OUTSKIRTS OF SIRTE, Libya — “Camera or Kalashnikov?” a Libyan rebel fighter asked another as they prepared for battle outside of Sirte, Muammar Gaddafi’s hometown and the last loyalist holdout.
The answer given by thousands of Libyan rebels, who have converged from east and west for what will likely be the final assault of the conflict, is both.
They carry the kalishnikov for the fight, of course. But the array of camera they carry with them have also played an important role as the revolution progressed. They often carry video cameras, and sometimes just a regular camera. The clunky early ‘90s TV cameras the older men in equally dated clothes seem to carry, to the 20-somethings with gel in their hair palming the newer Sony and Panasonic handycams, to the ubiquitous Nokia cell phones, are as common as the AK-47.
Without a doubt, home videos have played a huge role in the Libyan revolution — from early videos of unarmed protestors being attacked in Benghazi, to shocking videos taken from captured Gaddafi troops filming their own atrocities — they sowed the righteous anger of thousands as they spread like wildfire on Facebook and YouTube.
On the dusty plains overlooking Sirte, the fighters and volunteers take shaky videos of themselves and their friends to commemorate their personal places in Libya’s new history.
But others claim to be filming for the larger cause of patriotism. Mohammed Al Mantaser, 23, of Misrata, carries a Panasonic full HD to the frontlines.
“I take my videos and transmit them to the Misrata channel… It’s near my house,” Mantaser said. The Misrata channel broadcasts political and frontline news spliced with graphic images of the fighting. It has become another point of pride and distinction from the Benghazi-based channel Libya Ahura, or “Free Libya” channel.
“I like the Misrata channel because all people see the truth,” Mantaser said. “Some channels in Libya only give small information on Misrata.”
Mantaser showed videos he’d taken of a scattered weapons dump outside Wadi Jarif, and another of a man on crutches shooting an RPG somewhere in Sirte.
But shooting video instead of firing a gun can carry just as big a risk.
“My friend in Dafnia was taking video and lost one eye from an RPG,” Mantaser said.
Fighters say they shoot videos for the world to see the truth. Although the camera can become a distraction from the fight, no one seems to be scolded for filming instead of shooting. The scenes of bravery are often shared. A guy filming a buddy spraying his machine gun will probably have his buddy film him next.
“For me, sometimes I take camera and sometimes I change to fight,” Mantaser said.
Many see the idea of filming as heroic, even on a camera phone.
“They film because there is no one there to record it,” said Jamal Tually, a former refrigerator distributor from Tripoli. When challenged that there are reporters already filming action on the frontlines, Tually admitted, “everyone wants to record it.”
Even days when there doesn’t appear much to record, Libyans are seen snapping photos of themselves in groups like battlefield tourists.
But the photos and videos might also be their last records.
“I’d be proud if one of my sons or myself was ‘shahid,’ said Tually, who has three sons on the front line, using the Arabic word for Martyr. “I’d prefer myself because they are younger… But we feel sometimes the land must be watered with blood.”
Something that isn’t ever photographed — the growing distrust between fighters from Misrata and and Benghazi. Reporters saw a huddle of Misrata fighters near the front.
“It was actually a discussion of a plan to prevent the Benghazi guys from coming here,” a Misrata volunteer said, “because they kept us out of their combat area.”
Friendly fire between the east and west is always a possibility.
“The problem is the cars from Benghazi look like Gaddafi cars,” Tually said. “We tell them to put paint or put a flag on their cars.” Tually said fire from the Benghazi side reached them on the west as well.
An American who’s been hanging around Misrata fighters for several months, Kevin Dawes, hangs a handy cam off his flak jacket and also usually carries a sniper rifle. Dawes said he originally came to Libya to start as a journalist and has ended up volunteering as a medic and a fighter.
“I might put together a documentary,” he said.
A group who arrived a week ago from the Nafusa mountains pulled a larger movie camera out of their SUV today, and said they were filming for the Nafusa people.
“Why not?” said commander Ali Sayeh.
On the eastern front line of Sirte, a rocket-scarred corner leading into a blasted neighborhood, there were fewer camera phones out as fighters geared up to go into heavy block by block gunfire. Sofian, from the eastern city of Ajdabiya, who was manning the last checkpoint, said, “They want videos for memories. The war will end sooner or later.”
GlobalPost asked Sofian how he felt about fighters filming at the front.
“Some guys are brave enough to film at the front. If they don’t have fear, they can fight with their hearts.”