Sunday, August 28, 2011

On Patrol with the Benghazi Brigade


Under the scorching heat of the Tripoli sun, Masoud Bwisir, 38, and his fellow rebels have just taken control of a checkpoint Friday in the village of Tajura, six miles east of the Libyan capital of Tripoli. All night, local youths manned the barricade — composed of nothing more than a few concrete blocks and some metal railing — but they wanted someone to take over, so they could pray in an adjacent mosque. And so Bwisir and his crew, still relatively fresh off a tugboat from Benghazi, have relieved them.

A fighter signals that a driver is refusing to open his trunk for inspection and Bwisir comes over. When the hatch is lifted, the rebels find 20 pounds of explosives underneath some plastic bags filled with debris. Local residents, who are watching from beyond the traffic circle, begin to panic, but Bwisir, a businessman back In Benghazi, calmly dismantles the bomb. Throughout Tajura, Benghazi fighters are winning the confidence of the residents they have been tasked to protect. In doing so, they have calmed local residents' fears that the Easterners have arrived to lord it over a region long accustomed to ruling Libya. (See pictures of Benghazi during wartime.)

Having fought for six months against forces loyal to deposed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, units such as Bwisir's have much more combat experience than the newly formed militias sprouting up in the capital over the past few days. They have put their skills to use by stomping out the remaining forces of the deposed strongman still refusing to accept their commander's defeat. "I haven't met many people from Benghazi and was worried that because they made the revolution they would want to own the country," Ashraf Tresh, 34, says. "But the way their fighters have protected us with their courage and expertise, I am happy to welcome them."

Many here share Tresh's sentiments. On Saturday the local buzz was about a weapons depot the brigade found on a farm five miles east of Tajura. Among the fig trees in the fields, Omar Ruba, 34, and his rebels discovered a large warehouse full of GRAD rockets and an assortment of gas masks and grenades. Gaddafi loyalists still active in the region had been using the farm to resupply their fighters, who were spread over rural areas that rebels still have not subdued. "We know Gaddafi brigades are here and want to stop the revolution," explained Riyad Gofar, 43, a Tripoli crane operator, at a checkpoint on the dirt road near the farm. "But we don't have the men to patrol the whole place. These guys do." He then points to a pick-up truck filled with Ruba's Benghazi fighters. "We are so happy they are here." (See pictures of Gaddafi's 40 years in power.)

Tajura residents have expressed their gratitude to the Benghazi brigade in many ways. When the fighters return to their makeshift camp in a local school, hot meals prepared by their neighbors are waiting. Soft goat meat topped with chick peas in a thick red sauce is served, with buckets full of dates on the side "It's much hotter here than in Benghazi and we can't talk to our families" says Ayub Legaha. "But the people here make the pains go away and make us feel like Libya is one?" The 23 year old law student then grabs a handful of dates.

When told about the appreciation Tajura residents have expressed for their new guests, rebel commander Anwar al-Muqrayaf grins. Though he has slept no more than ten hours in the past five days, he is energetically giving orders and greeting locals asking him to solve minor problems. "We came to protect the people here," he mumbles as a subordinate hands him a satellite phone. "Anything we can do to alleviate the problems in Tripoli, that is our task." His adjutant Fawzi Bin Hamid concurs. "We have a mission here and we won't stop until it is complete."

After gobbling down a few morsels of meat and picking at some chickpeas, Bwisir picks up his Kalashnikov and heads out into the courtyard of the school. A group of young men surround him, asking if the bomb sapper who moonlights as a guitar player could put on a short concert for the neighborhood. "Maybe tomorrow," he replies as his fans frown. "Now I have to go out and get more Gaddafi brigades."