Strongman Khalifa Haftar’s offensive on the Libyan capital has seen a generation of inexperienced, and largely ignored youngsters rise up in defence of their city.
Haftar’s April offensive on Tripoli is bogged down and in trouble. His Libyan National Army (LNA) suffered a major setback on 27 June with the loss of Gharyan, a strategic city about 100km south of the capital. Holding off against the LNA is a heterogeneous coalition of battle-hardened veterans and a local group of greenhorns and teenagers quick to take up arms. As children during the 2011 revolution, the youngsters are now seeking recognition.
The decision to recruit the youngsters is the initiative of 40-year-old Meftah al-Ghanoudi, a veteran of RADA Special Deterrence Forces – the highly combative and fiercely proselytizing Madkhali-Salafi militia with almost 1,000 members in Tripoli.
His advice to the youngsters gathered near his unit is blunt. “It’s simple: those who don’t listen, those who don’t obey, are already dead!” But Meftah is also concerned about their survival.
“The important thing is to give them the right advice so that they do not lose their lives stupidly,” he says, with his hand on his heart. “If they survive, they are free to join us or not!”
The young Tripolitans certainly need advice and protection. Take high school student Tarek Abdella, 17, who seems lost in the middle of the chaos where rigour and discipline are relative terms.
Under the bemused gaze of his mentor, Tarek, in Bermuda shorts and a Cristiano Ronaldo football jersey, admits he signed up without asking too many questions. “It’s normal to fight for your city, for your country,” he says, painfully trying to explain his position but with no real enthusiasm. “It’s also true that some of my friends had already gone into battle. I didn’t want to be alone,” he concedes.
The confession earns him a friendly pat on the back of the head from Meftah. “The brotherhood is what is most important,” he says. “This is true in life but even more so in war. You will sacrifice yourself more easily for a friend or brother than for a stranger.” Tarek listens attentively.
Ensuring continuity and honouring memories
Like all those of his generation, he has only a “few images” in mind about the 2011 uprising and the events that followed. Life under Muammar Gaddafi? The answer is best found in the extent of the indoctrination of the “Guide of the Revolution” and his multiple portraits that once marked the city.
“I don’t want Haftar,” says Tarek. “I don’t want a new dictator!” He gets agitated and intense when he talks about his family. “An uncle and two cousins died in 2011. My father and two of my brothers fought too. It’s normal to do the same.”
Ensuring continuity, honouring memory, is the leitmotiv for these budding soldiers. “These young people were children at the time, but it must be understood that all Libyan families were involved or affected in one way or another by the revolution and its aftermath. They are just following in the footsteps of the elders,” says Meftah, pointing to another youthful fighter, Souhaib Moksa.
Profit, power and ideology
Souhaib joined the RADA when the LNA arrived. He is no stranger to these militiamen: his older brother was one of them. In 18 September 2018, violent clashes erupted between militias in Tripoli. It was a war that reflected how differences in ideology had generally given way to the lure of profit or power. Souhaib’s brother was killed, along with more than a hundred combatants and civilians.
The tragedy has not prevented the younger brother from being with men, some of whom were in the opposing camp just eight months ago. Wearing mismatched military fatigues and jacket with white sneakers, the 19-year-old says he has no hard feelings.
“There is nothing personal about war,” he says coldly. “Everyone wants to save their own skin. My brother killed men, he was killed in turn. It was the will of God, who honoured him by making him a martyr. Today, the opponent has changed, but I had to take his place.”
Souhaib left his daily life in the modest family grocery store and took up arms—all with his family’s blessing. “This is what God had planned for me, this was his plan,” he insists, eager to mark his submission to the divine.
“It is an honour for any Libyan family to have a fighter,” says Meftah, “not to mention that it is an even greater honour to have a martyr in his lineage. We are in God’s service, and God chooses what happens to us.”
Inexperience and recognition
But what exactly do the old-timers think of this rookie? Meftah states the obvious. He praises the good will of his young fighters but acknowledges their inexperience when a teenager passes by, an ungrateful grin on his baby-fuzz face.
“You see that one?” he asks. “The other day, while on patrol, there were shots fired, but it was impossible to know where they came from. Well, he’s the only one who stood there like an idiot. Thank God he wasn’t hurt, but we all went and slapped him. He could have taken a bullet!”
Mohanad Slimeni is the “idiot” in question. At the age of 18, he tries to look good. It is not easy when you find yourself harnessed with several kilos of ammunition and an assault rifle that is as heavy as it is bulky. He was planning to study engineering and has not lost anyone close to him in the past eight years. A real exception. Like the others, he opposes Haftar, whom he describes as “the enemy of the Libyan people who wants to raze Tripoli as he razed Benghazi by killing hundreds of innocent people”.
Other than that, what is he doing here? He doesn’t know what to say. He was tempted by adventure, that’s all. Then he says, with some embarrassment: “I have been seeing these men for years who were nothing and who everyone respects today. When you see them, you don’t want to make fun of them.” His embarrassed gaze meets the laughing face of Meftah.
Meftah, a dissident under Gaddafi’s rule, says he recognises himself in this young man and even more so, in his frank naiveté: “I was his age the first time a weapon was put in my hands. I wanted to drive out this unbelieving Gaddafi, overthrow the government and die for the glory of God. I was eager to fight, to take action. One day, an elder gave me a machine gun and said, ‘Go, go kill Gaddafi!’ I thought about it for a second and went home to my mother! It takes conviction, courage, but above all time to become a warrior.”
Home for dinner – and TV
Others are learning faster or, at least, claim to be learning faster. This is the case with the Torbi brothers. They too discovered a fighting spirit with the launch of Haftar’s Operation Flood of Dignity. There is “nothing very scary” about emptying a magazine, assures the younger, Ameur, 20: “It’s normal when the other side is shooting at you.” Ahmed – who is three years older – admits, “it’s not like in video games. Most of the time, you don’t really know who or what you’re shooting at”.
There seems to be no political or religious sentiment in the commitment of these two unemployed people from a modest background. If they have difficulty expressing or acknowledging it, the LNA offensive is clearly an opportunity for these young people to play a role, to influence the course of events.
Ahmed admits: “I feel like I’m being useful.”
Ameur says he is “proud to fight a dictator” rather than “hiding like a coward in Tunisia”, spitting to mark his contempt.
This adds to the worries of their parents, already shaken by the injury to their eldest, wounded by a mortar a few years ago. The brothers intend to remain mobilised until “this Haftar dog returns to the mountains”. The only concession to their mom is that they try and come home every evening for dinner and to sleep at home, especially when there’s a football game on TV.
Kids who return home at nightfall, that’s also the battle of Tripoli.
This article first appeared in Jeune Afrique.