Page last updated at 11:00 GMT, Saturday, 16 July 2011 12:00 UK

Misrata rebels: Stuck in the sand, with sky-high morale

Young men peer over sandbank on front line near Misrata

Gabriel Gatehouse
BBC News, Misrata

Libyan rebel forces on the front line outside Misrata have one powerful weapon in their fight against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's well-armed troops - self-confidence and high morale.

It's not often that you find yourself caught up in a real-life metaphor that seems so ludicrously appropriate as to become almost a cliche.

But that's exactly what happened when, on a recent trip to speak to the rebels about the stalemate on their front line, our car got stuck in the sand.

Everyone is busy, but no-one seems to know what anyone else is up to... and yet, somehow, it seems to be working

We had been bumping our way through the dunes just inland from the coast.

Our escort was a commander by the name of El Hadi, a softly spoken man with intelligent eyes and a bushy black beard. He was taking us to see his encampment, high on the brow of a hill, overlooking territory held by Colonel Gaddafi's forces.

Suddenly our 4x4 was stuck, its wheels spinning pointlessly in the sand, angrily throwing up dust and bits of buried shrapnel. The more the wheels chewed up the ground, the deeper our car sank.

This, I thought, was not a comfortable place to be. Col Gaddafi's men were dug in just over the brow of the hill.

Fighter on front line near Misrata, June 2011
After a month and half of stalemate, the front line has moved

The lull in the fighting we had so fortuitously stumbled upon was already coming to an end. The thuds of falling rockets sounded ever closer by. And from somewhere not far off, someone was loosing off rounds from a machine gun.

After much fruitless digging and cursing, we were finally rescued by a couple of teenagers in a pickup truck with an anti-aircraft gun welded to the back. They pulled us backwards out of our rut, and we were able to move forward again.

But we only drove another 50m or so, before our guide stopped again. This was as far as we could go, he said. Beyond lay hostile territory.

We parked on top of the hill, feeling exposed on all sides, and began to walk towards the camp.

Farmers and lawyers

Until last week, this position was held by Col Gaddafi's soldiers. For a month and a half the two sides had shelled and rocketed each other from fixed positions, neither managing to take any ground off the other.

Young fighters pose for a picture on the front line near Misrata
Some fighters are quiet young men, others are brash daredevils

Then, at the beginning of last week, the rebels had made a co-ordinated dash forward, pushing Col Gaddafi's troops back. The rebels then dug in and held their ground.

It felt like the stalemate had been broken. Despite heavy losses, the fighters were ecstatic - finally things seemed to be moving again.

In actual fact though, the line had shifted only a short distance, and the momentum seems to have stalled.

We found El Hadi's fighters lounging up against a sandbank, sheltering from the sun and the bullets, eating spaghetti out of tin-foil containers.

Before the revolution started, El Hadi had been an importer of car tyres. Now he has around 600 men under his command.

These are not soldiers. They are farmers and lawyers, students and engineers. But what they lack in experience, they more than make up for in courage and commitment.

"Every day I am more determined to stand here and fight until the end," said Siddique, as he pointed to a ditch where less than 24 hours previously, four of his comrades had been killed when a mortar landed right on top of them.

Until last month, this shy 24-year-old maths student had never held a gun before in his life. And yet, he said, he wasn't scared.

"We will win eventually," he said, "But in order to achieve this, we have to make sacrifices."

Self-belief and determination have proved to be the rebels' most powerful weapons against Col Gaddafi's heavy artillery and long-range rockets.

Hugs and kisses

But what a job it must be for El Hadi, the commander, to try to instil military discipline in hundreds of young men, some quiet like Siddique, others brash and loud - daredevils who like to stand up above the defensive sand-banks and shout verbal abuse at Col Gaddafi's forces.

Close your eyes and you might almost imagine yourself in Petrograd during the Russian revolution

El Hadi looked embarrassed by the question. He pushed my microphone away and looked round at his men.

"I don't want to play the boss in front of them," he said. "We're all in this together as equals."

At Misrata's military HQ, fighters greet each other not with salutes, but with bear-hugs, kisses, and cries of "Allahu Akbar" - "God is Great".

There's a frantic atmosphere of energy and industry. Everyone is busy, but no-one seems to know what anyone else is up to.

And yet, somehow, it seems to be working. Close your eyes and you might almost imagine yourself in Petrograd during the Russian revolution, watching a new order struggling to establish itself.

But there is one crucial difference. This is a leaderless revolution, whose only ideology is a single common purpose - the overthrow of Col Gaddafi.

What kind of a country might emerge if and when that goal is attained?

At the moment, that is a question few have time to even ask themselves. But the reality is that the new Libya is likely to be a place of many competing factions, no clear leader, but awash with guns.

How to listen to From Our Own Correspondent

BBC Radio 4:
A 30-minute programme on Saturdays, 1130.
Second 30-minute programme on Thursdays, 1100 (some weeks only).
Listen online or Download the podcast

BBC World Service:
Hear daily 10-minute editions Monday to Friday, repeated through the day, also available to listen online.

Read more or explore the archive at the programme website .

Country profile: Bahrain
04 Jun 11 |  Country profiles
Bahraini medical staff charged
06 Jun 11 |  Middle East
Bahrain hospital on the front line
30 Mar 11 |  Middle East

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2020 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific