Mahdi al-Harati and his Irish-born brother-in-law want to be among first to liberate Tripoli, writes PAULO NUNES DOS SANTOSin Nalut, western Libya
LAST SUMMER the image of Mahdi al-Harati arriving in Turkey on a stretcher after the Gaza-bound flotilla he was sailing in was raided by Israeli commandos featured in a host of international media.
A year on, the 38-year-old Libyan-Irish dual national is living the biggest adventure of his life in the Nafusa mountains of western Libya. He is one of several members of Ireland’s Libyan community who have joined the rebel forces battling to oust Muammar Gadafy.
Nalut, a small city near Libya’s border with Tunisia, is home to the headquarters of the Tripoli revolutionary brigade. Here everyone knows Harati, the gentle Irishman. He is the commander- in-chief of the highly trained rebel group. “It wasn’t easy to leave behind my wife and children, but I couldn’t stay in Dublin while my people were struggling for freedom in my native country. It is a decision I don’t regret and I am sure my family supports me on this,” he says.
Harati was born in Tripoli but moved to Ireland almost 20 years ago. He is married to Eftaima al- Najar, the Irish-born daughter of a Libyan father and an Irish mother and together they have four children aged from 18 months to nine years.
Before the Libyan uprising brought him back to his home country, Harati worked as an Arabic teacher in Dublin, a job that gave him “great joy”, he says.
In mid-February, soon after the uprising began, Harati travelled from Ireland to Libya’s eastern city of Benghazi to join the rebels. His Irish-born brother-in-law Husan al-Najar, a 32-year-old building contractor who lives in Dublin’s Portobello, was already there, having returned to Libya for the fist time in 10 years to attend a wedding.
Harati and Najar came up with the idea to organise a brigade that would eventually enter and secure Tripoli. It has one single purpose – to be among the first to enter the Libyan capital and expel Gadafy and his loyalists. Brigade members are helped by their intimate knowledge of the city. “We are from there. It’s our town and no one knows it better than us,” says the teacher-turned-fighter.
Shortly after he joined the rebels in Benghazi, Harati began to contact other Libyan expats who had been born and raised in Tripoli. “The idea was to create a well-organised group that could fight in the western provinces of the country,” he says. “There is no ideology [behind the group]; we are purely revolutionaries.”
Harati soon gathered 15 highly educated men, all of whom had extensive expertise and skills. They proposed their idea of a Tripoli revolutionary brigade to the rebels’ Benghazi-based National Transitional Council, which immediately approved. Within days the small band boasted 150 recruits. They received basic military training before heading for the western provinces. Today the brigade has within its ranks some 570 men from all over the country.
Harati says his battalion is not, as described by some, an elite armed force. “It is important to understand that we are all civilians. We are not the military,” he explains. The brigade counts among its members doctors, businessmen, mechanics, and web designers.
The rebels also have around “2,000 armed men in Tripoli ready to take action” when the time comes, he says. “I can assure you that we have people within Gadafy’s regime helping the revolution,” he says. They claim to have good intelligence capability that allows them to constantly update vital information.
Since the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan, the rebels have succeeded in seizing several towns and villages. But Gadafy’s forces have also hit back and retaken territory. Harati acknowledges that “it will not be easy” to defeat the regime, but he believes the end is near.
“When we started we knew this would take a long time. Even after Gadafy is gone Libya will experience instability for some time.”
If and when Gadafy’s regime falls, Harati says he and his family will most likely move permanently to Libya. But he is adamant they will never fully cut their ties with Ireland. “Dublin has been my home for a long time now. My wife is Irish and my children have a great affection for the country. Ireland will always be part of us.”