Conflict & Justice

Teenage rebel prepares to invade Gaddafi's hometown


A Libyan rebel in Tripoli on Sept. 1, 2011.


Patrick Baz

SADADA, Libya — Mohammed Ballem told me his real age when I turned off the camera. The doe-eyed teenager, wearing what he called a “Michael Jackson hat,” said he learned English from internet chat rooms and is the oldest of a large brood brothers and sisters.

He’s also from Misrata, which makes him a kind of revolutionary by default.

“I joined this Katiba (brigade) because I like the name, 'Martyrs of Yefren.' When I see they’re big, they have a lot of guns, and nice guys, I joined this Katiba,” he said from their base camp, under a bridge some 160 kilometers from Sirte, where camels outnumber people.

He gently guided me around their hardware — mirage rockets, and the double-barreled anti-aircraft gun he mans on missions. He also showed me the bullets, 10-inch shells with exploding heads.

“The events teach me,” Ballem said. “If you don’t learn these things, the Gaddafi forces will be back to Misrata. I’m trying with a lot of guns and the (binoculars).” Misrata has been the most devastated city in Libya since the conflict began in February. The city lost more than 2,000 fighters and civilians as troops loyal to Gaddafi laid siege to it for months.

Ballem said he joined the Katiba when shells began to fall on his city, and one of them killed several of his brothers. “My house fell down by a rocket, my father’s car, my car,” he said.

Their camp was much less makeshift than the rebels trying to take Bani Walid, with whole kitchens, bathrooms and even satellite TV in containers they set up on the side of their neatly parked but deadly vehicles. They’re black trucks are striped red and yellow so NATO planes don’t bomb them.

He showed me two shoulder missile launchers he said he found in Gaddafi’s Baba Al Azzizia, and speculated on how he might launch them, but he wasn’t sure.
His 19-year old friend, Ahmed Al Amin, said when he first held the Kalashnikov, “I was like, 'Wow. How do I fire this?'” Ahmed said he was helping journalists and NGOs in Misrata, but quit to become a fighter when his cousin was killed.

They said there’s an American guy who helps them fire a gun. Mohammed said the American can identify weapons by expended shells, has taught them basic first aid, doles out eye protection and sleeps on the road in his body armor and with all his weapons.

“I become sure maybe he’s special forces,” Mohammed said.

Like the other fighters, they say they are awaiting the order from the National Transition Council before they launch an assault on Sirte. The rebels said they thought that attack was being delayed to evacuate civilians.

“We don’t’ want the world to think the fighters are killing civilian people,” Ahmed said.

The Misrata rebels said they are worried that a scouting mission that traveled as close as 50 kilometers of Sirte on Sunday may have let to an internal revolt inside Sirte, which would have likely caused a brutal crackdown.

Ahmed Mohammed, a volunteer with the Tiger Brigade, said that half ring of tanks is defending Gaddafi’s hometown. The tanks are partially buried in the sand to avoid NATO plane detection and the loyalists are supported by Mauritanian mercenaries, he said.

When families from Misrata inside Sirte saw and heard the rebels approaching, they rose up the revolutionary flag and began revolting. According to rumors filtering out from families fleeing the area, they were brutally repressed, with some saying 11 families were executed.

Mohammed said he started his revolutionary life by helping to upload videos of atrocities on YouTube early on in the conflict. It seemed to him, despite his young age, that becoming a fighter was a natural progression.

“You can see wolves come to drink water, and a lot of rabbits in the night,” he said. 

We are just waiting for the orders, he told me. Any day now, Mohammed will man the anti-aircraft gun as his Katiba’s trucks move on perhaps the most important of Gaddafi’s remaining strongholds.