When the war in Libya started, many young men now on the rebel front line at Misrata were so interested in computer games and mobile phones that older residents never thought they would turn into fighters. “Before the uprising, all those young men cared about was hair gel, clothes, music, mobile phones and hanging out in cafes,” said Mahmoud Askutri, a businessman who has formed and funds the 1st battalion of the Al Marsa regiment, one of the rebel units fighting here to end Muammar Gaddafi’s 41-year rule.
“But now they fight and are willing to die for a cause.”
Amid the Arab Spring protests that swept the region early this year, the people of Misrata and elsewhere in Libya demanded greater freedom, so Gaddafi sent in the troops to silence their protests.
After those troops opened fire on demonstrators, the people of Misrata rose up, initially fighting back with petrol bombs and hunting rifles.
Since then, they have wrested control of Libya’s third largest city from Gaddafi loyalists and, after mistakes that cost many lives, this army of former civilians has consolidated a front line 36 km (22 miles) west of Misrata.
They have recently encountered better trained troops and have moved forward slowly under sustained bombardment to conserve ammunition, hold territory and reduce casualties.
That they are around 10 km (six miles) east of Zlitan, the largest city between here and the capital, Tripoli, is testimony to the courage of the young men in this force.
“They treat me with great respect,” Askutri said before a visit to the men of Al Masra on the front line. “But when I see them I do not feel worthy of that respect. A few months ago they were civilians. Now they are willing to die for their freedom.”
Salah is typical of many young men on the front line here. The 20-year-old was attending medical school when the uprising started. Life was easy and he spent a lot of time playing soccer games on Playstation.
“Fifty fifty,” he says of his record on Playstation.
Sitting with a group of other young men, he says he is a big fan of FC Barcelona. A second young man shakes his head and says he likes Real Madrid, while a third looks down at the Manchester United logos embossed on his shoes and says nothing.
Salah plans to return to university after the war, as he wants to become a cardiologist.
“But first we must beat Gaddafi,” he says. “We cannot be free if we live under him.”