BENGHAZI (Reuters) - Businessman Yunis Saleh El-Hadad has lived the life of a rebel for eight months, fighting alongside other Libyans who were willing to sacrifice everything to free themselves and their families from the cruelty of dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
Sleeping wherever he could at night clutching his rifle and surviving on food handouts from supporters, Hadad led an armed troop of about 100 rebels in the revolt against Gaddafi, fighting on despite being shot twice and injured by a missile.
By night his troop would sit and discuss their next move and tactics to avoid getting hit. By day they fought in towns across Libya until ending up in Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte and joining the battle that finally brought down the despised despot.
Now with Gaddafi dead and Libya under new rule, 58-year-old Hadad is heading back to his family of 22 children.
But he says the experiences of the past eight months have permanently changed his attitude to life and, as with many rebels, the euphoria over the victory against Gaddafi was overwhelming the reality of what happens next.
“The young Libyan revolutionaries who started this blissful revolution and ended the cruel dictatorship rule of Gaddafi taught me that nothing is impossible and that life is worthless without dignity and honor,” Hadad told Reuters in an interview in Benghazi on Sunday, dressed in his khaki military uniform.
Hadad said he had watched from a distance when Libyans began protesting in the eastern town of Benghazi in February, inspired by uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt which successfully ousted presidents after decades in power.
But once the protests started to turn violent with Gaddafi’s forces cracking down on the rebels, Hadad said he could no longer sit back.
He handed his construction business in Brega, 200 km (120 miles) from Benghazi, over to his family and left to join the rebel forces which were made up of committed but largely inexperienced civilians and army defectors prepared to risk their lives to take on mercenaries and a professional army.
“I felt that I could not take this injustice anymore and I would not be able to continue my life without fighting for my country and people,” said Hadad, who looked tired and weather-beaten from his months in battle.
Hadad, speaking to Reuters in an educated form of spoken Arabic, said he knew he had something to give.
He had worked in the police force for 12 years, earning the rank of colonel, and had experience with guns. He volunteered in February to train rebels in Benghazi who knew little about firearms or fighting strategies.
In July, Hadad was chosen by Libya’s interim government, the National Transitional Council (NTC), to lead a troop of about 100 young Libyans in various battles alongside other rebel forces whose advances were assisted by NATO air strikes.
His unit’s final battle was in Gaddafi’s main stronghold, Sirte, that was under siege for two months until the former leader was finally captured and killed on October 20.
Hadad was injured three times during the fighting.
He was shot in the right shoulder during a fight with Gaddafi forces in Brega in August and in the final battle in Sirte he was wounded in the upper part of his left leg by a missile fired by Gaddafi’s troops.
His third injury was accidental and happened during a training session with a young, inexperienced rebel.
“He fired by mistake and the shot hit me in the hand and then the face above my right eye. I had to travel to Egypt to have two operations,” he said, showing zig-zag scars on his hand and above his right eye.
Despite the injuries, Hadad said the idea of quitting the war to oust Gaddafi after 42 years of rule was never an option.
“I stayed in the fighting until the end, until Sirte fell and Gaddafi was killed. Nothing would have stopped me. This revolution brought my soul back to me. It is the best thing that has ever happened to me,” he said.
Hadad said his troop was named after a young rebel called Ibrahim Bakar, who was killed in Benghazi.
“I don’t know how he died but I heard that he was, like most of the youth we lost in the revolution, a brave soldier and a decent man,” he said.
Gaddafi’s death allowed the NTC to trigger mass rejoicing by declaring Libya’s long-awaited “liberation” on Sunday in Benghazi, the country’s second largest city and the seat of the revolt.
Hadad sat proudly in the front row during the celebration where he was honored and greeted by government officials.
But the end of the eight-month war against Gaddafi has highlighted a lack of central control over disparate armed groups and the jockeying for power among local commanders as negotiations begin in earnest to form an interim government that can run free elections.
New York-based Human Rights Watch has voiced fears about executions, violence and looting by anti-Gaddafi fighters, and urged the NTC to act quickly to rein in any criminal activities by these groups.
Hadad, however, said he is willing to give orders to his men to surrender their guns as soon as the NTC sets a date and place for an election for a “new, liberated Libya that does not need weapons.”
He said the Libya he wanted and fought to achieve is a “country ruled by law and justice with a democratic government and an elected parliament that are aware of the people’s problems and work to fulfill their demands.”
But meanwhile the celebrations at successfully getting rid of Gaddafi continue with the rebels riding on a high.
“I felt an overwhelming happiness (when I heard of Gaddafi’s death) that I have never felt before at any time in my entire life,” said Hadad, who was not certain whether he would return to running his construction business.
“Now I tell myself, imagine if you had not participated in the fighting, you would have never felt this type of happiness. I am a very lucky man.”
Editing by Belinda Goldsmith