Libyan Rebels: A Sound Track

In Misurata, fighters turn to Pink Floyd in their war against Qaddafi.
Christophe Simon/AFP/Getty Images

Many men have psyched themselves up for war by listening to rock and roll or heavy metal. But how many have sung Pink Floyd’s “Mother” within earshot of the enemy in the dead of night? “When it got really quiet, we’d play guitar and sing ‘Mother, do you think they’ll drop the bomb?’” said Abdulfatah Shaka, 22, his rocket-propelled-grenade launcher at his side. “The snipers would get furious and start shooting everywhere.”

It was the last week of April in the Libyan city of Misurata, the scene of the most-intense battles of the revolution. This is an old-fashioned, urban war: nonsurgical and hugely bloody. Muammar Qaddafi has deployed tanks, multi-barreled rocket launchers, snipers, foot soldiers, and foreign mercenaries. Facing them are civilians with light weapons, Mad Max–style pickup trucks, and, in the case of Shaka and the dozen or so merry young men he leads, a zest for rock music.

Less than three months earlier, Shaka was an engineering student who had never even held a gun. Bassam Essraity, a handsome 23-year-old with gelled hair and a trim beard, who now sat opposite him cradling a Belgian-made assault rifle, was doing media studies. They would play guitar together, jamming on the beach or hanging out in parking lots at night in their cars, doors open, drinking strong coffee or bottles of non-alcoholic beer.

After asking me to sit on his left—firing RPGs had destroyed the hearing in his right ear—Shaka explained that his introduction to pop and rock, and to the English language, came via the Backstreet Boys. As he learned to play the guitar, and broadened his musical horizons through Internet downloads, his taste grew more refined. “Neil Young, Metallica, and Pink Floyd, especially Dark Side of the Moon,” he said. “Iron Maiden and Nirvana too,” Essraity added. “We were just young guys enjoying music, dreaming of freedom.”

Then, in the third week of February, the revolution began. Shaka stuck close to his uncle, who had fought in Libya’s war with Chad in the 1980s. His uncle grabbed an RPG launcher when Misurata’s armory was overrun. After blasting two of Qaddafi’s tanks, he was shot dead. His weapon, still stained with blood, was handed to Shaka. Essraity, whose house had been hit by a tank shell, joined him on the front line, as did Hazim “Haz” Bozaid, a powerfully built 29-year-old with a goatee, a stocking on his head, and a black Sepultura T-shirt. An import manager, he was also the lead vocalist and guitarist in a local thrash and death-metal band called Acacus. “I was inspired by Megadeth, Cannibal Corpse, Morbid Angel, Chuck Schuldiner’s Death, that sort of stuff. It was not easy to find in Libya, so if you got something on tape, you guarded it like gold,” he told me.

At first, their unit moved around the city, so bringing guitars to the battlefield was not possible. Shaka left his acoustic model in his car, and his electric guitar—“a Gibson, but a Chinese Gibson”—at home. Both were stolen when Qaddafi’s troops raided his house. They also kidnapped his father, who had not been seen since.

In recent weeks, Shaka’s men had been more rooted, based on the side roads off Tripoli Street, the city’s main thoroughfare, where Qaddafi’s snipers were causing havoc from their hideouts. The revolutionaries’ strategy was to starve the snipers out, cutting off their supply stream by blocking the road with huge shipping containers full of wet sand and metal filings. Shaka’s job was to shoot the tanks, armored cars, and bulldozers that tried to move the containers. Before loading his weapon, he wrote his uncle’s name on the RPG. For Bozaid, a machine gunner who put his body count at more than 25, preparation for battle meant listening to Slayer on his smart phone. “Some of my friends said that I should be reading the Koran. But I needed my drug.”

For the Tripoli Street battle, Essraity and another member of the unit brought along their guitars. When they played during lulls in the fighting, Shaka led the singing. Bozaid said his own voice was “too deep” for anything but metal. Essraity, a skilled guitarist, told his friends: “I’m like Slash—I don’t sing.”

One by one, the sniper’s nests were cleared. Shaka and his men entered the buildings in pairs, peeling apart at the tops of stairs, and flushing rooms with hand grenades or flaming tires. During a raid on one apartment block, he made an unexpected find: a guitar, with a broken neck. He turned it over, and saw the words The Wall. It was his.

“I left it, because there was no time and it was really dangerous,” he said.

Now, with Tripoli Street liberated, Shaka and his men were enjoying a day of rest before heading off to battle elsewhere. Bozaid talked about the metal festival he wanted to stage when Qaddafi was finally defeated. “It’s my dream—Hazfest,” he said. “It’s going to come true, if I’m still alive.”

Shaka picked up a guitar and began to strum.

And did you exchange

a walk-on part in the war

for a lead role in a cage?

“Come on, everybody together,” he said.

How I wish, how I wish you were here …
Xan Rice is a journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.
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