Right from the start, Mario, an ethnic Croatian artillery specialist from Bosnia, suspected it was a lost cause.
"My men were mainly from the south [of Libya] and Chad, and there were a few others from countries south of Libya," said Mario, who spoke on condition that his last name not be published. A veteran of the wars of the former Yugoslavia, he had been hired by the Gaddafi regime to help fight the rebels and, later, NATO. "Discipline was bad, and they were too stupid to learn anything. But things were O.K. until the air strikes commenced. The other side was equally bad, if not worse. [Muammar] Gaddafi would have smashed the rebels had the West not intervened."
By early July, Mario said, more than 30% of the men under his command had deserted or defected to the rebel side. NATO missiles scored several direct hits on his forces, causing "significant casualties." At that point in the war, he said, "military hardware stopped having the role it [once did]. We had to use camouflage and avoid open spaces."
Away from the front, at the heart of the regime, mistrust and excess further undermined Gaddafi's hold on power, Mario said. "Life in [Gaddafi's] compound and shelters was so surreal, with partying, women, alcohol and drugs," said Mario, 41. "One of the relatives of Gaddafi took me to one of his villas where they offered me anything I wanted. I heard stories about people being shot for fun and forced to play Russian roulette while spectators were making bets, like in the movies."
Tension between two of Gaddafi's sons contributed to the sense that Gaddafi's cause was doomed. "I noticed profound rivalry between Gaddafi's sons," Mario said, speaking en route from the southern city of Sabha to Libya's border with Niger. "Once, there was almost an armed clash between Mohammed's and Saif [al-Islam]'s men. I saw one group interrogating the other at gunpoint, and then more of the other group arrived fully armed, and it was a standoff for several minutes, with both sides cursing each other."
Mario respected and liked Gaddafi's most prominent son, Saif al-Islam, who in 2009 threw himself a lavish 37th birthday party on the coast of the former Yugoslav republic of Montenegro, one of Europe's newest glamour spots for the superrich. The ties between the Gaddafi family and the former Yugoslavia stretch back to the days of Josep Broz Tito, Yugoslavia's storied communist leader, who was a friend and ally of Gaddafi's. Mario said that Gaddafi had hired several former Yugoslav fighters, most of them Serbs, to help him in his fight against NATO and the rebels. One by one, Mario said, these foreign advisers and commanders left Tripoli. Some senior Libyans joined them.
"I noticed that many Libyans pretended loyalty just out of fear and were just seeking a way to turn against [Gaddafi]," Mario said. "Many officers admitted to me they stood no chance against NATO, and one of them told me he was in touch with the people in Benghazi." Benghazi is the rebel stronghold in the east of the country.
Mario left Tripoli 12 days ago after receiving a warning from a comrade. "Two weeks ago, a friend who brought me here told me I should leave Tripoli, as things were going to rapidly change and that deals have been made," he said. He noticed Gaddafi's South African mercenaries beginning to leave. Mario decided with a fellow mercenary to flee Tripoli. "I tried to get ahold of Saif before that, but he was beyond reach," he said. "Later he called my companion to ask if we needed something and to say that they would win back all of Libya."
Another former Yugoslav soldier, a retired general in the old Yugoslav army and a longtime military adviser to Gaddafi, cut things tighter, leaving Tripoli on Aug. 21. The man, who spoke on condition that his name not be published, spoke to TIME as he traveled through Libya toward Tunisia. "Back there is chaos," he said, referring to Tripoli, which was then being overrun by the rebel forces. "The whole system has collapsed. I knew it was coming. I haven't spoken to [Gaddafi] in four weeks. He wouldn't listen."
Like Mario, the former general had sensed that the regime would soon fall. "Everything seemed normal until recently, but we could feel the deal breaking behind the stage," he said. The former general, who had lived in Tripoli and ran a business there for many years, described Gaddafi as a "fool" and compared him to Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian leader who took on NATO during the 1999 war in Kosovo and ultimately died in a prison cell at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in the Hague. "You can't fight NATO and play a stubborn lunatic like that guy," the former general said.