"Come here and help us by making no airplane and jets. On the ground, we are here, we are fine," says Abdullah al-Gasem, an engineer turned fighter who spent most of the last week in Ras Lanuf before Gadhafi's troops pushed him back. "Do you taste freedom in your life?" he asks a foreign journalist. "I have tasted it for the first time, here. That's the true freedom… Muammar Gadhafi didn't want any freedom for Libyans. We need more help."
Few people here fear that Gadhafi has enough troops to recapture Benghazi or Tobruk. But the two million or so people living in eastern Libya fear the regime they hate so much will once again extend its tentacles into their cities, either by bombing from the air, targeted attacks, frontal assaults, or threats.
Gadhafi has waged a psychological war on the people he ruled for nearly 42 years, sending text messages to people in Benghazi and Tobruk warning them his forces were coming, dropping leaflets in Ajdabiyah urging residents to throw out opposition fighters, even shutting down the entire phone network in eastern Libya for three hours, adding to the fears of isolation.
In the face of such threats, people in this region show fatalism -- "he's going to come house to house, I know he will" -- but also determination born out of the rapture they have felt since Feb. 17.
Abdul Kader -- 15-year-old Fatma's father -- says the city of nearly one million has been transformed "like magic" since the revolution, with people free of fear. Where people were willing to litter before, they now help sweep the public square. Where there was apathy toward the rest of the world, there is now sympathy for victims of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. Where there was terror of being picked up by one of Gadhafi's police, there is now pride in free expression.
Banks loan people money on zero credit if they are not receiving their salaries, and volunteers direct traffic.
Nobody here will give that up without a fight.
"He cannot rule us again," Gader says, thumbing the four cell phones he uses to ensure communication with the media. He is a professor, not a spokesman, but he has made it his work to help foreign journalists. "If Gadhafi ever wants to rule eastern Libya again, it will be over our dead bodies."
That defiance is echoed even by those who have paid an unbearable price.
Osama Bensadik alternates between inspiration and despair when he speaks of his oldest son Muhannad, shot on the front lines over the weekend. He says he has received calls from people in the capital Tripoli who describe how Muhannad's story has inspired them to fight. The 21-year-old Muhannad, a U.S. citizen, could have evacuated Benghazi, but chose to stay.
"Normally the father is the example of the son. But he became my example," Bensadik said today. "Gadhafi could bombard us from the sea and could use his planes to bomb us. That will not make any difference. He will never be our leader again. Never. Our children who have died in this revolution – in Zawaiyah, in Misrata, in the mountains, in Benghazi… have not died in vain. Let him hit us. Let him kill us all. The people's hearts are changed."