Libya rebels race to train civilians for the front
BENGHAZI: The volunteers come to the training camp in jeans and flip-flops, most having never held a weapon, but in three weeks they will be sent to the front to battle Muammar Qadhafi’s tanks.
They form uneven lines as they assemble in a former military base in this Libyan rebel stronghold — students, teachers, oil workers and retirees who until February lived quiet, if constrained, lives under his regime.
Everything changed when their pro-democracy protests were met with a hail of gunfire and artillery from Qadhafi’s well-trained troops, forcing them to hastily assemble a people’s army to defend themselves.
“If I die, I’ll die as a martyr for Libya,” said Hani Abdelqader, a 40-year-old high school social studies teacher, outfitted in new green camouflage. “We are defending ourselves. We are defending civilians.”
He has never served in the military, never even held a gun, but he says that did not make much of a difference when Qadhafi’s forces were shelling Benghazi two weeks ago and his wife and two children huddled inside, terrified.
“When they came to Benghazi they shelled everyone. People died who were civilians, who had nothing to do with the revolution,” he said.
The defected Libyan army officers who lead the rebel forces have in recent days sought to organise the unruly mob of mostly inexperienced and unarmed volunteers on the front lines into a real fighting force.
They have started ordering civilians and lightly armed fighters to stay back from the front to prevent the panic that breaks out when the mortar rounds slam into the ground around their long desert convoy.
Here in Benghazi they offer three-week training courses to volunteers in which they teach the basics of how to use the assault rifles, mortar launchers and anti-aircraft guns they looted from seized military bases.
But even some of the instructors have little experience.
Mustafa Salih, 29, who taught a few dozen volunteers how to assemble an anti-aircraft gun, completed a year of mandatory military training in 2007 and has never seen combat.
“This training is not enough. It’s going to be very dangerous for the revolutionaries,” he said.
One of his pupils was Hassan Mustafa, a pudgy 14-year-old with doughy cheeks and just a trace of moustache.
Rebel authorities say that only those aged 18 and older with proof of Libyan citizenship will be sent to the front, but the training is open to all.
“I’m going to fight for the freedom of our country,” Mustafa said in a faint voice that has hardly begun to crack. “I learned how to use a Kalashnikov, a mortar launcher and an anti-aircraft gun.”
He has not actually fired any of them yet — that comes later in the course — but he says he will be ready to fight to “victory or death”.
The rebels know they are outgunned by Qadhafi’s more disciplined troops and that three weeks is not nearly enough time to raise a standing army, but they feel they have no choice, because their enemies are advancing.
“This war was imposed on us, and we had no chance to train,” said Mustafa Gheriani, a spokesman for the rebels’ Transitional National Council.
“Three weeks is better for going to the front than none,” he said, adding that young men were heading to the front with or without orders to do so.
Last week Qadhafi’s forces sent the rebels stampeding out of a string of vital oil terminals they had seized twice before, the second time with aid from a blistering Nato air attack.
The war has since bogged down, with the rebels trading rocket and mortar fire with Qadhafi’s forces on a desert road outside the town of Brega.
A top US military official said last week that the rebel force was “not well organised (and) not a very robust organisation”, and that its gains will continue to be “tenuous” despite the Nato air strikes and a no-fly zone.
Reinforcements will emerge from the training camps in the coming weeks, but they will include men like Hassan Ibrahim, a stocky 62-year-old with several grandchildren who turned up on a mild day in a long wool coat.
“If they give me a Kalashnikov I will use a Kalashnikov. If they give me a mortar launcher I’ll use that. I’ll do anything to defend my family,” he said.
“Qadhafi will kill everyone. All of us need to learn how to fire a Kalashnikov, even the women.”