Special from Libya: Expectations high for rebel advance on eastern front

Ajdabiya When widespread demonstrations erupted throughout Libya in February, Suleiman Refida and his four brothers immediately chose to help spearhead the revolutionary cause despite the jeopardy it brought to the livelihood of their tightly knit family.

It took several weeks for them to reunite. Abd Moneim, an engineer and the eldest sibling, departed from their hometown, the eastern Libyan port of Darnah, to aid the rebel effort in Bin Jaweed, a 40 km distance west of Ras Lanuf, deep in the heart of the conflict. Fawzi left for Egypt to purchase small weapons on the black market. Suleiman and the two remaining brothers followed rebel contingents from Benghazi to Ajdabiya to Brega until Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi's loyalists launched their sustained reprisal in mid-March.

“This has been quite a long journey,” Suleiman says, while he watches videos of Qadhafi prisoner abuses in the nondescript office of missing persons located at Mohamed al-Magriaf Hospital in Ajdabiya, the town where all five Refida brothers, two doctors and three engineers in total, are now stationed.

Despite the stalemate on the coastal front lines of a divided Libya, fighting persists as injuries and deaths continue to mount on the frontier west of Ajdabiya, a town that has emerged as an emblem of both Qadhafi’s indiscriminate destruction and the resilience of Libyan rebels. And Suleiman, along with the majority of Ajdabiya’s depleted population, says their struggle is contributing to a revolt that will soon find closure.

“We expect a sudden collapse of the Qadhafi regime,” says Suleiman. “You may hear it at any time. His inner circle is so small and constricted.”

Rebel forces now claim victory in Misrata, the embattled western city besieged for more than two months at the cost of more than 1000 lives. NATO bombs continue to rain down on loyalist targets in western Libya, including Tripoli, and allied Western nations have reportedly struck multiple targets in key eastern cities like Ras Lanuf and Brega, 80 kilometers west of Ajdabiya, in recent days.

Rebel security and military forces in the city have relayed information on dissension within Qadhafi’s Brega ranks that include the defection of one unit, heavy internal fighting and mass casualties. Those reports could not be verified.

“Qadhafi troops are already in a bad situation. They are surrounded. They have no place to go,” says Khalid al-Arabi, a former soldier in Qadhafi’s army who opted to discontinue his army service prior to the current conflict.

When Libyans rose up against Qadhafi, the eccentric strongman of 42 years, al-Arabi joined the rebel ranks and was sent to fight on the front lines in early March outside Ajdabiya. He is now stationed in Benghazi, his hometown, as the assistant to the commander of 17 February Martyrs Brigade.

“NATO attacks all the time. They [Qadhafi’s forces] are running out of supplies like food and weapons,” says al-Arabi. “If it goes on as it is, I expect Tripoli to be free within a week.”

But the Libyan rebels continue to suffer from the devastation wrought in Qadhafi’s path. As Quranic recitations blanket Ajdabiya, a few hundred people mill about burned-out buildings and facades flecked with bullets. Soldiers of varied camouflage, some with no uniforms at all, man checkpoints with makeshift barricades of tin boxes and AK-47s. Loyalist tanks and armored vehicles, mangled and rusting, litter the sides of the roads leading outside of town in both directions.

Aside from the 220 lost lives, nearly 650 injuries and more than 700 missing persons registered at Mohamed al-Magriaf, residents of Ajdabiya the urban center whose current population represents a mere fraction of its former 75,000 say the conflict has wrecked an already fragile economy.

“During the events when the city was besieged from the north, east and west, no one could leave,” says Abdel Saleh, a grocery store owner in Ajdabiya, describing the events of mid-March. “After it lifted and NATO interfered, they fled to the east and even further to Egypt.”

Outside Saleh’s grocery store, above a trove of boxed vegetables and dates and crates of eggs, a sign is plastered on the wall with the words “Danger! Danger!” written at the top in Arabic. Pictures of RPGs, tanks, missiles, and mortars, accompanied by advisory messages, admonish people to not touch suspected military objects. "Inform local authorities of the location of such objects," the sign instructs.

Despite a small influx of people back into town in recent days, business revenues for the store have plummeted, suffering by more than 60 percent over recent weeks. Saleh expects those who fled to return to their homes in increasing numbers as victory appears closer.

“Qadhafi’s regime has internally and externally already collapsed,” claims Saleh. “There is still a minor threat from Qadhafi’s support here in Ajdabiya but we have faith the revolutionaries are capable of taking care of it.”

Back in the hospital, not everyone exudes the confidence of Suleiman, a doctor who has seen his share of hardship through volunteering with the NGO Doctors Without Borders in such places as Pakistan.

While cleaning medical scissors and pans in the emergency room, ten meters past a sign that reads “These are the crimes of Qadhafi” marking the hospital’s entrance, nurse Hassan Mufta says nearly 50 injured people have come from the front lines in the past ten days. And the severity of wounds, he adds, is on the rise. In the past there were blade wounds. Now bodies are dismembered and riddled with bullets and shrapnel.

“The hospital is ready and sufficiently equipped to treat the wounded,” he says, adding that most of the injuries and deaths now happen on reconnaissance missions. “The problem is it’s not secured. The hospital is a perceived target because it’s been hit before.”

Qadhafi’s forces besieged Ajdabiya in March while advancing to Benghazi to decisively quell the uprising. Residents report incidents of rape. Fighting was widespread, forcing Suleiman and others to man the top of the sprawling hospital complex buildings with guns to defend the property.

“Otherwise they would have killed us,” says Suleiman. “They don’t care who you are… doctors, journalists. They are applying one rule: You are with us or against us.”

But Suleiman insists the rebel forces are capable of taking Brega at any moment but elect not to in order to mitigate further loss of life. Now strengthened and better organized, the revolution, Suleiman says, remains beholden to the Western powers that came to their aid.

“If the Lord did not bring us NATO,” Suleiman vows, “now you would find my grave here.”

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