East Joins West: On a Rebel Ship to Tripoli

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Zohra Bensemra / Reuters

A rebel fighter walks through a tunnel in the ransacked Bab al-Aziziya compound of ousted Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in Tripoli, August 26, 2011.

"Everybody up!," shouted Anwar al-Muqrayaf, a rebel commander leading about a hundred fighters from the rebel stronghold of Benghazi to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's capital of Tripoli, on a slow-chugging tugboat. "Prepare your weapons. We are heading into a battle!" His ragtag group of fighters hastily rose from mattresses laid out on the deck of the al-Sameeda, cocked their rifles, and donned their ammunition vests. Though exhausted from the 25-hour boat ride, they were eager to marshal their ranks for the final battle to topple Gaddafi.

The fighters set out Tuesday night on two tugboats from Benghazi to reinforce their contingents stomping out the Libyan leader's last remaining units in the capital. Most were volunteers who purchased their army fatigues and combat boots in Benghazi's street stalls. Some had participated in a four-to-six week crash course in basic training and light arms use. But all were confident that they would triumph in the final fight against the dictator that tyrannized them for 42 years. "We won't stop until all of Gaddafi's men are gone from Libya," exclaimed 25-year old Fathi al-Sheikh.

Under the dimly lit sky of a waning moon, the fighters gathered around al-Muqrayaf's deputy, Ahmad Farsi, as he sought to inspire his troops. "The tyrant tried to split you and spread dissension," he shouted, as his Kalashnikov rifle poked through the white railing overlooking the deck. He sprinkled his speech with religious slogans saying, "There will be no revenge. Mohammed forbade a Muslim killing another Muslim." His fighters interrupted him, shouting, "No East, No West. Libya is one country," referring to the regional divisions many analysts fear will doom the country's future.

Despite Farsi's pep talk, a number of his fighters were still mumbling their frustrations. Crowded in a tight circle in front of the large windows of the navigation room, Masoud Bwisir and his five friends explained how the six month uprising had left them frustrated with their commanders and uncertain whether to trust the rebels' political body, known as the National Transitional Council (NTC). "We went to [rebel military chief Abd al-Fattah] Younis, and he told us he didn't want civilians fighting," Bwisir grumbled. "So we went to the army and trained and then spent two weeks with no fighting on the front." Fed up with their military commanders, the six decided to form their own unit that roamed from front to front searching for the most heated clashes with Gaddafi's forces. They tinkered with explosives until they concocted a potent cocktail of 500 grams of TNT and nails.

Before the rebels' recent battlefield success, many in territory in the East shared Bwisir's frustrations. Morale was low following the assassination of General Younis on July 28. Salaries had not been paid in months. Power outages were common. In early August, it appeared the revolution was turning against itself. The rebels' subsequent blitzkrieg boosted spirits, smoothing over the emerging cracks.

Al-Muqrayaf, however, was in no mood to discuss averted catastrophes. As a scion of a family long working in opposition to Gaddafi, the commander of the tugboat troops sensed that his moment of victory was close. His brother Muhammad led the Libyan National Salvation Front, the most active and vocal anti-Gaddafi opposition group throughout most of the 1980's and 90's. The Libyan leader targeted a number of its senior officials during his campaign to eliminate exiled dissidents. "We see the end of Gaddafi," he said, wrapping a scarf around his head. "We will build the free and democratic Libya he denied us."

As the sun rose from across the sea and the Tripoli skyline came into view, the fighters were unsure whether they would face resistance from Gaddafi loyalists still active in the city. From a distance, the capital appeared calm, with cars driving on coastal overpasses. A fishing boat pulled up to the al-Sameeda and fighters threw it the new flag that has become the symbol of the revolution. They chanted, "Allah is one. Fall Muammar, fall!" as they pulled into the port.

Dozens of other fighters from the Tripoli suburb of Tajura greeted them at the dock before loading into pick-up trucks and small buses. They headed to a local school where, after a brief rest, they went out to buttress rebel forces fighting in Abu Slim, the district where, at one point, many believed Gaddafi and his sons were holding out.