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Young men of Misurata feel the rush of war

The Libyan rebel fighters are living as if in an action movie, dismayed when their friends are killed but getting a kick out of wielding weapons and explosives.

May 06, 2011|By Ned Parker, Los Angeles Times
  • Salah Raiss, the head of a small group of rebel fighters who call themselves the Birds, handles his Kalashnikov assault rifle at their headquarters in a gym in Misurata.
Salah Raiss, the head of a small group of rebel fighters who call themselves… (Los Angeles Times, Ned Parker )

Reporting from Misurata, Libya — They moved through the night with names like "the Birds." The fight was primal, about survival from block to block. But at the same time, it was fun for the young men of Misurata, an adrenaline rush, like a Jean-Claude Van Damme film come to life.

From the gang leader who loved to peer at Moammar Kadafi's snipers through night-vision goggles, to the teenage fisherman who became the booby-trap king, to the young medical student who rode shotgun in his green scrubs, they were suddenly action heroes in a city under siege.

They would say they fought because Kadafi's regime had robbed their families of freedom for nearly 42 years. But the truth was, they also got a charge from the sheer wildness of their city being turned into a full-on war zone, where civilized rules were tossed out the window and their sleepy little neighborhoods became the scenes of elaborate adventure games.

They ran kamikaze with cooking pans of TNT to enemy hide-outs. They waved their Kalashnikov rifles and fired 106-millimeter shells from the backs of trucks spray-painted rebel red and black. They gave their leaders code names and shrouded their deeds in myth.

For weeks the young men of Misurata fought alongside their fathers and brothers to flush out the snipers who had taken their city hostage. Today, the battle of the streets is won. But the threat from Kadafi's forces remains, as shells rain down from the outskirts of the western Libyan port city. And the young men will never be the same.

::

Salah Raiss has been up nearly 24 hours. Part of him wants to sleep, but he can't shut off. His legs tap furiously. He smokes a cigarette.

He's back at the headquarters of his fighting group, a gym with posters of muscle-bound men and the words "World Gym" on the wall. The room has dumbbells and Kalashnikov rifles, bench press bars and FN assault rifles.

Word has just come in: One of the group's commanders, a man nicknamed Ghost, has been killed. The fighters' leader, Katiba, a businessman, has shut himself in a basement room to grieve with aides.

Raiss and the others say little about Ghost. They eat some couscous and lamb, and Raiss hopes he'll be tired enough to sleep a few hours and then start over again.

The days become a repetition. Soon, another beloved fighter will also die, and Raiss will struggle to sleep another afternoon away.

Raiss, 25, leads a nighttime fighting band called the Birds — named for the coops of songbirds sold where he and his gang first hid off Misurata's main drag, Tripoli Street, when the fighting began.

He lights fireworks at night to scare his enemies and keep them awake. When Kadafi's forces occupied the tallest building in the city, he would sit in the dark wearing his night-vision goggles and stare through a hole in a nearby building at his target.

Raiss speaks in awe of the possibility of a female sniper from Colombia among Kadafi's forces. Some say she was killed, others say she was imprisoned, if she ever existed at all.

After he was wounded by a shell blast, Raiss drew a face around the infection on his leg, turning the sores into the eyes and mouth of an alien.

About his urban battlefield, he says: "It's strange here. It's strange."

A day laborer before this war, Raiss had never fired a gun, and now he cradles his assault rifle like a baby. He wonders what he will do when the revolution ends. He admits he has no idea.

::

Mohammed Bushala, 17, stands on the outskirts of Misurata in a neighborhood of palm trees and villas with gaping holes from mortar rounds and rockets. He looks like an ordinary school kid in a striped rugby shirt, but he grips two green hand grenades as if they are nothing more than a key chain.

He is the son of a fisherman and learned as a child how to throw explosives to kill fish at sea. When the war started and his school year ground to a halt in February, he quickly joined the new fighting groups.

"The Kadafi dogs were entering the streets and there was a war going on," he says, explaining why he became an urban guerrilla.

Skilled with the fish bombs, he began rigging booby traps to kill Kadafi's soldiers. His first bomb was a booby trap on a corner. He planted TNT with a long fuse, and estimated the time for it to go off. He thinks he killed seven people.

He feels good now when he sees the Kadafi soldiers in flight. It is payback for his 15 to 20 friends who have died in the uprising. Mohammed, who rarely smiles, recounts the sight of Kadafi's forces running from their position.

He recaps his victorious moment. "We were laughing," he says.

::

Dr. Jihad abu Hajr isn't yet a doctor. He's a fifth-year medical student, riding shotgun to the front in an ambulance. He keeps his hair thick with gel and talks fast to the sound of mortar rounds and rockets.

"Your truck is your wife," he tells his driver, a 19-year-old with a peach-fuzz beard, and laughs.

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