The New Libyans
Knee-deep in the Shit with Benghazi’s Unlikely Rebels
|A man holding an AK-47 gathers his children together for a family portrait as rebels tear down the road toward the latest battlefront. Most fighters took up arms to protect their families from Gaddafi’s vengeance and because they didn’t want young people to grow up under the same conditions they experienced. “I want freedom for my children,” this man said.|
The Friday after former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak fled Cairo, I strolled through the postrevolution euphoria in Tahrir Square: men and women on their knees reciting thankful prayers, cheering teenagers, and giddy, hopeful children. It was a brand-new world, and the people’s revolution seemed unstoppable, which proved to be the case as insurrections and protests spread through Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Djibouti, Syria, and God knows where else by the time you’re reading this article.
A few days later, I left for the Libyan border. According to Twitter, it was open for the first time in decades. Even more than in Egypt, uncertainty counterbalanced jubilation as generations of repressed tensions were only beginning to uncoil. Would Colonel Muammar Gaddafi gracefully forfeit his country and leave peacefully, or would he ensure its destruction by stubbornly refusing to abandon his self-appointed post? All bets were on the latter, and soon the world knew his answer: “I will die as a martyr at the end,” Gaddafi said in a televised statement. “I have not yet ordered the use of force, not yet ordered one bullet to be fired... When I do, everything will burn.” When I arrived, however, the Libyan people were still celebrating the victories they had achieved—it was a joyful calm before a brutal storm with no end in sight.
Above the crashing waves of the Mediterranean, the road to the border post wound up a dune-covered plateau. A fierce wind whipped up walls of gray dust while hundreds of opportunistic taxis and buses waited for fleeing refugees. Inside Egyptian immigration offices, hundreds of Nepalese workers waited for the cogs of bureaucracy to turn and safely deliver them from Libya. They were the earliest of an estimated 300,000 refugees who fled to neighboring Tunisia and Egypt over the next few weeks as the situation approached pandemonium.
The Libyan side of the border was quieter—just a few men, tall in black trench coats, smoking cigarettes, holding AK-47s, and waving everyone through. No forms, no passport checks, no interrogations. Instead I found a waiting minivan eager to carry myself and a half dozen other journalists into a new Libya—a nation of rebels and dissidents that had formed literally overnight.