The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Libya dispatch: Momentum

Life on the road

A second dispatch from Libya from Abu Ray, who's been very, very close to the action.

"I came here to cover a revolution, not a war," said one photographer in disgust after a particularly bad day on the front. Many of those covering this conflict have been surfing from one Middle East uprising to the last and as exhausting as it’s been, it’s also been an uplifting story of peoples peacefully overcoming nasty repressive governments. Until now.

In Egypt and Tunisia the militaries balked from shooting their own people and in the end presidents had to go. In Bahrain, a mercenary military and police were finally restrained by a country that needs world opinion on its side.

None of those strictures existed in Libya where the army was weak and did divide over killing civilians, but was offset by brigades of shady security forces and mercenaries that stayed loyal to Moammar Gadhafi and were ok with shooting people in the streets..

We arrived in Tobruk and Benghazi into a barely restrained carnival of euphoria and over the next three weeks watched the fits and starts of a fledgling state. Eastern Libya and its string of “liberated” cities did not dissolve into chaos or tribalism as some had predicted, calling Libya with its complex web of clan ties as “North Africa’s Somalia.”

Instead it remained peaceful, generous to outsiders and incredibly earnest about building something new in land ruled for four decades by a destructive whim suspicious of any normal social or civic institutions.

Perhaps some sort of shaky future lay ahead for this nascent Free Libya, but we’ll never know because the empire struck back and today it all seems in peril. I leave now with the feeling of a retreat. Qadhafi’s forces, backed by the overwhelming force of tanks and rockets, are rolling back rebel gains and making their way east.

At the time of writing, they are still probably 200 kilometers from Benghazi and don’t really have the forces for any kind of protracted siege of a major metropolis but the momentum now feels like it’s on the government side and in Benghazi and Ajdabiya, closer to the front, tensions are high. They are blaming the journalists they once welcomed for somehow giving them away and some are digging out their old Qadhafi pictures and giving them a polish.

“It is just like the Spanish Civil War,” said Raoul, a Spanish TV journalist, “like Homage to Catalonia.” Benghazi in this scenario becomes civil war Barcelona, with an exuberant explosion of revolutionary thinking and fervor that is eventually crushed under the boot of the fascist armies after it turns out enthusiasm doesn’t beat out lots of equipment on the front.

I had a lot of respect for Raoul, he tended to have a good take on the situation, and besides he was captured and beaten up by Russian Special Forces in Georgia, which has to count for something.

It’s not a bad parallel for what the front was like either. There were maybe 1,500 to 2,000 rebel forces out on the field by some wildly unsubstantiated estimates we made, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the government had even less, fighting out of Qadhafi’s home town of Sirte in the middle of the country.

What they lacked in numbers, though, they made up in gear and on March 6, when the triumphant rebel forces hit the tiny coastal town of Bin Jawwad they were greeted with a curtain of tank shells and rockets. Every time their mad rushes on pickup trucks with heavy machine guns bolted on the back were stopped cold by a steady thump of high explosives.

Afterwards, talking with rebels about their experiences, it was always about the hail of “Jerads”, the local word for Grad rockets, also known as Katyushas, though after a while I had the feeling there was a sinister French fellow named Gerard who was messing everything up for them.

“We just don’t have the means,” said one young recruit, kitted out in mismatched camouflage as he cleaned the desert sands out of his puny Kalashnikov after being driven back hundreds of kilometers from Bin Jawwad.

After Bin Jawwad, the war just became a gradual slog backwards as government forces moved forward slowly but inexorably behind a wall of rockets, each time driving the rag tag rebels army further back.

Talking to the volunteers and the occasional member of the defected military fighting on the rebel side, there was always talk of rebels regrouping and waiting for the heavy weapons to come up from Benghazi.

In some ways, the wait was understandable, the rebel army never expected to start pushing west against Qadhafi’s forces, they had to sit down and figure out what tanks they had, who could drive them, and what ranks meant in the new army _ and for that matter, how they were going to feed everybody.

But the eager volunteers didn’t give them time. Everyone grabbed a Kalashnikov and a beret, wrapped a keffiyeh around their neck and rushed off to the front in a pickup truck. And for a while it worked, until it didn’t.

A few heavy rocket launchers made their way from the rebel side to the front, but apparently not enough to counteract the government barrages and some journalists even saw a few tanks fighting for the revolution. They also saw a couple crash into each other.

Nothing seemed to make a difference and as the government forces moved forward a few dozen kilometers every day, the volunteers disappeared leaving just a few units of the defected military to hold the line.

I spent days at the front, different little towns that in normal times wouldn’t have been more than a passing blur in a fast moving desert car, but now represented hard won gains or unattainable goals.

At Ras Lanouf, an oil refinery town, a kind of rebel village evolved, with people sleeping outside by their trucks at the checkpoint or “liberating” the housing of evacuated foreign oil workers, surviving on a diet of tuna sandwiches, twinkies and biscuits brought up from Benghazi for the fighters.

Somehow, one of the most difficult logistical problems of any army, feeding its men, seemed to work here on a system of volunteers who just bought food, threw it into a pickup truck and dropped it off at rebel checkpoints where it was given out.

Disconcertingly, a lot of it seemed to be junk food, especially those awful cream wafer things and sugary juice boxes, but occasionally apples and bananas made an appearance and of course lots of dates.

Hanging out at the checkpoints on a sunny day was almost fun, despite the occasional burst of fire from an overexcited teenager manning a bulky 14.5mm anti aircraft gun. Except for the air strikes.

I think it will be a while before I feel comfortable with the distant sound of an airplane again. You would hear the familiar buzz of a high flying aircraft and everyone would panic, diving for their cars, opening up with their machine guns, occasionally stupidly firing noisy short range rocket propelled grenades pointlessly into the sky. 

The actual aircraft was always a little ahead of the noise, so it was hard to see them and sometimes they would just circle, other time the noise from the unseen plane would get louder and louder and suddenly a massive plume of dust and sand would erupt in the distance and sometimes closer by.

The airstrikes never really did anything, they never actually seemed to hit an important target and weren’t nearly as effective as those awful rockets and artillery shells but they were scary in their randomness and all the rebels kept asking me where the no fly zone was. Where was Obama? How the hell should I know, I’m here running around like a chicken with its head cut off with the rest of you.

Up from Ras Lanouf was the front, which in the final days was a distant rumbling thing with far plumes of smoke as the two sides traded rockets. One day they hit the oil storage facilities at the Sidra oil terminal and the sky filled with pitch black smoke sparked with rolling fireballs.

Several times those days, we would watch from far away, trying to figure out what was going on a shall would whizz crash into the side of the road not a few dozen meters from us. Once you hear or see a shell crash you know you survived, But it’s hard to feel all that comforted.

It all just felt so random, some days the rockets fell far away, other days nearby. 

The photographers were always crazy. I remember walking down a hill once following a group of photographers into a valley of death and chaos marked by oil fires and plumes of distant explosions as dusk neared. It was a nightmare scene but they kept walking, pausing only when they saw two rebel fighters taking a break to pray in the desert.

A half dozen photographers then piled on them, shooting two men in keffiyehs praying with their guns besides them against a backdrop of a burning sky. Moving image, no doubt.

It was usually impossible to find anyone in charge at the front, just kids with guns and a lot of bile for Qadhafi, but occasionally a grizzled officer would make an appearance with heartening words about the imminent arrival of heavy weapons, and some private comments about how difficult it was to instill any sense of discipline or order in the chaotic forces.

The rebel forces seemed to move as an inchoate mob of group think, and it just wasn’t enough. So every day, despite talk of counterattacks and secret weapons, the front moved back day by day, until Ras Lanouf fell and then Brega.

“It is back and forth, that is a desert war,” said Abdel Fatah Younes, the sketchy former interior minister who switched sides at the beginning of the uprising and later became the rebel defense minister. Except that it just seemed to be going back.

I don’t think Qadhafi’s forces will be rolling into Benghazi any time soon, but if things keep going the way they are now, they will eventually regroup sufficiently and take back the east. And then I don’t know what will happen to all those people who for a month enjoyed a Libyan spring, spray painting satiric pictures of Qadhafi on the walls of buildings, waving the old monarchy flag and telling everyone how much of a murderous killer he was.

How do you go back to the silence, lies and mistrustful shiftiness of the last 40 years after that without going utterly mad?