, was described as “Col. Martyr.”

When the first casket was unloaded, a great roar went up. Everyone cried out, “God is great!”

The fighters loosed deafening volleys toward the white summer sky. Some mourners had brought their own guns, and they raised them high to squeeze off shots.

A machine gun erupted, and then an antiaircraft gun. The ground shook from the blasts. Mourners grimaced and covered their ears. There was a dirty blue cloud of smoke and the acrid stench of cordite.

The martyrs were laid in a neat row in the pale, sandy soil, their graves marked with cement blocks. Each bore the red, black and green flag of the rebels.

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One of the first to be lowered was Mohammed Sanoussi Fergani, just 22 when he was blown apart Tuesday by an exploding rocket outside Port Brega. He was an ammo loader on one of the rebels’ ancient Soviet-made T-55 tanks.

His father, Sanoussi Fergani, wandered among the mourners, his face aglow, screaming, “Look what Kadafi did to my boy!”

He chopped at his arms and shoulders to describe his son’s devastating injuries. “His whole shoulder and arm — they were just gone!” he told everyone.

The father did not weep. Instead he spoke of the deep pride the family felt.

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“I don’t mind that my son died,” Fergani said. “He died a martyr for a better life for Libya. Freedom is not cheap.”

One of the mourners cried out, “We will die one by one — men, women, children — before we let the tyrant enter Benghazi!” Kadafi is commonly referred to as the tyrant in rebel-controlled eastern Libya.

Some mourners discussed the day’s fighting outside Port Brega. The rebel casualty toll from Tuesday, the sixth day of intense battles, was 24 dead and 121 wounded, according to the rebels’ Office of Martyrs, Wounded, Missing People and Stricken.

There was no word on Wednesday’s casualties, but more martyrs were surely on the way.

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In the next grave was Mufta Mohammed, 18. He had dropped out of college, where he was studying tourism management, to join the rebels. He worked on an ambulance crew.

His uncle, Ali Mufta Mohammed, said his nephew was braver than any man he knew. The young man had been treated for leg and head wounds four days earlier, but had rushed back to the front, where he was felled by a rocket blast.

“He was burned very badly on his head and stomach and leg,” said Hasan Hamad, a neighbor who washed the body to prepare it for burial.

Mohammed, the uncle, was buoyed by the rifle volleys and gunshots. Praise for Mufta’s courage, he called them.

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“Everyone wishes they had one thousand sons to send to the front,” he said.

His own son is 14. “Soon,” he said.

At the beginning of the row of fresh graves, Suleiman Farsi was lowered into the fine yellow sand. He was 30, an engineering student in London who rushed home shortly after the rebellion broke out in February.

“He came because he smelled freedom,” a friend, Isham Zeidan, said in lightly accented English. “No Libyan can smell freedom and not return home to fight.”

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The dead man’s best friend, Mohammed Mismari, related what rebel fighters had told him about Farsi’s final moments outside Port Brega late Tuesday. “He fought like a lion,” Mismari said in English. “And then ... “

His voice broke and he turned his head to cry. After a moment, he said, “I asked Allah to take him to paradise.”

Mismari stared at Zeidan, who was on his haunches, alone, sobbing next to the sand piled atop Farsi’s grave.

In less than an hour, it was done. All 11 martyrs had been buried and memorialized.

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The mourners filed out, still chanting. The fighters piled into their gun trucks and pulled away with a final volley of gunfire.

Mismari walked from his friend’s grave, his head down. Another friend wrapped him in his arms and consoled him.

They were among the last to leave. They walked slowly through the dust raised by the mourners’ retreating footsteps, and past the gleaming bullet cartridges expended by the gunmen, returning now to the front.

david.zucchino@latimes.com


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