SIRTE, Libya – Each night near the embattled city of Sirte, battalion leaders meet in an abandoned beach palace. Here, in this elaborate former retreat of a Gaddafi spokesman, they discuss the next day's battle tactics.
These commanders from the city of Misrata are not trained military strategists. Some are teachers, others businessmen, computer experts, and laborers, but for 7 months they have led their civilian fighters in a war against a well equipped national army.
Like their leaders, almost none of the men under their command had fired a weapon before entering the battlefield. They had not entertained the idea of becoming soldiers, but at the outset of the revolution in February, the sight of Gaddafi's tanks rolling into their home town moved them to action. In defense of their homes and families, this motley untrained crew formed a military force that defeated Gaddafi's army, forcing them to retreat from Misrata after a bloody two month battle.
These groups that began as lose fighting teams have now organized themselves into somewhat formal units. They have come together in various ways. Some were previously workmates. Others old friends. Some have formed alliances with likeminded individuals. The city of Misrata now has 235 registered civilian battalions. Around 70 of these are leading this final advance on Gaddafi's hometown from both the western and eastern fronts.
For the Shohadan Magalba, or the martyrs of Magalba battalion, it seems bravery on the battle field and intolerance for cowardice has drawn this young group together. Always found on the extreme frontline, during Friday's battle they advanced through the streets firing guns and anti-aircraft weapons mounted on a convoy of pickup trucks.
"When people want to join our battalion I generally accept most of them, but I have a specialized group that fight on the front line," said battalion commander Mohammed Enhicey. "I know who the capable fighters are. The others I give various other jobs back at the base."
Previously working as a fisherman and truck driver, at just 24 Enhicey has forged a reputation for his keen battle tactics and fearless advances. He may be the youngest commander, but in addition to the 70 men in his battalion, many other units look to him for orders.
"He has a mind for war. He knows how to attack – how to get in behind the enemy. I think its in his genes," said battalion fighter Mohammed Rojbani in reference to Enhicey's grandfather, who fought in Israel for 25 years. "He is always the first to enter and the last one to leave the front."
In the beginning, the core group of Shohadan Magalba was formed through friendships. Like most commanders, Enhicey emerged as a clear leader.
Mohammed Mustafa Alhorshy was also one of the founding members. The two friends have fought together since the first days of the upraising. He is now an expert in small arms and heavy weapons. When he is not on the battle field, this carpenter with a knowledge of mechanics can generally be found repairing or modifying the groups weaponry.
"Before the war, I didn't know anything about these weapons, but now even the babies in Misrata know how to fire a gun," said Alhorshy who describes those in the group as his brothers that he would defend at all costs. "Anything that shoots or fires I can use it."
Others have since been drawn to the group through its reputation.
Rojbani is one of the newest members. Having fought in his home town of Zintan, he joined Enhicey's battalion after his 14-year-old brother was taken captive while fighting in Tripoli. He has heard rumors that he may be imprisoned in Sirte.
"For me, really, I don't want to fight anymore," Rojbani said. "I just want to find my little brother."
Many of these civilian battalions are financed by rich families. Others receive support from the community. Food is provided by women back in Misrata who prepare meals and snacks from their own supplies. One group leave hand written notes of support for the fighters in their lunch packs.
"We are with you. We will never forget your sacrifice," read one note wrapped around a tuna sandwich.
"Gaddafi hides like a rat. You will be victorious," read another.
Minor needs are also covered by donations for those on the front. Cigarettes, socks and underwear or often handed out to fighters from the back of trucks. Rest stops serving coffee and snacks are also set up by volunteers on route to the front. To help cover any additional needs of these men, most of which have not earned a wage in seven months, 150 dinar (US$100) is paid to each registered fighter monthly.
Some groups have had the finances to purchase weapons from Benghazi, while for others, like Shohadan Magalba, weapons have come solely from the enemy.
"We now have seven vehicles," Enhicey said as he drove back from the front with his convoy of fighters. From back of pickup truck in front, Alhorshy beamed a mischievous smile atop a four-barreled 14.5mm mounted anti-aircraft gun. "All of them we got from Gaddafi's men."
Ammunition is frequently distributed through the military council. The rest is retrieved from a retreating enemy. On the outskirts of Sirte, several large weapons caches have been seized. Battalion groups rushed in to stock up, rummaging through the ruins of storage sheds bombed by Nato.
Battalion sizes vary from the larger groups of over 600 to smaller groups of around 50.
Lufty Alamin, a prominent figure among Misrata's fighters, previously fought with one of the larger groups but broke away to form a smaller unit with friends. He is now fighting in Sirte but returns periodically to see his family in Misrata.
"In the larger battalions you need to stay out there all the time," Alamin said. "You are always on call. There is no freedom. For the single men it's ok. For me i have children so i have to come back and see to their needs."
Ahmed Alseid also fights somewhat independently.
"I am a member of a battalion, but my battalion are now holding security in Tripoli and along the Tunisian border," said the father of five.
Alseid joins the daily battles in Sirte but returns each night to his family home in Misrata.
For the young single men of Shohadan Magalba unit, the fight has become thier life and their battalion their family. From an abandoned farmhouse near the Sirte frontline that has now become their base, Alhorshy spoke of the close friendships he has forged during the revolution.
"The best thing Gaddafi did was to unite the Libyan people. These guys are like my brothers. I love them. If anyone tried to hurt them I could kill them."