Two boys of Benghazi

Benghazi, Libya–A week into Libya’s uprising, many hoped for a swift and decisive victory against an ostracized regime that appeared on the brink of collapse. One month later, the euphoria that swept across eastern Libya is giving way to a growing unease as many brace for what will likely be a fierce and protracted battle against a stubborn dictator willing to do anything to retain power. Unlike the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, Libya’s uprising has turned into a bloody affair with no immediate end in sight.

Over the past weeks, Libyans of all backgrounds have squared off against Qadhafi’s heavily armed forces in deadly skirmishes across the country. After being met with lethal force as a first resort, peaceful protesters had to turn to armed rebellion to sustain their popular uprising. In a matter of days, scores of young people temporarily abandoned their families and futures to fight on the front lines for one reason: they feel they have no other choice.

Muhanad, 21, has been fighting with rebel forces for the past ten days in Brega and Ras Lanouf, two oil towns on the eastern Libyan coast, where the struggle to repulse an escalating offensive by pro-Qadhafi forces persists. The fighters are well-equipped–dozens of abandoned arms depots across eastern Libya supply them with plenty of weapons, including assault rifles and anti-tank and anti-aircraft artillery–but the majority lack previous military experience and are ill-trained for combat. On the battlefield, the odds are weighted against the rebels who face an experienced opponent that possesses the advantage of air power. The continued advance of Qadhafi’s forces, over the past few days, into rebel-held territory is proof of this power imbalance.

And like many of his comrades, Muhanad has no illusions about the feat that lies ahead.

“We [the fighters] are mostly volunteers between 16 and 30 who have received little or no military training. I’m studying medicine and have never been in combat before,” he confesses. “It’s going to be a long, hard fight, but nobody’s thinking of turning back.”

Muhanad was born to a Libyan father and American mother and spent most of his life growing up in Benghazi. He is a second-year medical student who has been on the streets since the first days of the revolt. He hopes to one day become a doctor, though his immediate dreams after Libya’s liberation are much more humble: to open Benghazi’s first dollar store.

Muhanad acknowledges that not everyone at home is comfortable with his decision to take up arms. “My mother, living in America, is very worried about me. She calls every ten minutes to make sure I’m alright.”

Back in Benghazi, an anguished mother huddles with her two sons around a portrait of their youngest brother, killed by Qadhafi’s security forces in the first week of the revolt. Salem Khamis Zeglam, 17, was shot dead while taking photographs the night before his city fell into rebel hands. That afternoon, he joined a funeral procession for his neighbor who was killed while marching in a demonstration. As night fell, clashes broke out in front of Benghazi’s main security compound between protesters and armed brigades. His family describes in painful detail how Salem was shot with an anti-aircraft gun and died instantly.

“My brother was shot from a kilometer away by an oversized bullet normally used against planes. It blew through his chest and came out of his back, leaving a huge hole in his body,” says Abdel Salam, his older brother.

The Zeglams live in a lower middle class neighborhood in Old Benghazi that used to be a shantytown until it was developed under one of Qadhafi’s public housing programs. Visitors come in and out of the modest, sparsely-furnished flat to pay their respects. Fondly remembered as a pious and respectful boy who loved to play football, Salem now symbolizes the brutal excesses of Qadhafi’s regime and the heavy price it will take to bring it down.

The Zeglams have been no strangers to state repression in the past. The father, now separated from the family, was a member of Qahdafi’s republican guard and served a two-year prison term for openly criticizing the Libyan leader. The experience left them all too familiar with the high risk of political dissent in Libya. His brother, a soft-spoken young man and dedicated follower of a Sufi order, believes Salem’s death is proof that change will not happen in Libya without physical sacrifices.

“For decades, we have lived under a regime that uses lethal force to remain in control,” he says. “Today, this regime leaves us with only one choice: Either we fight or we die.” 

Most of the rebels and many Libyans on the streets who feel they have been pushed to this point by a regime that leaves them no other recourse share such sentiment. They are equally convinced, however, that the responsibility to liberate their country lies in their hands, not with outsiders.

“We are sick of Qadhafi and don’t want him anymore. We want a democracy where power changes hands every few years. But achieving this is our responsibility,” insists Salem’s mother.

“We don’t want intervention–we want to free ourselves.”

Like most people in eastern Libya, Muhanad is not opposed to growing calls for an international no-fly zone to protect Libyan rebels and civilians from Qadhafi’s aerial assaults. But when asked what the rebels need most right now, he responds that better leadership with their ranks would be more helpful than foreign intervention or military aid.

“We do not need foreign countries to send us weapons,” Muhanad claims. “What we need is Libyan leaders to better organize and train the rebel forces so we can complete the job on our own.”

He also remains wary of any possible role for foreign powers, like the United States. “Thank God the US didn’t get involved. If we had counted on them, we wouldn’t have gotten anywhere.”

By turning his guns on the protesters, Qadhafi thought he could silence them and avert the fate of Libya’s neighbors. But far from intimidating his opponents, Qadhafi’s reckless use of force has emboldened them. Salem’s cold-blooded murder represents the cruelty of a Libyan regime that refuses to allow any space for peaceful dissent. It is exactly what motivates people like Muhanad to fight on.

“I chose to take up arms because that is the only way this regime, which kills its own people, will go,” he says. “There is no other option.”

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