Saturday night, rebel-held Benghazi shook with explosions from the air strikes and artillery of pro-Gadhafi forces. Homes on the city outskirts crumbled under the shelling. As plumes of smoke rose into the air and Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s tanks advanced, thousands fled eastward in fear for their lives. “Do we have to wait until Gadhafi kills us all before the world acts? We are very disappointed,” said Adel Mansoura, an air traffic controller escaping with his family. “When we heard the UN resolution, we were very happy and thought we had our freedom, but now we have been left on our own to the killers.”
Almost on cue, coalition fighter jets buzzed the road, firing missiles at Gadhafi’s forces. “If they had delayed by just six more hours, there would have been a massacre,” said Benghazi resident Munir Abdul Rahim, 42. “He came to the city with strong weapons—he was going to destroy the whole of Benghazi. His mandate is to kill the whole of Benghazi: men, women and children,” added Mounir el Adawan, 44, who had sat shuttered in his home. “These are the Gadhafi rules: to rule and control you, or to kill you.”
For now, Benghazi is once again in rebel hands. Outside the coffee shop on the city promenade, elderly men sit in the sunshine drinking cappuccinos and discussing politics. “Today is okay,” says Khaled Feitour, 44. “Now Gadhafi has forgotten Benghazi. He is frightened of the coalition forces. If he attacks, they will attack him. I don’t think he can come back.” There is a sense of relief and gratitude among the residents. “God and the French air force have saved us,” is the phrase repeated across town.
Monday night, an American pilot was welcomed with hugs as he stood stranded beside his crashed F-15 Eagle in a field near Benghazi. “We saw the plane fall in front of us and explode, and we saw the pilot coming down in his parachute,” says Younis Amruni, 27. “He was terrified. I walked up to him and hugged him.”
At the rebel checkpoint at the current front line, on the outskirts of the next town of Ajdabiya, there are signs that the violence and forced retreat of the week before have taken their toll. For weeks, bloody battles raged as the ill-equipped but zealous rebel fighters sought to push back Gadhafi loyalists. “Gadhafi has tanks and rockets that we don’t have,” says Capt. Ibrahim Younis, looking at Ajdabiya on the horizon. “Gadhafi killed a lot of our fighters—where there were 3,000, now we have only around 1,000,” says Masoud Bwiser, 36. The front line is a waiting game. Gadhafi’s forces hold their line, knowing they may again be hit by the coalition if they advance, while the rebels look to the skies for help to advance eastward toward Tripoli.
Indeed, Libya’s revolutionaries are pinning their hopes on greater coalition engagement. “We need the British and French to clear the road and then we can go further,” says Younis. “We are waiting for the air strikes.” On the ground, they remain a ragtag bunch. At one point, with no discernible strategy, small groups move six kilometres past the checkpoint, reaching the brow of a desert hill. They stand against the horizon waving Kalashnikovs. Minutes later comes the dreaded whistle of an incoming artillery shell or missile. It explodes in the nearby sand with a dull thud, sending the rattled rebels into retreat.
The lack of a disciplined military is all too clear. “We have no plan; we just go on like this. It is not a good thing, but we have no choice,” says fighter Masoud Bwiser, 36. Usually he runs a coffee shop and car wash. Mohammed Agori, 23, has come to the front line with only a knife. “My friend and I were drinking tea on the sand dune at the front. He asked me for some sugar, and then the rocket came in,” he laughs. There is some rancour in the rebel ranks toward the dissident members of the army who defected to the opposition. For weeks, they say, there have been unfulfilled promises that those soldiers will lead the front. “We were waiting for our army to come,” says Bwiser. “They have lied to us—they didn’t send the army.” Jammal Bennour, a member of the Benghazi governing council, concurs. “Our military forces have disappointed us,” he says. “It is a very bitter truth, but there are not enough military forces.”
Dissident Maj.-Gen. Ahmed al-Gatrani denies that defected members of the army are not playing a role. The army is organizing itself, and has already moved, he says. It doesn’t operate on the roads—the forces are in the desert, surrounding Ajdabiya. Whether this is optimism or reality is hard to know.
On Tuesday, the roads toward Ajdabiya were jammed with citizens pressing their faces against car windows to see Gadhafi tanks destroyed by the coalition. But this “Libyan Disneyland”—as one fighter called the scene—came with the conspicuous lack of weapons reinforcements to the front line. Indeed, both the rebels and Gatrani agree on one point: ammunition is dangerously low. “We are losing ammunition, and there is no new supply. Soon we will just be throwing rocks,” says Gatrani. “We are in real need of these supplies, for balance between us and the Gadhafi forces.” Without further help, he adds, “Gadhafi will destroy the Libyan people.”
Looking for more?
Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.