Monday, April 18, 2011

Libya's Children of War

Youngest at War in Libya Tell Stories of the Front Line

By Kim Sengupta in Misrata
The Independent
Monday, 18 April 2011

The blast had thrown him into the air and he almost passed out from the excruciating pain in his leg. Amid the smoke and flames, Murad Ali Mohammed knew that he would die if he did not reach cover. But as he dragged himself behind a wall there was a blast of gunfire, the bullets smashing into the arm he had raised protectively across his face.

The 16-year-old regained consciousness to find that his right leg had been amputated and his arm was encased in plaster up to the elbow. He was in a hospital room with a guard holding a Kalashnikov sitting in the corner to keep an eye on the prisoner of war.

Murad Ali is one of the increasingly young soldiers being captured or killed by the rebels in Libya. The weeks of bombing by Western jets have taken a human toll, and Muammar Gaddafi's forces seem to be finding it hard to replenish their ranks with regular troops. But there are also the very young in the ranks of the revolutionaries, "fighters" barely into their teens who had come to the frontline mostly unarmed, about to see their great adventure turn into terrifying violence.

Murad Ali was wounded at Misrata, the most dangerous battlefront in this civil war. In a nearby hospital, another captive, Abdurrahman Abu Salem, 17, was suffering from chest wounds. Yusuf Ahmed Hassin, 16, is buried in one of the city's cemeteries, shot in the head during fighting two weeks ago, his grave in a separate section than those of Tamir Jassem Zubi and Mohammed Bin Walaf, rebel fighters who were 16.

The experiences recounted by Murad Ali and Abdurrahman, the two regime soldiers, may not be entirely true, coming as they do from frightened young men with uncertain futures.

But their tales, shared separately, bear similarities and paint a picture of being rushed to the front to support an operation the regime considers to be of critical importance.

Murad Ali had left his family of eight in a village west of Tripoli on 18 February for two weeks of training at a military camp in Janzan as part of his cadetship with the army, at a time when uprisings were taking place across the country. "We did not know what was going on, we were not allowed to take our phones and there was no television or radio, most of the people were around my age," he said.

"We did our usual lessons for about 10 days and then suddenly we were told that we must go to Misrata. When we arrived here we were put in houses from where local people had fled. We were told that there would be lots of reinforcements." Murad Ali was sent on a probe towards the port, the city's lifeline to the outside world, about 10 days ago. It came under immediate and sustained attack. "I was in a truck which was hit and caught fire, three of the soldiers with me died and the officer who was in charge of us ran away," he said. "That was when I got injured, I did not want to be in Misrata; they forced us here."

Abdurrahman was a student of electronics at a military college when the revolution started. "My job in the army would have been to install communications system in bases. I have not been taught to fight," he said. But he was ordered to join the 32nd Khatiba (battalion), run by Khamis Gaddafi, one of the Libyan dictator's sons. After brief lessons in weapons handling, he was sent to Sirte, Colonel Gaddafi's birthplace and a loyalist stronghold.

"Then they said Misrata wants you." he said. "I have never been here and did not know what was going on. The fighting was terrible, there was so much firing, An officer abandoned us. I was trying to run back to my own lines when one of my own side shot me through the chest. I haven't seen my family for a long time, my parents. I miss them very much, I don't know when I'll see them again."

Unlike the two young soldiers, Amir al-Queresi could not wait to get into the fight. The 17-year-old rebel already considers himself a veteran after six weeks exchanging fire with the enemy.

"Misrata is my home and we have to defend ourselves," he said."My father is dead, my mother is worried each time I go out. But every family should send a man to our force. I have no problems with killing the enemy."

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