[Marxism] Interview with a rebel leader
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
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
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
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
Akhdar predicted that Tripoli would fall before end of the holy
month of Ramadan, by the last day in August. He appears to have
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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