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.
A man reads an army file in the looted ammo-storage facility of the Al-Katiba army barracks in Benghazi. Behind him, two men pick through the remains of boxes in which thousands of AK-47s and munitions were stored before locals swiped everything. Although the rebels were well armed after this breach, they excitedly shot much of their ammo into the air following their successful raid.
“Welcome to Free Libya,” our driver exclaimed as we sped past drab concrete houses and makeshift checkpoints. In each town we passed the mark of revolution, black scorches that licked out the windows of every government building. Like other journalists diving headlong into a country on the verge of a revolution, I was jolted by the realization that none of us knew the first thing about our destination. Then again, maybe it didn’t matter much because everything was changing right before our eyes.
The only thing I knew for certain was that Gaddafi was fucking crazy. Around the same time as my arrival, he began addressing his citizens as drug-addled rats. “Libya is leading the continents of Africa, Asia, and South America,” he screamed from a building bombed out in an earlier assassination attempt by the US. “Anybody who lifts an arm shall be punished with a death sentence.” During his tenure as leader, Gaddafi was one busy little totalitarian beaver, arming almost every rebel group you can imagine and many you’ve probably never heard of: Charles Taylor, Idi Amin, the Japanese Red Army, the Chadian rebels, the IRA, and many others. He thought Milošević was a stand-up guy and single-handedly propagated numerous wars across sub-Saharan Africa. Yet he did little for his own people, especially here in the east, our driver remarked as we pulled up to a gas station. But after listing all the bad deeds his former leader had committed, he seemed to backtrack and said, “Gaddafi isn’t that bad. He has done some good things for us.” At first I thought this was because he had just filled up his tank for eight bucks. Gaddafi has always kept gas prices low to keep the people happy. I soon realized that the revolution was still blossoming, and many were wary that it would be short-lived. They had experienced Gaddafi’s reprisals following previous uprisings, and those reprisals were stone-cold brutal. Retributions have included bounties placed on the heads of Libyan dissidents living abroad, which resulted in dozens of assassinations, according to Amnesty International. In London, the colonel’s diplomats had gone so far as spraying bullets into a crowd of unarmed protesters in front of the Libyan Embassy, injuring ten and killing a police officer. It was even worse for local critics of the regime. Thousands were imprisoned or went missing, and in 1996 Gaddafi killed at least 1,600 alleged Islamist prisoners.
Inexperienced rebel units hoist their newly acquired weapons next to an antiaircraft gun in Benghazi before moving out to confront Gaddafi’s troops.
We were dropped off at Central Square in Tobruk, the first large town on the road from Egypt. A few dozen men were camped out in tents, drinking tea. Bullet shells littered the ground, and a charred police station loomed over what was now a rebel base camp. A boy led me on a tour through the police station, pointing out dozens of windowless, gutted rooms and piles of still-burning files. He peered through the tiny flap of a solitary-confinement cell, illustrating the former prisoners’ limited view of the outside world. “It’s really dark in here when they shut the windows,” he said as if it were the worst thing he could imagine. The reality was much worse. Gaddafi believed torture to be one of the most effective forms of punishment, and much of the country grew up watching the executions of alleged dissidents on state TV.
When I stepped back outside, more protesters and journalists were rapidly arriving. The demonstrators chanted, holding pictures of wounded countrymen; they climbed buildings, waved flags of Libya’s last ruler, painted their faces like warriors preparing for battle, and displayed countless revolutionary posters and banners. As the sun set and the protesters marched into the night, cheering their successes now confirmed by the Western media, the scene looked a lot like Egypt with one major difference—many of them were holding guns. Later I arrived in Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city, after driving across a massive desert and over the green mountains. Here the celebration was even more exultant, and the weapons much more plentiful. More than 200 people had already died there, gunned down by pro-Gaddafi forces while protesting, or killed when they charged the military base in the center of town. After the Friday prayer I wandered into a destroyed concert hall decorated with the charred imprints of three fists, the symbol of Gaddafi’s own revolution, which was completed in 1969. His people have now appropriated it for their own cause. A posse of young men approached wearing a patchwork of denim, military uniforms, berets, and baseball hats. “This is Gaddafi’s place,” they said as we walked past rooms still ablaze and gushing water from burst pipes. “But not anymore,” they continued before busting up in laughter. They then led me to streets full of craters, lined with trees blown apart by tanks. “This is what we were fighting against,” said Ahmad, a 25-year-old engineer-turned-rebel who looked simply dashing in his officer’s cap. “Check this out,” he said as he pulled a cell phone from his pocket in what would become a Libyan ritual I now refer to as Dude Shows Stranger Sickening, Gory Videos on His Cell Phone. Ahmad played a clip of a mashed-up sedan being run over by a tank—random body parts were strewn across the landscape as men tried desperately to rescue the car’s passengers. He played another clip featuring a man walking through a hail of bullets shouting “Allahu Akbar” as Gaddafi-hired mercenaries walked across a field and shot protesters crouched behind parked cars. “Look at how strong Allah is,” the posse exclaimed. “The guy is untouched.”
The hacked-up cranium of an alleged foreign mercenary killed by rebels during the uprising in Benghazi. Many of Gaddafi’s hired henchmen are poor sub-Saharan Africans, not Libyan nationals.
Gaddafi pulled the plug on Libya’s internet early in the revolution, but this only forced the flow of information to take a detour. Evidence of atrocity swiftly spread across the country, the video passed via Bluetooth-enabled devices and memory cards. Another video, by far the most popular and widespread, showed guys who were far from “untouched”—bodies chopped in half by tank rounds or ground up like hamburgers from other explosions. “What the hell happened here?” I asked. Their response was to take me to Al-Katiba.
Al-Katiba is a military base located in the middle of Benghazi. It’s where Gaddafi stockpiled his weapons, housed his secret police and mercenaries, and jailed enemies in a clandestine underground prison. Before the uprising, it was the kind of place you didn’t notice. And if you did, trouble was sure to follow. When I visited, it was a wonderland full of families curiously poking through torture chambers and ogling vast halls of recently pillaged ammunition cartons. As I clambered over tanks, I couldn’t help but feel the same glee everyone else must have been experiencing. We were all thinking, “Man, Gaddafi would be so pissed if he knew we were doing this.” Initial protests in Benghazi began on February 15. Within two days, soldiers and mercenaries stationed at Al-Katiba began shooting into the crowds. They aimed for their chests. When that didn’t work, they utilized Gaddafi’s trademark tactic of driving around town, shooting at random civilians. The goal was to scare people into staying off the streets, but it didn’t work. The people’s secret weapon was their funerals. Islam dictates that a dead body must be buried as soon as possible, and usually this involves a large public march. When a dozen kids are shot, there’s a damn big march.
An army officer directs rebel volunteers after an RPG accidentally exploded inside a dump truck carrying weapons to the front. Transporting these old weapons was almost as dangerous as firing them at the enemy.
Enraged Libyans—especially young ones—continued to flood the streets, increasingly targeting Al-Katiba in an attempt to breach its walls and stop their opponents. Protesters attempted to drive a bulldozer through the base’s fortifications, but rebels were repeatedly shot clear out of the driver’s seat. Others commandeered small tanks and drove cars stuffed full of TNT (typically used by local fishermen) into the structure. But nothing worked. “All day long we tried to rush the base,” Ahmad told me. “Seven men died trying to drive a car full of TNT into the walls. Snipers kept shooting them down, and someone else would take their place.” Finally, a middle-aged oil executive, infuriated from days spent carrying the bodies of young people to the morgue, loaded up his black Kia with propane canisters and dynamite. He proceeded to drive his makeshift car bomb through the entrance, blowing apart the gates and allowing his comrades to drive out the soldiers and claim the armory. Abdullah, a Libyan American from Denver who helped to take over Al-Katiba, described the scene to me: “You should have seen it. It was crazy, everyone taking guns, RPGs, missiles. Five-year-old kids were carrying guns, and now we all have one. I got an AK-47.” The protesters also broke into the supply room, which was filled with revolutionary berets and varieties of camouflage gear. Afterward, young men stood next to arbitrary checkpoints throughout the city and showed off their RPGs and new duds. Others flashed missiles and victory signs. Everyone was wearing a beret, and many were in fatigues. Libyan fashion had been changed forever.
A kitted-up volunteer fighter poses for a photo moments before he and his unit charged down the road toward Gaddafi’s forces. The next evening he was recuperating in a field hospital, his face covered in ash, unable to speak, and shell-shocked from an air strike at sunset on the road to Tripoli.
The rebels’ fashion sense was as diverse as their armaments. This man appears to have acquired a Beretta. It’s not much of a match against tank shells, but it is fantastic for shooting at the clouds. Some rebels went to war without any guns at all.
Even though they were armed and dressed for war, it still took a while for the new rebel army to coalesce and coordinate their next move now that they had liberated half the country. Cities in the west followed suit, but it quickly became clear that the youth of Benghazi wouldn’t be able to institute real change unless they took Tripoli. It was an onerous task even for a well-trained army, let alone a group of ragtag insurrectionists who had mostly been civilian engineers just a few days ago. But they were steadfast and eager, which everyone hoped would be enough. When Gaddafi attempted to take an oil-production facility a few hours west of Benghazi, the young men stormed west toward the colonel’s well-armed and experienced troops. With unflinching courage, the rebels challenged a despotic dictator who ruled without compromise for generations. As waves of rebels raced off to war, I could see the country’s future in their eyes. The glory of death along with the fear of it, and the cruel reality that the only way forward was war. Hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians had already been killed. Libyans and the rest of the world were quickly realizing that turning back was not an option.
A young man who couldn’t have been a day older than 17 stands guard at his post in front of a bombed-out military base. A commanding officer did not order him to do this; he arrived here of his own volition. It was just one small part of the most disorganized rebellion in the world—people did whatever they thought would help.
For new rebel volunteers, going to war can be a blast: big guns, no rules, and endless cookies. But it quickly turned into a nightmare when Gaddafi’s troops started to drop mortars on the opposition. The fighters were mostly groups of friends, and many said they were driven by the need to avenge the deaths of their brothers.
The youths and a few units of soldiers who defected pushed west for a few days before they were driven back by Gaddafi’s superior troops and artillery. From what I experienced, the newly formed rebel army spent a lot of their time firing into the air or, optimistically, in what they thought was the direction of the enemy. It was almost as if they were still protesting, as if shooting the sky was enough to make the Gaddafi loyalists and mercenaries realize the folly of their actions and make peace.
Meanwhile, the bombs kept dropping, and young bodies filled the morgues all along the highway to Benghazi. But for every young person killed, others rose up to avenge their deaths. Judging by what I saw, they were not afraid to die. “He will have to kill every last one of us,” a rebel told me after blasting off a few live rounds from the antiaircraft gun mounted on his friend’s Toyota Hilux. “We are fighting for freedom. He is fighting for nothing.” Then, before tearing off down the road for the latest skirmish, he held up his index and middle fingers in a V, which the movement has claimed as a symbol of their struggle. “They think they invented it,” explained a young Libyan American who had returned to support the revolution. “It looks a lot like a peace sign, but it means something very different. The first finger means victory, the second finger means death: It’s victory or death.”
Women pray for lost youths in Benghazi. Frustrated with staying home to grieve for the dead, some ladies have even taken up arms. During Gaddafi’s rule they could not participate in public prayer or visit mosques. Now they are making up for it with a vengeance.