When President Muammar Gaddafi cracked down on peaceful protesters in February, Libyans left their ordinary lives to take up arms to fight for freedom.
In Libya’s oil-rich town of Ras Lanuf, Gaddafi’s fighter jets flew in the skies, ready to drop their deadly bombs onto the desert where rebels have gathered to fight the strong man’s troops.
The wide expanse of the desert has no place for the rebels to take cover and they were literally sitting ducks for Gaddafi’s jet fighters’ bombs.
But the rebels displayed incredible courage, standing unwavering in the open desert, firing old anti-aircraft machines into the skies each time Gaddafi’s planes approached every five to 10 minutes.
“You can’t see the planes but you can hear them. When they drop the bombs, it makes a 3m crater in the ground,” said a 28-year-old rebel who had the weary eyes of a much older person. A former police officer who defected to the opposition, he had been fighting non-stop for the past three days.
The rebels were oblivious to the dangers around them, offering food and drinks to journalists who arrived to survey the scene. At the next rebel post, the same scene was repeated. The rebels grabbed whatever food, fruit or drinks at hand to offer them to passing strangers amidst the loud burst of gunfire and hovering bomber planes.
Bombs could fall from the skies at any minute, but the rebels saw fit to be hospitable, a trait which is held up as part of their duties.
For most of the 42 years of Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi’s rule, the country came to be associated with tyranny and terrorism.
Yet for those privileged enough to step into Libyan soil, reality shifts dramatically.
Libyans generally are kind, polite and hospitable, a sharp contrast to the brutal rule which they have endured for more than four decades where the slightest dissent can land a person in jail or a torture chamber.
“Thanks to Gaddafi, we Libyans have a bad name in the outside world. Yet if you come here, you will see how kind my people are,” said Khalifa Elfaituri from Benghazi’s Media Centre.
A Reuters photographer recounted how several taxi drivers refused to accept payment for taking him around the town for his assignments.
In a small town just outside of the opposition’s de facto capital of Benghazi, we chatted with a truck driver on the latest situation in his district and he invited us to his home for lunch with his family.
In Benghazi, we interviewed a grocery store owner on how his business was faring. “Alhamdulilah, it’s been fine. I have no problems procuring stocks for my store,” said owner Khalifa.
As we were leaving his store, his assistant called out to me, and handed over a handful of chewing gum.
For all Libya’s immense oil wealth, many of its 6.5 million-strong population struggle to live decently. Unemployment is around 30% in Libya which produces 2% of the world’s oil. Its crude oil is one of the highest quality in the world, yet corruption has resulted in unfair distribution of the country’s wealth in the country, with the bulk going to Gaddafi, his family and cronies.
In Benghazi, for example, there is almost no public transport and health care is poor.
Dentist Dr Mohamed Kablan recounted how his family could not afford treatment for his father’s brain tumour and had to watch his father die.
“In Libya, if someone falls sick, you have to go to Jordan, Egypt or Tunisia to seek treatment,” he said.
When his father first fell ill, Dr Mohamed had to sell his father’s car as well as his own to raise money to send him to Jordan for a medical examination.
“The doctors in Jordan told us my father could be treated in Germany. But we had no money. So we came back and my father died in Benghazi.” Civil servants are poorly paid and it is a struggle to make ends meet.
Dr Mohamed earns US$300 (RM916) a month.
“There is no infrastructure in this country. Even for private projects, only state-owned entities can get projects,” he added.
“And even then, they don’t finish their projects.” According to Dr Mohamed, Libyans had little opportunity to develop their potential and some of the brightest minds have left the country in search of better education and jobs.
“We have lots of talented people who want to achieve much more. But our education system is poor and there is little opportunity for people to develop themselves.”
When Benghazi first rose against Gaddafi on Feb 15, the residents protested mainly against the economic hardship and called for better health care. But when Gaddafi’s troops responded with brute force, the people’s demands turned into a fight for freedom.
“For 42 years, we live in jail and torture. Many people were killed because they wanted freedom,” said Dr Mohamed.
Libyan soldiers who refused to shoot their own people were in turn slaughtered by African mercenaries.
A soldier who deserted the army told The Star how 15 to 20 of his colleagues were shot dead, beheaded or burnt by mercenaries Gaddafi hired to fight his war.
The soldier escaped by pretending to shoot at the people.
In the town of Bin Jawad, Gaddafi’s soldiers are believed to have committed atrocities against captured rebels.
“Gaddafi’s mercenaries rape the young men they captured in a mosque before chopping off their hands and feet. I saw it with my own eyes,” said the 36-year-old rebel.
The rebel escaped Bin Jawad last Thursday under a hail of bullets. His pick-up truck bore many holes where the bullets had struck, including the back of the driver’s seat.
With more than 1,000 people estimated to have died since the uprising began, the rebels and their supporters say they have reached a point of no return.
“We will fight to the end,” said Yousef Feituri, a rebel commander in the eastern frontline.
Before the uprising, the rebels were students, engineers and drivers.
But as Gaddafi cracked down on the people, they found themselves taking up arms to fight for freedom.
With the United Nations passing a resolution authorising a no-fly zone, Libyan rebels now stand a much better chance of turning their dreams of freedom into reality.