BANI WALID (Reuters) - “I used to drive a 1990 Mazda,” the young Libyan revolutionary says through child-like giggles, hurtling into the heart of battle at the wheel of a new 4-by-4 looted from slain soldiers of Muammar Gaddafi. “Look at me now.”
But there was to be no more fighting for Ali that day. Bani Walid, one of only two towns in Libya that had still been resisting the men who toppled one of the world’s most recognizable leaders, had fallen.
The 23-year-old could not believe his eyes as he pulled the car into the town’s central square.
Hundreds of fighters, most of them young men like himself, ran around streets they had tried to reach for six weeks, shouting, singing, and calling out, “God is greatest.”
They unleashed thousands of celebratory bullets into the air with machine-guns and a few guffawing fighters even recklessly sent rocket-propelled grenades whizzing off into the distance.
Several men spun anti-aircraft guns around and around, filling the skies with smoke and flames and ammo as another fighter nearby sent a car skidding in circles until, finally, he flipped it over on its roof.
“Hey, Gaddafi! Look at this! Screw you, Gaddafi!” a young fighter screamed as he ran past.
Ali stood with his hands on his head in amazement. “Crazy boys,” he shouted, laughing.
Then, through the wild scene, a man dressed in medical scrubs appeared.
He had come from one of the nearby field hospitals where, for weeks, they have been treating men hit by sniper fire, fighters with limbs blown off, friends unrecognizable after mortar attacks -- many of whom did not make it.
The man wandered for a while, wide-eyed with shock and seeming unsure of which direction to go, before he saw a fighter that he knew. He stumbled into his arms and both of them started to weep.
Ali went quiet and then looked away.
The fighters from the various regional rebel brigades who are now loyal to Libya’s interim government, the National Transitional Council, have gone through a complex wave of emotions since taking up arms against Gaddafi just eight months ago and changing their country forever.
With the final pro-Gaddafi holdout towns now falling, they are wondering if it has also changed their futures.
Ali, and others like him, will often talk openly about their experiences, the family and friends they’ve lost and the men -- in some cases the many men -- who they have killed.
Sometimes they laugh nervously as they tell the often horrible tales, sometimes they laugh genuinely and, at other times, they can darken suddenly.
“I worry about some of us. That we might get sick,” Ali said, tapping his head. “Psychologically.”
He sometimes erupted into laughter as he described battlefield incidents in which he had killed Gaddafi soldiers and snipers with RPG and anti-aircraft fire. But, “I don’t like the killing,” he said.
The spontaneous joy that deafened Bani Walid as anti-Gaddafi fighters surged into its square on Monday and Tuesday, was in part provoked by a hope that things will now be better for those young men.
But there is some bitterness as well as hope in their ranks, and some fighters have looted in pro-Gaddafi towns far from their own homes, though others have resisted.
“We never had anything but we were never afraid of Gaddafi. This generation had no fear,” 26-year-old Abdul shouted to Reuters over the noise of the celebrations.
“Maybe our fathers did, maybe my grandfather. But we were always going to throw him out. Always. Because we wanted more.”
The interim leaders have made promises to the men whose fighting put them in power, with plans to recruit some into the military, some into the police and to send others to colleges.
But, with the messy business of forming a government, some are already frustrated and worried that the older men at the top tables may soon forget about them.
As the inevitable jostling for power moves into full post-revolution flight, the fighters wait.
“It could take a long time to build a new country,” Ali said. “Maybe that is what our generation will do, for our children. For me, I don’t know. I might go to Canada. And come back when Libya is like that.”
Mustafa, a 26-year-old fighter, who had jumped from the back of a pick-up truck where he had been firing anti-aircraft volleys into the air, approached with a big grin.
“How is my English?” he asked. “Gaddafi wouldn’t let most Libyans learn. He didn’t want us to be educated or go out into the outside world. Now young Libyans want all of those things.”
Neighboring Tunisia’s standard of living is often mentioned with envy and a lot of the young men say they know well that, in a country with oil riches and just 6 million people, there is more to go around.
“But it’s not that. It’s more. Nobody wanted to fight but, in my town, it was for freedom,” Ali said, adjusting the touch-screen controls in the Gaddafi military car now owned by his brigade as he drove out of Bani Walid later.
“In the mountains, there were 20 of us fighting and only two of us made it home. This car? I would burn it and this whole world and everything I have in it to bring them back.”
Editing by Jon Boyle