American college kid joins Libya rebels for 'vacation'

'This is one of the few real revolutions,' says Chris Jeon, who is hanging out with Libya rebels at a desert outpost. 'I just thought I’d come check it out.'

Kristen Chick
In this photo, American Chris Jeon(c.) is seen with rebel fighters at an outpost in the Libyan desert.

At this rebel outpost in the middle of the desert near the front lines of the fight with Muammar Qaddafi’s loyalists, a gaggle of rebel fighters gathers in a circle, laughing, cheering, and filming with their mobile phones.

In the center stands a 21-year-old American college student from Los Angeles.

Chris Jeon wears a cobalt basketball jersey emblazoned with the words “Los Angeles” and the number 44, camouflage pants, and black and white Converse sneakers. Around his neck hangs a spent ammunition casing on a string, and a black and white scarf is wrapped around his head, courtesy of the rebel fighters.

Why is he here?

“This is one of the few real revolutions,” he said. “I just thought I’d come check it out.”

It’s an unusual summer break for a college student, especially for a math major at University of California, Los Angeles, who says he spent his last spring break in Quebec. But Mr. Jeon is near the front lines of a conflict that has already taken thousands of lives, and is likely to cost many more if rebels launch a planned assault on Mr. Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte.

Jeon doesn’t seem worried.

“I just go and see what happens,” he said. “At spring break I told my friends a 'sick' vacation would be to come here and fight with the rebels.”

He spent $800 on a one-way ticket from L.A. to Cairo, then traveled by land across the border into Libya, where he has now been for nearly two weeks. His parents do not know he is here. He speaks no Arabic, and has been staying with fighters and families in the area.

“I haven’t spent a dollar in weeks,” he says, because the people of Libya have extended such hospitality.

He has no way of contact with the outside world, and on Tuesday was unsure of the date. Yet he seemed to be having the time of his life.

At the rebel checkpoint about 80 miles from Sirte, he held a Russian-made shotgun the rebels had given him, appearing to be unfamiliar with it. Then a rebel handed him an AK-47, and he awkwardly fired several rounds into the air. The fighters cheered and laughed before quickly taking the gun back.

The boisterous rebel fighters, clearly enjoying this foreigner who had joined their ranks, shouted competing offers for him to join their respective brigades. Jeon needed translation to understand what they were asking. He communicates with sign language, and broken Italian.

He said the rebels had bestowed upon him an honorary Libyan name: Ahmed El Maghrabi Saidi Barga. As he said it, the rebels roared in approval.

Jeon said he was “helping” the rebels, though he didn’t appear to be using firearms.

He was among the first rebel fighters who drove into Nawlifyia to take it from Qaddafi troops, he said. And he’s not worried about staying safe amid the possible battle for Sirte – the rebels have set a Saturday deadline for Qaddafi loyalists there to surrender, before they attack.

“I believe in destiny,” he said.

His plan is to head back to California the day before school starts at the end of September.

How will he buy his ticket? “I have a credit card,” he said.

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