DAGABA, Niger (Reuters) - Recruited at $1,000 a month and handed a Kalashnikov and ammunition, Agali Ghissa thought his job was to defend Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi from poorly-armed insurgents.
Now the small-time trader is back among his nomadic Tuareg people in the mountains of neighbouring Niger, his short career as a hired gun ended by a NATO bombing campaign which he and many co-fighters did not see coming.
“For us it was the rebels we were going to fight, not an airborne armada,” Agali told Reuters in the Air mountains of northern Niger, near the town of Dabaga, 45 km (30 miles) north of the regional capital Agadez.
“Now we are back here to live in peace. Weapons, that is all finished for me,” added Agali, sat next to fellow deserter Mahmoud Ahmed, a Tuareg of joint Libyan and Nigerien descent.
Agali and Ahmed were speaking from the desert zone through which a convoy of 200-250 Libyan armoured vehicles passed on Monday, prompting speculation of either a defection of Gaddafi forces or an exile in the making for Gaddafi and his clan.
While the final goal of the convoy is still unclear, Agali and Mahmoud talked about the mesh of ties between Gaddafi, his poorer neighbours such as Niger and the Tuareg people who eke out an existence across porous desert borders.
In a country where a day’s wage can be little more than a dollar, Agali jumped when Libyan recruiters travelling through Niger in March offered him $1,000 a month to join the fight in Libya.
Alongside 40 other Tuaregs and black Africans, he was taken to the southwest Libyan town of Sabha where he was given a gun, bullets, a month’s pay in advance, and told to head to the town of Zawiya just outside Tripoli and defend its oil refinery.
There by chance he met up with Mahmoud, 37, an old friend who like many Tuaregs of Nigerien or Malian origin, had found employment years back as a regular in the Libyan army.
It started well enough, but as the weeks went on, the NATO attacks became what Agali called “a flood of bombs”.
“How can you take on a force you don’t see, who strikes without you being able to strike back?” said Mahmoud.
“When you are of a healthy mind, the best thing to do is to accept defeat,” he added. “It was every man for himself. We abandoned our weapons in the countryside, among dozens of corpses rotting in the sun.”
But the trip back to Niger was not easy. Along with a group of 20 other Africans, the two friends had to skirt roadblocks manned by Gaddafi loyalists still looking to forcibly recruit new fighters or arrest deserters.
“In some places they had spread oil over the roads to hold up the traffic,” said Mahmoud.
Sometimes progressing by foot well away from the main roads, at other times accepting lifts from other knots of deserters, the pair took a winding route through Algeria and across into the Air mountain range of northern Niger.
It is unclear how many other Tuareg fighters have made a similar journey back in recent weeks. Local Tuareg leaders put the figure at no more than 100 so far, against the thousands that have served in the regular Libyan army for years.
Prominent Tuaregs are trying to persuade Libya’s ruling interim council to stop reprisal attacks on black Africans widely condemned in Libya as mercenaries, while urging the Tuaregs to stay in Libya and rally to its new rulers.
But the lingering admiration felt by Mahmoud and Agali for the Libyan ruler of the past 42 years shows that may take time.
“Gaddafi was and will remain a great man,” said Mahmoud. “His mistake was not to see that the rebellion was manipulated by the West who wanted to see his rule end ... I hope he finds exile somewhere rather than be humiliated with capture.”
Writing by Mark John; Editing by David Lewis and Andrew Heavens