As Libyan War Drags On, Rebels Struggle to Stay Supplied

Behind the front lines, civilian volunteers form an ad hoc supply chain to keep the rebels fighting

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Rebels carry fuel and supplies to the front. By Youssef Boudlal/Reuters

BREGA, Libya -- It's not often in war that fighters roll to the front with nothing and come back with a bag of food, having eaten a hot meal and slept in warm blankets in the desert maybe 75 kilometers from the enemy's Grad missiles. Also rare is when that pack of rebels (or "revolutionaries," as those in Libya term themselves) organizes a successful three-front desert counteroffensive against the government's forces. But this is the war as Libya's relentless uprising has come to know it.

The last week has seen losses and gains on the elastic front line that runs west of Ajdabia towards Sirte. Despite vast discrepancies between rebel forces and Qaddafi's, and fears that Benghazi would be attacked again, Ajdabia remains safely in rebel control. The western front isn't quiet, but it is well supplied and now home to the beginnings of an actual army.

Tuesday night the rebels lost Ras Lanouf, for at least the second, and possibly the third, time. At a defense encampment close to the now-deserted oil town, volunteer rebel soldiers testified to a haphazard, homemade command structure and a lot of heart. "We just follow our feeling of where to go," said Abdulwahid Agoury, a 28-year-old accountant from Benghazi who decides where to drive the Hilux that also carries his two cousins and a couple of friends. Adel Sanfaz, a Kalashnikov-toting grocer and father of five, said he and his crew rely on walkie-talkies to coordinate movements. "Qaddafi has more soldiers and more equipment. We just go back and forth -- when he uses heavy artillery, we retreat. When he stops, we advance."

At dusk, the heavy thunk of Qaddafi's Grads, firing from the direction of Ras Lanouf, shook the sandy earth. Hundreds of men jumped into civilian cars or graffitied, rebel flag-waving Toyotas with varied artillery mounted in their flatbeds. Drivers sped off into the dusk under cover of friendly antiaircraft rounds from the crews who maintained the defensive line. These volleys sent trails of red through the darkening sky directly over the heads of the fleeing vehicles that kicked up clouds of sand as they drove into one line of fire to escape another.

After a few minutes, the frenzy slowed. Trucks pulled off at a checkpoint well east of Ras Lanouf to regroup and eat steaming platefuls of rice and beans by the headlights of a few trucks, delivered to the battlefield straight from Benghazi restaurateurs who prefer to remain nameless. "We have food for 1,000, 1,500. All Benghazi did this together," said one. "Someone comes every day bringing food. All Libyans help each other." Truckloads of bottled water -- used for drinking, washing before prayer, the toilet -- were handed out, along with chocolate biscuits.

The night ride down the desert road was chilly and bone-rattling. In the open flatbed, about a half dozen people clung to the giant cannon as they shared blankets and tried to find comfort atop dozens of cannon rounds for the 106 and spare canisters of bensin, on account of which a fairly earnest no-smoking policy was observed.

After about an hour, Hajj Adel found a suitable campsite: an abandoned work camp not far from Brega. In near silence, the men worked rapidly to sweep out rooms to build a fire, roll out blankets, and eat a few chocolate biscuits. They apologized for the toilet facilities: latrines whose water had stopped running weeks ago, or the open desert.

They rose with the sun for a quick breakfast, and soon sped off to check in with other crews. In the morning sun, Muntasser stretched out under the 106 cannon and read the Qur'an. After restocking bensin and checking in with other guides, the men headed back to the front where it was "too dangerous for civilians," according to Al-Hassi.

At a weapons depot somewhere between Brega and Ras Lanouf, where dozens of trucks were lined up for a counteroffensive, a minivan drove by, brimming with freshly baked loaves from Benghazi. "We come every day," said Said Tarhouni, a 36-year-old occasional laborer who rode shotgun next to a drink holder which held small teacups. "One man donated the truck, he doesn't want to be named." The driver also preferred not to give his name, saying "all the work is for God."

Losses and gains on the 250 or so km between Bin Jawwad in the west and Ajdabia in the east may appear severe, but they are not decisive. Erwin Rommel, one of Hitler's best generals, described this very stretch of Libya's coastal desert road as "a tactician's paradise and a quartermaster's hell." Only after a year and a half did the British manage to drive Rommel to retreat, in 1942.

At 160 kilometers from the hub of Benghazi, Ajdabia is a snappy hour's drive with a Libyan behind the wheel. And the supply line continues unabated -- hot meals, fresh bread, bottled water, chocolate biscuits, plastic jugs of bensin, cheese and tuna. Supply lines are essential for any battle, and especially for one in the desert, where water is scarce and bensin can be hard to find although the largest field of crude in Africa is below Libya's soil.

This desert road saw the supply line for the rebels shored up by the twin forces of NATO strikes and deployment, for the first time, of a more or less equipped and organized rebel army now calling itself the "Martyrs' Brigade." The combination of regular army troops and special forces from the remnants of Qaddafi's eastern army worked to secure roads to Brega on three fronts: the desert, the sea, and the main roads.

Roger Owen, a professor of Middle Eastern history at Harvard University, said that desert battle strategies repeat themselves. "Then too the battle raged to and fro along the coast road -- first Italians invading Egypt, the British pushing back, then Germans pushing British back, etc. with the advancing troops often leap frogging round the larger towns -- and minor incursions into desert as way round fixed defences. Looks like much the same these days."

Additional reporting from Ras Lanouf and Benghazi