The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Libya Dispatch: Rebel Twinkies fuel the struggle

An alternative use for ammo

Napoleon famously said an army marches on its stomach, and in the case of Libya's rebel forces, that would be tuna sandwiches, fava beans and a lot of junk food.

As Western air strikes are restarting once thoroughly defeated rebel advance, the once weirdly successful aspect of their rag tag forces should be gearing up again -- their food supply lines.

Like everything else about the uprising in eastern Libya seeking to challenge Moammar Gadhafi's four decade hammerlock on power, the fighters' food supply was an ad hoc affair of entreprising individuals and local charities with official sanction that somehow seemed to work -- even when nothing else really did.

Rebel checkpoints always featured cases of bottled water, juice, piles of bread and plenty of junk food such as biscuits and packaged cupcakes that fighters can grab and throw into their pick up truck before taking off for the front.

"We never run short of food, we have good kids from Benghazi who come and bring it down to us," said Mohammed Selim, 23, as he cleaned up the empty boxes of Twinkies, cookies and sugary juice drinks piled outside a rebel checkpoint in the oil refinery town of Ras Lanouf, two weeks ago before they were driven out.

As the furthest point of their advance, the rebel forces clustered around Ras Lanouf for almost week, giving birth to the most advanced food distribution point along the front.

According to the rebels, the food comes to the checkpoints in regular deliveries, partly organized by the provisional council running the eastern cities, but also in a large part due to efforts by individuals.

Many people who don't want to actually pick up a gun and join the fighting, instead go to nearby towns, stock up on staples like bread and tuna -- as well as plenty of junk food -- and deliver them to checkpoints.

"Now we are eating Snickers bars, before we could only just look at them in the store," said Ayman Ahmed, a 23-year-old volunteer for the rebel forces who together with a group of friends took over the abandoned house of a oil refinery worker in the Ras Lanouf residential area.

"We are really experiencing freedom now," he said, in a living room filled with discarded juice boxes and wrappers from packaged sweet cakes.

Before the rebels were driven out, the center of their food network in Ras Lanouf town was the aluminum and glass guard house at the entrance to the neat houses and villas of the oil complex.

No one ever found the key, so to get in and out, those passing out the food had to climb through the windows they had forced open.

Inside the kiosk was filled with stacks of biscuits, boxes of juice and milk and two enormous stainless steel dispensers brewing tea for the troops.

"We are volunteers who came here and took on the responsibility of handing out the food while others pick up weapons and stand guard outside," said Walid Abu Hajara, a cheerful 27-year-old from Benghazi, who has been managing the makeshift kitchen for the last three days.

Together with Selim and other volunteers they made fava bean sandwiches for the fighters' breakfast and in the afternoon stuffed tuna into the loaves for lunch.

"We have a problem with the supply of bread," admitted Abu Hajara, referring to the crunchy short-baguette style Libyan bread that is the staple of any meal. "We have people that we call when we run low -- we even call members of the council."

One of his fellow workers shushed him, told him not to admit to the journalist about any shortcomings and only say that everything was fine.

Less than half an hour later, though, the bread appears and fighters can be seen pocketing several loaves each, along with wedges of processed cheese.

With the lack of logistical organization of the rebels' regular armed forces and the flood of volunteers to the front, this largely charitable food drive is vital to keeping rebel fighters functioning.

There are also little in the way of grocery stores in the remote towns strung along the desert coastal road of Libya's barren center.

To a large extent, the informal food network grew out of the flood of charitable endeavors that sprang out of the euphoria of the Feb. 17 uprising against Qadhafi.

Longstanding eastern Libyan traditions of hospitality and generosity have blossomed with the successful throwing off of central government control and everywhere people are handing out food.

Outside Benghazi's courthouse, where day and night there is some sort of gathering commemorating the demonstrations that faced down the police more than a month ago, food is regularly provided.

Elsewhere in the city, kitchens prepare a steady supply of meals for the poor and needy.

At a gas station on the road to the front, a man handed out packets of dates stamped "a gift from Jalo for the Feb. 17 revolution," referring to desert town far to the south.

At another stop, a local patiently gives out prepared sacks of food to passing motorists, even journalists, containing tuna sandwiches, an apple and banana and a twinkie.

"We eat whenever people bring us food or we go to the checkpoints," said Ali Youssef, a tall thin 22-year-old fighter who's been living on the front for weeks. "The food is, well, war food, but it's okay," he said with tentative smile.  

His favorite dish is a Libyan pasta and tomato sauce specialty, and surprisingly hot cooked meals are not a rarity for most soldiers. Many say they eat chicken or lamb at least once day, once again thanks to local efforts.

At the Brega Hospital, where doctors wait for the latest dead and wounded from the fighting at Ras Lanouf, about 60 miles (100 kilometers) west on the coastal road, a young man in a scout uniform hands out meals.

The foil boxes contain rice and a fairly substantial piece of beef supplemented with more Libyan loaves.

"My mother and my aunts, all of us worked on it together and we distribute it to the hospital, to the revolutionaries and others," said Essam al-Hamali, as he handed out the meals to waiting doctors in blue scrubs.

He said today he and his family and fellow scouts put together about 700 meals.

Other days, fighters say people just show up with aluminum pots filled with rice or pasta topped with meat or chicken.

For Muftah Momin, a young fighter sharing the abandoned oil workers house with his friend Ahmed, it's not the hot meals, however, that really stand out.

"You get the best honey here," he said, offering of spoonful of it. "This is the fuel of the revolution, provided by the council."