Bricks vs. bullets: The battle of Benghazi, or what it’s like to fight a dictator in Libya

Battle at army base broke Gadhafi hold in Benghazi

By PAUL SCHEMM
The Associated Press
Friday, February 25, 2011; 5:04 PM

This is what we mean by power to the people.

BENGHAZI, Libya —

The young men of Benghazi pounded the dreaded military barracks in the city center with everything they could find. They threw stones and crude bombs made of tin cans stuffed with gunpowder. They drove bulldozers into its walls. All under a blaze of gunfire from troops inside that literally tore people in half.

More than 100 were killed in three days of fighting. But in the end, the base fell and Moammar Gadhafi’s forces fled, executing comrades who refused to shoot. The assault on the base known as the “Katiba” was the defining battle in the fall of Libya’s second largest city to the opposition uprising that has swept away Gadhafi’s rule in the eastern half of the country. …

Death and destruction - in hopes of something better

On Feb. 17, the protests turned deadly, when troops opened fire, killing 14.The next day, a funeral procession of thousands made its way to the cemetery….Accounts differ on whether mourners began throwing stones first or the soldiers of the Katiba opened fire without provocation. But the result was a massacre, with the city’s main Al-Jalaa Hospital alone reporting 24 deaths in its morgue and hundreds of wounded.

On Feb. 19, a new procession thousands strong carried the dead from the previous day and once more passed the Katiba to the cemetery in an act of defiance.

“The people whose brothers had died the day before were in the first rank and they were the first to start throwing rocks,” recalled Aboul Qassim Bujezia. “The soldiers in the Katiba opened fire and everyone in the first rank died.”…

The dictator

One of the few bodies remaining in the hospital’s overflowing morgue attests to the ferocity. As the drawer slides open it reveals a bearded man’s peaceful face. His body ends below his chest. His lower half was a red mix of shredded bone and muscle with a charred protruding spine – the likely effects of being hit by a rocket propelled grenades, guess the doctors.

Dr. Abdullah, who insisted his last name not be used, is the hospital’s head of surgery and casualty unit, and has dealt with effects of violence several times in his career, including after U.S. airstrikes and attacks by Gadhafi’s security forces. Most of his colleagues, though, were not ready for these kinds of injuries.

“There is a shortage of professional people to deal with these cases,” he said. “Our nurses are from the Philippines and other countries and their embassies are withdrawing them and we will have no nurses.“…

Benghazi’s youth focused their rage on the Katiba, throwing whatever they could at it.

“Every time they killed one of us, more came,” said Mohammed Haman, a lanky 29-year-old sporting a bandanna and an American accent from six years living in Baltimore. “When they started shooting, we hit back with bricks.”

Others fired homemade explosives known as “jalateen” – essentially gunpowder stuffed into a tin can normally used in the unsportsmanlike local style of fishing. They fired them over the high walls with spear guns, also used for fishing. Others commandeered bulldozers and tried to breach the walls, often succumbing under heavy fire.

“You wouldn’t believe how much they were trying to capture the barracks,” said Dr. Abdullah. “The young people were making human shields for the drivers of the bulldozers,” he added, describing how he received four people all shot in the chest at the same height, while guarding a bulldozer.

Conquered. What next?

As the battle wore on, a mob descended on a local army base on the outskirts of town and forced the soldiers to give up their weapons, including three small tanks. Truckers drove them into town and rammed those too into the Katiba’s walls. …

With the new day, another funeral cortege wended its way past the Katiba toward the cemetery. This procession, however, contained a surprise. As it approached the barracks, a 49-year-old named Mahdi Ziu peeled out from behind with a car rigged with four propane tanks and filled with makeshift explosives. He rammed the imposing gates, blowing them into a twisted pile of concrete and rebar, dying in the blast. The battle was on once more. Again, it dragged on for most of the day, with the attackers joined by people from the eastern towns of Derna and Beyda, who had liberated weapons from local security bases.

It was the bloodiest day of the battle, with 42 bodies brought to Al-Jalaa’s morgue. It only ended that afternoon when the Interior Minister Abdel-Fattah Younis showed up with contingent of special forces from the nearby base who had stayed out of the battle. Charged by Gadhafi with relieving the besieged barracks, Younis instead announced his defection and promised the soldiers of the Katiba safe passage out if they would leave eastern Libya.

 

And with that, the last remnants of Gadhafi’s power left the city. The final days inside the barracks were undoubtedly grim. In the Al-Jalaa morgue were eight badly burned bodies that doctors say had their hands tied behind them and bullets in their head. They are believed to have been soldiers who refused to fight.

Anti-Qaddhafi protests

The vast enclosure, filled with burned out buildings, is now a macabre tourist attraction. Children play on an abandoned tank that is still functional enough to raise and lower its huge main gun, much to their collective glee. Metal doors open into strange dark tunnels leading underground, one to a large room with a heavy door, its purpose unknown. …

 

Near the entrance is the remnants of the imposing proscenium stand where Gadhafi once declared himself the king of kings of Africa, now fallen down. Nearly every building is covered with triumphant graffiti declaring “the New Libya.” “I’m 41 years old, and this is the first time I had ever been inside and its been sitting in the middle of Benghazi all this time,” said Atif al-Hasiya, standing in front of the ravaged complex with a huge smile on his face.

 

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