EAST OF ZLITAN, Libya (Reuters) - For Abu Youssef, the uprising against the 41-year rule of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi has become a family affair.
The 52-year-old former businessman has been on the front line with his 23-year old son, Khalid, since April and last Friday was the first day of combat for his younger son, Ali, 18.
“I am very proud of my sons,” says Youssef. “They know the price they could pay for fighting and they are willing to pay that price.”
Youssef and his sons are part of the 1st battalion of the Al Marsa regiment, a unit that is among the rebel forces that pushed Gaddafi loyalists out of Misrata and back to within about 10 km (6 miles) of the center of Zlitan, a town that now stands between the rebels and the Libyan capital, Tripoli, 160 km (96 miles) away.
The story of a family fighting on the front line together is not uncommon among the rebel forces in Misrata, or even in the same unit as Youssef.
Another older fighter in the unit called Bashir, a former administrative manager at a steel factory in Misrata that closed when the city rose up against Gaddafi’s rule, has one son in the same unit and another farther down the line with another unit.
Youssef gave Reuters assumed names for himself and his sons because he still has family in Tripoli and fears his activities could put them at risk of reprisals.
Youssef and his family came a long way to get here. They slipped out of their home in Tripoli in the early days of the uprising and went to Tunisia.
From there, Youssef and his son Khalid sailed to Malta, where they were tried unsuccessfully to board a boat with medical supplies bound for Misrata.
So they returned to Tunisia, flew to Istanbul and then Cairo and made the all-day drive to Benghazi, the rebel stronghold in eastern Libya, before sailing to Misrata in mid-April.
They then went straight into the fight to drive Gaddafi’s forces from the city.
“Neither of us had ever held a gun before that time,” Youssef said. “And we knew we could die, but dying fighting is better than waiting for them to kill you in your home.”
“For over 40 years, the Libyans were not alive under Gaddafi,” he added. “Now we are alive and we say that the history of this country began on February 17,” the day the uprising began. “I too feel that in my heart.”
Youssef talks easily about what he has learned in combat and his near-death experiences, such as asking to be taught how to use a rocket-propelled grenade, or when he and his comrades were pinned down by pro-Gaddafi troops.
“We lay flat on the ground and the bullets were flying so low we could feel them pass over our backs,” he said. “But that day we knew it was not our time to die. When it is your time, it will happen. Until then, we fight.”
While their father is gregarious and talkative, his sons Khalid and Ali are both quiet young men. Khalid in particular, his father says, does not joke around much at the front.
Khalid walks up and down the line checking on the other young men in his section, apparently unconcerned by the sustained bombardment from Gaddafi forces beyond the trees opposite them. His calm, quiet presence appears to soothe others.
Ali, who decided to fight instead of finishing high school, is tense on his first day. On the way to the front line at a deserted farmhouse that serves as the unit’s forward base, he starts trying to pack his allotted number of bullets in an ammunition pouch to go around his waist.
Youssef fusses around him, taking over like a doting father and explaining to him in a soft voice the right way to do it.
Amid the bombardment, Ali shelters with his comrades against the sand bank that forms the front line. His hands are steady, but his jaw is clenched. When asked how he is faring, he manages a shy smile and says, “So far, so good.”
“It is hard for everyone on their first day,” said Youssef, patting his son’s knee paternally. “It was hard for me, but you get used to it.”
Like the others around him, Ali’s face becomes even tauter as a mortar lands not far away, wounding eight men. But he remains in his place with the others. After he leaves the line, Ali is asked how he enjoyed his first day.
“Not so much,” he says, flashing his shy smile again.
Youssef has lived in the West and says people there may find it hard to understand why he would allow his sons to go into battle with him.
“I love my sons, they are very precious to me,” he says. “Whenever my eldest son has been up at the line over the past three months, there has not been one minute when I do not think about the risk he will die.”
“But if my sons die, I will not cry,” he added. “For I know they have chosen to fight and to die for their country and to make the Libyan people free.”
Editing by Peter Cooney