In Libya's rebel stronghold, whispers of disagreement

Libya's rebels, based in Benghazi, are determined to fight Qaddafi's forces to the end – no matter how long it takes. But can they maintain unity?

By , McClatchy Newspapers

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    Rebel fighters stand by a sign that reads in Arabic 'beware of snipers' on the road between Ajdabiyah and Brega near the western gate of Ajdabiyah, Libya, on Tuesday, April 26.
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Jalal al-Kwafi said his wife hated Libya's uprising even before it began two months ago.

She hated it, he said, before he was detained for 12 days for helping to spur the movement through a Facebook page, before government forces nearly killed him and before she, her husband, their children and the rest of Benghazi found themselves living in what the Western world now calls a stalemate.

But still he vows not to give up, even though the push to rid Libya of Moammar Gadhafi now appears likely to take months, not the weeks that people had hoped.

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"We didn't think about how long it would take when we started this," he said. "But we had to do it. It was an opportunity. We just wanted to start a revolution."

Faced with the prospect of a prolonged battle, many residents of eastern Libya are digging in for the long haul. Most say they welcome the challenge, even though it's forced them to make decisions they're uncomfortable with.

Selma Bargathi, the manager of a popular women's clothing shop here, Mango, said she'd finally decided she needed to reopen her store, despite how wrong it felt to her.

"People are dying, and I am selling Season Four at Mango," she said. "But the workers here need the salaries to pay for their homes and food."

Whispers of disagreement among rebel supporters

There's universal agreement that Gadhafi must go, but how it will happen, at what cost and how long the movement can stay united is something that people here are debating – quietly, furtively, and away from the front lines. Many fear voicing their concerns out loud because Gadhafi will exploit the seeming divisions. A public discussion must wait until he's gone, they say.

But privately they're discussing a number of themes. One is that various tribes still back Gadhafi, making the conflict a civil war. Another is questioning the abilities of the rebel council, about which people here confess they know little. There's even concern about whether the rebels will carry out revenge attacks on Gadhafi supporters if his regime falls.

Friends are starting to criticize one another over how little they're doing to help the movement. Fighters mock those who spend their time making posters rather than picking up guns. And the fact that much of Tripoli hasn't risen against Gadhafi, despite rebel efforts and major defections within the regime, worries some.

Residents here are preparing for months of fighting followed by years of rebuilding their country. Those who started the revolution never knew how it would end. Yet turning back is impossible; Gadhafi will kill them.

"I am miserable. I haven't seen my family since this began. I work all the time. I have seen my 13-day-old daughter twice," said Kwafi, who posted an anti-Gadhafi image on his Facebook page just before the uprising began Feb. 17. He was promptly arrested.

Thousands eventually poured out of their homes and attacked the main military base here, where Kwafi said he was being held – and tortured – by Gadhafi forces for his efforts. He was freed in the mayhem.

Students haven't gone to school for nearly three months

Now residents are wondering when normality will return. There's virtually no work being done. Children haven't gone to school in 10 weeks, and women largely are forced to stay indoors. Hospital beds are never empty, as injured rebels and civilians pour into emergency rooms.

The battle line seems fixed somewhere south of Ajdabiya, a city 100 miles south of here.

Still, no one wants to give up.

Khadija al Emaee spent the days leading up to the revolt posting anti-Gadhafi fliers around Benghazi in the middle of the night. She has no patience for those who complain. The solution, she said, is for people to contribute to the movement.

"We have to either win or lose. I am not concerned about the time," Emaee said. "We have to work every day."

Calls for more international help

Dr. Addullah Glessa is in charge of the emergency room at Jalaa Hospital, where hundreds of injured fighters and civilians have been treated. In his care these days are sniper victims from Misurata, lying next to burn victims from the fight for control of the oil terminal town of Brega, 50 miles beyond Ajdabiya.

He wants the Red Cross to train his doctors how to treat war wounds, something that most of them had never seen before.

"I would accept a five-year transition period. It's been 42 years [of Gadhafi rule]. You don't wake up and find a reformed country," Glessa said. "We are preparing ourselves morally and technically."

Patience with NATO, which has been imposing a no-fly zone on Gadhafi forces since March 19, is largely gone. Many here think that if NATO wanted to end Gadhafi's rule, it could.

Glessa thinks that the international community – particularly Europe, which depends on Libya for oil – will have to do more. Instability here, he said, hurts everyone.

A small price to pay for liberation

Ahmed Shermaddo is a businessman who's lost thousands since the uprising began. After the first week, he was thrilled. As time drags on, he reminds himself to be patient. The lost income, he said, is a small price to pay for the end of the regime. After all, contracts before hinged on contacts with Gadhafi elements.

"For the first time, I feel like a Libyan. Gadhafi is not Libya. We are Libya," Shermaddo said. "We are so eager to rebuild, but first we have to be patient."

Bargathi, the store manager, also said the revolution would require patience.

"Those who thought it would end quickly didn't know Gadhafi," she said.

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