By Anthony Loyd
The young rebel who fought to topple Libya’s dictator tells Anthony Loyd why he is still waging war. Once he was a young rebel, famous for a day as the teen with the golden gun.
Mohammed Elbibi was photographed nine years ago on the road outside Sirte, holding aloft the gold-plated pistol of Libya’s slain dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The image was emblematic of a seismic transition of power and, Elbibi thought at the time, an end to the revolution.
Yet the war never ended. Now Elbibi has fresh wounds to his left leg and a lump of shrapnel newly embedded near his right lung. He wonders if he will ever know peace.
“That day outside Sirte I thought the war was finished, and that everything would change for the better,” he mused at his home in Misrata, turning the 9mm Browning in hishands. “I thought after that day I would be able to walk around my country with mutual respect and be welcomed and welcoming to my fellow Libyans. But now it seems the devil has come to our country.”
Before slipping a Kalashnikov into his car boot and driving southward to the front once more, he added: “Hate has grown among us after nine years of fighting. In my heart too. It is hard to see how this will ever end.”
Rather than being the symbol of change he appeared to be the day he grabbed Gaddafi’s gun, Elbibi, 25, is war weary, the epitome of a generation of Libyans whose future is being eaten by an old war that is growing worse.
Bonded to conflict by habit, a dearth of options, tribal allegiance and the failure of world powers to enforce a UN arms embargo, the young rebels who fought alongside Elbibi to topple Gaddafi have lost sight of peace.
Careless of life and limb, they fight on the same battlefields that have echoed with the sound of combat for nearly a decade.
There is no end in sight. While most wars lose energy with the passage of time, Libya’s is growing with intensity, complexity and bitterness as major powers and regional neighbours pour mercenaries and hi-tech weaponry into a conflict described by the UN secretary-general António Guterres this week as a “scandal”.
This was intended as a rebuke to countries which continue to supply the conflict despite commitments at a Berlin conference last month to uphold the arms embargo.
Elbibi drove south out of Misrata this week, through desert to the front at Abugrein to rejoin his unit of similarly wounded young men. “Hey Sheera!” the fighters called out with teasing affection, using his nickname. “Where have you been all this time?”
He had been absent since shrapnel penetrated his chest during fighting in Tripoli last autumn. After hospital treatment in Tunisia, he returned to Libya two weeks ago. Doctors were unable to take out the shrapnel and he is waiting for a visa to Germany where he hopes surgeons can remove it.
Newly engaged, he is not sure what to do with his future. “I have given so much for Libya,” he told me as the rutted highway cut through flat red sand and ruined desert settlements, listing the battles he had fought against Gaddafi, rival militias, Islamic State, and the renegade general Khalifa Haftar.
Almost to a man, his comrades have also been wounded, many of them several times. On the frontline 75 miles south of Misrata, they are aligned with forces loyal to the Tripoli government, facing off against Haftar’s.
War is so familiar here that the men seem almost disinterested in their own fate. As a T-55 tank blasted shells across no-man’s-land, some fighters shouted and cheered while others sat around drinking tea and eating biscuits, apparently forgetting that two of their number were killed in this spot by an incoming rocket the previous day. (Two more were to die in shellfire the following evening.)
Only when an aircraft circled did they galvanise, staring skywards uneasily as ordinance blew wreaths of dust from a cluster of desiccated trees to their rear.
“We lost eight of our guys to drones when we were fighting in Tripoli recently, and more to airstrikes,” said one. “We get used to most things, but we have learned to be fearful of the sky.”
Average age 25, some of the whippet-thin fighters in Elbibi’s unit, Kattiba 266, had wounds so serious and ill-treated that they would have long ago been invalided from the armies of any western nation.
Tarik El-Dbaiba, 25, manning a vehicle-mounted anti-aircraft gun, was due to have his left leg amputated in hospital last year after being blown up by a roadside bomb fighting Isis in 2016.
Kept upright by a leg brace that he removed to show me his impossibly withered limb, he discharged himself from hospital to re-join his unit when he heard that fighting with Haftar had begun shortly before the scheduled amputation.
“I did not want to miss out fighting against Haftar,” he said in simple explanation, pulling up his T-shirt to show me another unremoved lump of shrapnel that bulged egg-like in his abdomen.
Beside him sat Aziz Sreti, a 29 year-old former footballer for Libya’s renowned Al-Madina club. “I’ll never play football again of course,” he said, eyes feral and glittering.
Wounded 13 times across nine years, his injuries included a shattered knee held together with surgical pins and a deep ravine in his skull, left by an attempt by a rival fighter to give him a coup de grâce as he lay injured on the ground. “No more football and not much future either,” he added grimly.
They ticked off the nations accused of supporting their enemy Haftar: Russia, the UAE, Egypt, France and Jordan. They scoffed agressively at the UN with a sense of abandonment, repeatedly likening Libya, rich in natural gas and oil, to “a cake to be sliced”.
“The UN was created to serve the interests of the great powers and it serves those interests still,” spat Hamza Kharis, a 26 year old fighter who had studied marketing PR in Huddersfield. “It does nothing to stop foreign weapons and mercenaries from coming here, as it no interest in bringing us peace.”
Indeed, the nine-year UN arms embargo on Libya has been so repeatedly violated that last year the organisation’s envoy here, Ghassan Salame, said it risked becoming a “cynical joke”.
The profusion of foreign weapons entering Libya has given the war a new dimension, and now modern jet aircraft, drones, armoured vehicles, anti-tank missiles and laser guided artillery compete to take lives.
Haftar is assisted by hundreds of personnel from the Russian Wagner Group; up to 2,000 Syrian mercenaries and teams of Turkish advisers support the Tripoli government.
Amidst such entrenched violence, the scene at Abugrein, with its cast of hopeless, ravaged young men, was a far cry from that of October 20, 2011, when Elbibi, then 17, was hoisted upon the shoulders of cheering rebels, Gaddafi’s pistol held high in triumph.
Minutes earlier he had been one of the first rebels on the scene of the dictator’s bombed convoy, hit by a Nato airstrike as he tried to flee from Sirte. As other rebels dragged Gaddafi from the shelter of a culvert, Elbibi searched the wreckage of his vehicle.
“Gaddafi’s pistol was lying in the sand beside the door at my feet,” he recalled. In this way the gun, engraved with a phrase from Gaddafi’s political work The Green Book, passed from a dictator to a teenager. It has remained in Elbibi’s possession ever since, though he wants rid of it now.
There has been no shortage of offers to buy it. These have included 5 million Libyan dinars (£2.7 million) from an anonymous party asking to meet Elbibi in Tripoli, then 10 million from a man wanting to meet him in Tunis. Other huge offers have come from a Qatari, and a Libyan in America.
To date he has refused them all, suspicious that the buyers maybe Gaddafi loyalists wishing him harm. “I didn’t trust any of them,” he said. “So I have held on to the gun.
It seems more like a memory of history rather than a weapon. But now I am thinking of selling once and for all, so I can invest the money in a life other than war. I just need to find a buyer I can trust, not someone who is setting me up to kill me.”
Anthony Loyd is among the most experienced war correspondents of his generation. He began reporting for The Times during the Bosnian war in 1993 and since then he has reported from a series of major conflict zones, including those in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.