[Marxism] Interview with a rebel leader

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Aug 23 08:16:49 MDT 2011


Libyan rebel commander fights for freedom
By William Booth, Published: August 22

ZINTAN, Libya — In the surreal, dystopic Libya of the manic ruler 
Moammar Gaddafi, the uprising that has shaken the Arab world 
produced not one, but two distinct revolutions.

One was a rebellion waged by words, by urban youth, on Facebook 
and the streets, an uprising of transitional councils and tweets, 
fought in the rebel capital of Benghazi by bureaucrats who promise 
a democratic Libya.

The other rebellion was more simple but not more pure: the armed 
insurrection of the past six months, fought in olive groves and 
ghost towns and propelled forward by fierce, pious, lethal 
hillbillies like Muktar al-Akhdar, a commander from the western 
mountains whose rugged militiamen burst into Tripoli over the 
weekend and appear on the verge of toppling Gaddafi.

“We knew from the start that our revolution would cost lives. We 
weren’t scared, but we knew. We knew we could not fight tanks with 
flowers,” Akhdar said a few days before the rebels’ final push 
toward Tripoli. Protest would not bring change. That was the 
thinking of outsiders, of Americans and Europeans and expatriates, 
he said. “Not in Libya. Not with Gaddafi. We have been together 
for 42 years. No flowers.”

What moves men such as Muktar al-Akhdar, and what he expects of 
his revolution, may shape the new Libya as much as the negotiators 
now writing first drafts of a constitution. Akhdar matters because 
he has suffered, he has dreams — and he is heavily armed.

Akhdar is believed to be alive and in Tripoli. The last time 
reporters saw him was 10 days ago. More recently, people who know 
him said by e-mail that Akhdar was in the capital with his men.

Most of the rebel fighters pouring into Tripoli carry battered 
AK-47s, the ubiquitous kalashnikov with varnished wooden stocks. 
But on the plains south of Tripoli, Muktar al-Akhdar cradled a 
vicious, short-barreled FN assault rifle, a weapon favored by 
Gaddafi’s special forces.

Where did he get such a gun? He drew a slow thumb across his 
throat. “Dead,” Akhdar answered, the government soldier who 
carried this weapon was killed by rebels. “The others ran away.” 
He slapped the metal hard. “This one did not.”

The 54-year-old commander and father of six, who looks made of 
wire and leather, did not smile at the memory of Libyans fighting 
Libyans. Capable of a few words in English, he called his fallen 
enemy “a good boy, very brave.”

Then he held up his hands, like they are strangers, and said, “Blood.”

There is blood on his hands.

A town of martyrs

Akhdar’s rolling command center is his pickup truck, camouflaged 
with smeared mud and hung with goatskins of water. The bed is 
pocked by jagged bullet holes. Someone has left a grenade to 
bounce around on the front seat.

Locals swear that forces loyal to Gaddafi fired 3,000 Grad rockets 
in and around Zintan, still scattered with burnt husks of Russian- 
and Chinese-made tanks, destroyed by guided NATO missiles and 
homemade gasoline bombs. Of all the towns of the Nafusa mountains, 
the Zintanis, known for their grit, arrogance and wit, produced 
the most martyrs. More than 125 of their portraits hang in the 
town square.

Akhdar was one of the first to pick up a gun.

For 25 years, Akhdar served as a low-ranking officer in the Libyan 
army, until his discharge in 1998. He taught light-arms tactics, 
how to fire mortars, the importance of high ground. He never 
ventured far from Libya — except in the desert frontiers of 
Algeria, Tunisia and Chad. But he has learned his history, he 
said, from watching satellite TV.

He fought in Chad, a decade-long border conflict, a gory, seesaw 
of ambush and retreat waged in oases and wadis in the south, where 
the Libyan army broke down and never really recovered. The ghosts 
of that war — a kind of Vietnam for Libya — hover over the 
revolution of 2011 more than most outsiders understand.

Akhdar says he watched in bitter silence as Gaddafi degraded his 
army, always wary of rivals in the ranks. “They told us to fight. 
We fought. But Gaddafi had no respect for us, no decent salaries, 
just war without reason, on and on, doing his terrorism,” said 
Akhdar. More than 7,500 Libyan soldiers died, a tenth of the men 
under arms at the time.

Akhdar says he meet Gaddafi once, in 1975, at a checkpoint at 
Zawiyah, when he was on guard duty. He admired the daring young 
Libyan army colonel who overthrew King Idris in a 1969 military 
coup. Young Akhdar believed in the revolution. “In the beginning, 
Gaddafi came in peace, but he is like all dictators. Now his heart 
is dry, and he loves only power.”

As the revolt against Gaddafi intensified, he often referred to 
revolutionists as extremist Muslims or al-Qaeda terrorists or, 
simply, rats. “But he is our rat,” Akhdar said. “He never in his 
life imagined that he would be hiding in a hole in Tripoli. But we 
know rats. We will hunt him in his hole and we will kill him, like 
a rat.”

Sensing weakness

After his discharge from the army, Akhdar worked as a guide 
steering Italian and French adventurers in weeks-long, 
four-wheel-drive treks across the great sand seas south of Zintan. 
He hungers for the desert constantly and believes it taught him 
lessons in devotion, humility, endurance.

Akhdar was chosen by the consent of his men to command the Zintan 
Martyr Militia, a group of 300 or 400, depending on what day you 
ask, with about 60 hard-core fighters who leap to the front lines 
at Akhdar’s quiet order.

His brigade is headquartered in an abandoned school. “Look what 
we’ve done to it!” Akhdar said in shame. “This was a place for 
scholars.” Now the place smells of men and war: a stink from dirty 
toilets, gun oil, burning trash, unwashed feet.

Akhdar said he threw himself into the revolution because had no 
choice. When Libyan citizens protested, they were shot. Among the 
macho tribes of the mountains, this was Gaddafi’s greatest 
blunder. Gaddafi sparked the revolution. “His people offered the 
tribes money to go back home, and when we did not, they came with 
tanks and we defended ourselves, and as we began to fight, we saw 
they were not strong. They were weak! So we began to kill them and 
they ran.”

For weeks this summer, the rebel advance was stalled at a 
forgettable village called Qawlish. It sits on a hilltop, 
abandoned, overlooking a deep canyon and in the distance, what was 
the Gaddafi-held town of Asabah.

Qawlish was taken, lost, retaken. One afternoon, a group of 
unarmed people from Asabah appeared in cars and vans, waving green 

Then came an ambush, as Gaddafi troops leapt out of other cars and 
swarmed over the hills. Akhdar’s men unleashed a terrifying, 
headlong firefight against Gaddafi loyalists, reduced now to mixed 
units of regular army, conscripted cannon fodder and paid fighters 
from Mali and Niger.

It was over in less than 30 minutes. The Gaddafi troops pulled 
back, taking several dead soldiers with them. The rebels counted 
four wounded. “We are sons of the desert, we don’t get tricked 
like this,” Akhdar said later. “If Gaddafi has three thoughts, we 
have 10.”

Akhdar predicted that Tripoli would fall before end of the holy 
month of Ramadan, by the last day in August. He appears to have 
been correct.

In the evenings, Akhdar breaks his day-long fast at a house at the 
edge of his beloved desert. A baby camel is tied with one leg to a 
utility pole. He will be eaten. A rebel fighter shows off a 
poisonous snake, a horned viper, that he has gripped in a pair of 
pliers. It is still alive.

Akhdar lounges and eats raw pistachios. Leaning against the wall 
are kalashnikovs, RPGs, old Italian rifles. His soldiers have full 
stomachs, are smoking and dreaming in the dusk. They are also 
enjoying something new: They are complaining, openly, about the 
lives they’ve been denied. The men want money; they want to marry; 
they want sex; they want to travel.

They are watching the new Free Libya satellite channel, which is 
showing rebel propaganda videos, depicting a grinning Gaddafi, 
then fast-cutting to images taken from state TV, from 1984 when 
Brother Leader hanged his opponents in a stadium.

“The longer this war lasts, it is no good,” Akhdar said quietly, 
as he watched his men. “Wars create criminals. I have studied 
this.” He has seen it on TV. He names Somalia, Vietnam, Rwanda, 
Serbia. “We don’t want to be like that.”

Over the course of several interviews — sessions that Akhdar 
appears to find frivolous or tiresome or both — he is asked what 
he wants from this revolution. Each time he says the same thing. 
“I want freedom,” Akhdar said. “Write it down again. Freedom.”

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