Global Politics

Training Libya's rebel forces

By Ben Gilbert

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The rebels in Libya have been fighting a back and forth battle with forces loyal to embattled Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. The loyalists are better equipped and organized, and may very well have overrun the rebels if not for western air strikes last month stopped their tanks outside the gates of the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. The rebels are trying to turn their commitment to their cause into organization, by offering military training to any young man in eastern Libya who wants to join the fight.

28 year old Issa Hassan is one of the hundreds of young civilian volunteers training at the Free Libyan Army's main training base in Benghazi. He's an engineer by trade, but now he's learning how to fight.

"I came here voluntarily to learn about the weapons, to be there in the defensive line just in case Benghazi gets attacked, or if the army needs people at the front lines," he said.
Working for the common good

Issa has come every day to the training camp for the past couple weeks, attending classes from 9:30 to noon. The rebels in Libya's east are passionate, but not well-trained, disciplined or organized. A few artillery shells or rockets from Gaddafi's forces are enough to send hundreds of rebels fleeing, giving up hard won terrain to Gaddafi's forces in a matter of minutes.

This camp aims to change that kind of behavior. Rebel leaders say they've stopped letting untrained young men go the front lines. Issa said he's coming here because he wants to show his commitment to the cause.

"When they see you coming every day, and see you are eager to learn, they will allow you to fight," he said. "There are other people who come for two days then disappear; it shows they don't care, and just come for the fun of it."

Issa has so far learned the workings of mortars, rocket launchers, rocket propelled grenades, and assault rifles.

Just like "Braveheart"

On a concrete parade ground at the training center, several dozen young men in civilian clothes sit in six different circles around instructors demonstrating battlefield basics. Here, an officer demonstrates how to disassemble and clean an AK-47. The students memorize the name of each piece of the weapon, and how to prepare it for the battlefield.

Like the recruits, the instructors are also volunteers, mostly officers who defected from Muammar Gaddafi's army, or retirees. The RPG instructor here is retired Captain Faraz Yassine. He's 61, and spent 18 years in the army.

"I want to teach them how to use the weapons to disable heavy artillery and tanks for their own protection, because I don't want to see anyone else get killed," he said. "I'm trying to help them out, to help get the volunteers organized, so they can operate under an army commander in the field."

The students range in age from teenagers to old men. One fourteen year old said his father made him and his brother attend the courses so they know how to fight. He's still in junior high school. Other volunteers are taxi drivers.

One man, a medical student, didn't want to give his name because he has family in Tripoli.

"A lot of people, all ages and all society people, even the rich people came here, they don't' need anything, they came to fight," the man said. "Before when they take you under army, it's not voluntary, some people even they don't' go into the army, but now they go by themselves, because they feel something is wrong in this country."

"They're just like Mel Gibson in 'Braveheart,'" he chuckled.

Lack of organization

Like many things here, the training still seems disorganized. Rebel media representatives at the camp say the students must get one month of training before they're ready to go to fight. Others say two weeks. Then, they'll go with an experienced soldier who can show them the basics on the real battlefield. But even these details are unclear.

Many in eastern Libya, like the medical student, are still dazed by the fact that they're fighting Gaddafi, and that his government no longer has sway in eastern Libya.

"We dream only that this guy is going to stay forever, it's never going to change," he said. It's like a dream you know, you never, even in your imagination, you never imagine this story will never happen … t's like a dream. And we're ready to fight and die for revolution."

At the same time, the medical student wouldn't mind going back to his studies. He hopes the conflict ends before he gets out of basic training.

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