'It has changed me . . . I used to be a normal Irish guy'
HOSAM AL-NAJJAIR’S jeep is one of the most battered vehicles in Tripoli. Every window bar the windscreen has been shot through, with only tiny shards of glass left clinging to the frames. Some of the rear seats were ripped out after his friend Atef, who was standing with his head through the sunroof, died from a sniper’s bullet as their unit neared Tripoli just over a week ago.
The door on the driver’s side is punctured with two bullet holes. “This jeep is a mess but I just can’t give it up. Too many memories,” says the 32-year-old building contractor from Dublin.
Those memories include being at the wheel of the first rebel vehicle to enter Tripoli’s landmark Green Square, now renamed Martyrs Square by the rebels. “I arrived into the square and saw two policemen standing there, shocked at what was happening. They couldn’t understand how we arrived so quickly. They dropped their guns but there was heavy artillery fire coming at us. I reversed the jeep, jumped out, and then we moved in to clear the square.”
Najjair, his pale, freckled skin wrapped in a white headdress to protect against the searing sun of a Tripoli summer, is recounting the rebels’ lightning advance on the capital as we drive around the city, crossing checkpoints where fighters bedecked in the red, black and green of Libya’s pre-Gadafy flag greet each other with loud exhortations and broad grins.
“I’ll need a long holiday if I’m still alive after all this. We’ve been through a long, long journey. We went through hell,” he says.
Son of a Libyan father and Irish mother, Najjair spent most of his life in Ireland before returning to Libya for a wedding just before the February uprising took place. He is now head of security for the Tripoli Revolutionary Brigade, one of the biggest rebel units from western Libya and the first to reach the capital. It is led by his brother-in-law Mahdi al-Harati, a teacher of Arabic who lives in Dublin’s Firhouse with his wife and family.
“It was Mahdi’s idea to form a brigade for Tripoli because at that time Benghazi and other cities had been liberated, and he thought Tripoli needed a brigade made up of people from Tripoli who would help liberate their hometown,” he says.
We arrive at the brigade’s base, a tightly guarded former military airport where aircraft carrying VIP guests of Muammar Gadafy used to land. The arrivals lounge, lushly carpeted and stuffed with garishly ornate gilt chairs, is now strewn with guns, ammunition, and sleeping rebels spread out on the floor. Najjair cries out when he spots a friend across the room – a doctor, whom Najjair had heard had been killed on the frontline. They embrace with tears in their eyes.
There are several Irish-inflected accents in the room. The brigade includes men who have lived and worked in Dublin, among them a software engineer and a psychiatrist. An American-Libyan in a keffiyeh remarks on the disproportionate number of Libyans with Irish connections within the rebels’ ranks. “It’s almost an Irish revolution,” he jokes.
In an adjoining room, Mahdi al-Harati is taking a break from hours of meetings. His brigade, which has grown to some 1,300 men from when they first began training in western Libya’s Nafusa mountains, is busy sweeping the city, district by district, for any remaining pockets of resistance. Harati, who was last week appointed deputy of the rebels’ Tripoli Military Council, says they have now secured 90 per cent of the capital, and estimates that it will take at least six weeks to ensure full control.
Softly spoken and in his late 30s, Harati has none of the overbearing swagger often seen among the younger fighters. He speaks wistfully of his family back in Dublin. He is thoughtful and considered, and says he has two main worries about Libya’s post-Gadafy future. “One is the political struggle, the process of setting up the state. If it takes a long time to take shape, this could cause problems. The second issue on my mind is the widespread availability of weapons since the uprising began. We are working now to create a mechanism through which these weapons could be handed back or collected.” Related to this is the concern that people may take the law into their own hands and seek revenge for the past. “I don’t think the revolutionary fighters themselves, as groups, are doing this but it may be an issue in communities and neighbourhoods with ordinary people,” says Harati. “Because of the number of weapons around and because of the suffering of the past, people might want revenge.” Like most Libyans, he bristles at any comparison with post-Saddam Iraq. “The two countries are very different on several different levels. We have no sectarian or ethnic divisions, plus the Libyans, as a population, have a tradition of being a peaceful people.”
He also plays down the issue of tribal fault lines. “Until now, we don’t have any problem arising from this, nothing that would be cause for fear or alarm.” Most of the men in Harati’s brigade had never even picked up a gun before their country tipped into armed revolt earlier this year. They were doctors, engineers, lawyers, business people and students.
Najjair, who has tried to keep a diary over the past six months, mulls over how it has affected him. “It has changed me as a person, this war. I’ve seen death in front of my eyes. I used to be a normal Irish guy who would give everyone the benefit of the doubt. Now I put a question mark over every person I see. I have to be like that because this is a dirty war – you’re walking through the city trying to secure it and make the people feel safe, and a sniper could hit you from anywhere. I’m hoping that attitude will disappear whenever I leave all this behind.” The rebels are all too aware that their war is not over yet.
“When we got here first, I thought the regime would have just crumbled but it hasn’t,” says Najjair. “Gadafy is going to fight to the end, but so are we. Wherever he goes, we’ll be after him.”