Worry in Libya: 'Freedom Only Knocks Once'

Rebels worry forces loyal to Gadhafi are marching deeper into eastern Libya.

March 15, 2011, 12:03 PM

TOBRUK, LIBYA, March 15, 2011 -- One month after the revolution in Libya began, 15-year-old Fatma Kader's elation has turned to tears. She is wracked with worry that forces loyal to Col. Muammar Gadhafi are marching deeper into eastern Libya and won't be stopped.

"Where's Obama?" she asks, so overcome with emotion she can barely speak. "They keep using this opportunity to kill us."

Osama Bensadik's bliss has turned to devastation. He came to eastern Libya – "free Libya," they call it here, with a new government and new flags flying – to help his son fight the revolution. They thought they had won. But today, he is looking for his son's body after he was shot fighting on the front lines.

"Everyone's asking for a no-fly zone. There's no comparison between the kids fighting with their small weapons and Gadhafi's forces with the major artillery," he says. "We are fighting for our dignity. I hope no more blood, no more fighting, no more death. But who is listening? No one is."

For the opposition, the fight is not going well. And as the United States and the international community continue to debate how to help, many here feel isolated, and they fear that assistance will come too late.

Fighters in Ajdabiyah, just 100 miles from the opposition stronghold Benghazi, say Gadhafi's forces have reached the edge of the city after bombarding the city repeatedly today. The opposition side is increasingly led by Special forces soldiers who defected from Gadhafi's military, and their leaders say they are trying to hold on until a no fly zone allows them to use tanks they have so far hid from Gadhafi's jets.

But they are having a hard time doing so, and some opposition officials say pro-Gadhafi fighters have entered the center of Ajdabiyah, a key crossroads from which highways lead to both Benghazi and the Egyptian border. And so opposition leaders and residents who have lived so long under tyranny sound more desperate in asking for assistance. They know they are fighting not only Gadhafi's planes but also the news cycle: the Japanese earthquake and tsunami now dominates headlines, distracting the international community and helping, along with security fears, to lead to an exodus of foreign NGO workers and journalists from Benghazi.

Fear and Loathing in Libya

Representatives of the National Transition Council met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Paris on Monday night and asked for a no-fly zone and recognition of the council, according to U.S. officials and officials in Benghazi. But one U.S. official, speaking to a pool reporter, said one of the goal of the meeting was to "get a good understanding" of the council and their goals. That's light-years away from the concrete steps the opposition says it needs -- and needs quickly -- from the international community.

The requests for help -- especially a no-fly zone -- are echoed for hundreds of miles along the coast: by fighters on the front lines, protesters in Benghazi, residents of Tobruk, only 90 minutes from the Egyptian border. They may not be comfortable with the "no-fly zone" phrase, but they know what they want.

"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.

Libya: Gadhafi and the Opposition

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."

For some defectors from the military – who are increasingly leading this war, trying to get the opposition more organized – a no-fly zone isn't enough. These officers are proud but have been systematically stripped of resources, especially in eastern Libya, according to analysts and military officials. Their equipment is below average and the average salary for a senior officer is only $1,000 per month, they say. One colonel in Tobruk said he couldn't even afford a car.

In Benghazi, one retired Air Force colonel said the U.S. needed to "send your friends Tomahawk and Cruise" -- and the opposition would need only two days to take Tripoli.

Without that help, though, he predicted a long, tough, violent fight to defend the major eastern cities. Never, he said, will anybody in this part of Libya accept life under Gadhafi again.

"Freedom," he said, "only knocks on the door once."

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