Ahmed Abdelrahmin is 15, but he is small for his age and his voice hasn’t changed. On Sunday, he sat patiently in the yard of a former high school in the east Libyan city of Tobruk as a Qatari instructor showed how to dismantle and clean a 50 mm anti-aircraft gun. Then he practised operating a battlefield radio set. In between, there was lots of marching.
Like all of the 350 young men around him, he volunteered to join the Libyan rebels, walking into their local headquarters with a uniform purchased by his father and a lunch packed by his mother. On Sunday, he was ready to complete a crash 30-day training program to prepare volunteers for the fight against Colonel Moammar Gadhafi’s much more well-prepared army.
As Canada approaches its fifth month at war in Libya – participating in a multinational NATO air war to beat back Col. Gadhafi’s troops and protect the rebels – it is increasingly apparent how far this resistance movement has to go to become a fully capable army. While its political organization, headquartered in Benghazi, appears comparatively unified and purposeful, the combat operation is haphazard and woefully ill-supplied.
The scene inside the rebel camp on Sunday looked like a teen remake of The Dirty Dozen: A shambolic line of soldiers, many under 18 and at least three only 15, mixed with a scattering of older educated professionals of varying fitness, marched in haphazard order under the blazing sun, some wearing a mix of leftover, purchased or found uniforms, others in T-shirts and sneakers, with expressions of determined bravado. It was not so much West Point as Welcome Back, Kotter.
Yet this was graduation week. Equipped with pickup-truck rocket launchers jerry-built from Soviet aircraft parts and carrying battered AK-47 assault rifles, these young men, some barely able to tie their boots properly, will be sent to the front lines in Misrata and the hills of western Libya within 48 hours, where they will join the Tobruk branch of the Martyrs of the February 17 Revolution Brigade in its faltering push toward Tripoli.
Commanders say that very young boys like Mr. Abdelrahmin will not be sent to the front – combat is officially only for 18-year-olds, though ID checks are minimal – but instead will perform behind-the-lines duties in the mess hall or the communications office. Still, the rebels need all the bodies they can get.
Here at the training camp, meals are generally donated by the families of soldiers. Weapons are many decades old, none of them modern or accurate. Graduates are told that, as soldiers, they probably won’t be paid for at least a month and probably much longer, as the rebels currently have few sources of financing.
As a result, the anti-Gadhafi rebellion has not attracted anywhere close to all the fighting-age males in eastern Libya: Some of these young men said they know only a few friends who have been willing to fight.
The officers who run the training – a mix of soldiers donated by Qatar’s army and retired officers from Col. Gadhafi’s army who’ve joined the rebels – say they have compressed what is normally at least three months of basic training into 30 days.
“We’ve eliminated all the theoretical stuff – we just go straight into practical skills. We’ve made everything very short and very intense so they can survive in the battlefield,” says Altayib Al-Giryani, who oversees the training program.
Even this, he notes, is an improvement. In the early months, when the democracy protests against Col. Gadhafi turned into a fight for survival and then a mass armed movement to oust the dictator, the rebel army formed spontaneously, with young men hitchhiking to the front with little more than sunglasses and attitude.
“Even though this is very minimal, the fighters we are getting are actually better than those who had two years of training in the Gadhafi army,” Mr. Al-Giryani claims. “Those people were training because they were forced to, whereas these soldiers are coming here because they really want to fight for democracy in their country.”
Even to call it a single “rebel army” is to extrapolate. The Feb. 17 Brigade, one of the largest forces in the resistance, began as a private militia organized by oil and computer executives in eastern Libya to protect their resources from Col. Gadhafi’s revenge, until last month the rebel commanders in Benghazi made efforts to unite the various militias under a single set of rules and loyalties.
Given the extreme youth and inexperience of much of their elite fighters, the rebels have turned to foreign-born Libyans who have joined the fight from outside. In the country’s hilly west, along the border with Tunisia, the rebels have assembled brigades of well-educated Americans, Europeans and Canadians of Libyan descent.
These include the Tripoli Brigade, an elite force meant to drive the final assault on Tripoli – its emigrant members, all of them related to families living in the capital, are being trained to build trust, to protect the city from looting, and to protect the citizens and former regime officials from revenge killings by untrained amateur soldiers like those coming from camps like this one.
Photo: Doug Saunders