BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - As the war against Muammar Gaddafi drags on, rebel stocks of food and functioning weapons are dwindling and an army of volunteers has emerged to keep the campaign afloat.
Restaurant staff cook around the clock to provide free meals for the front line. Teachers, schoolchildren and doctors have put on greasy overalls to repair and maintain rebel weaponry.
“We work with one goal in mind — to end Gaddafi’s rule as soon as possible, even with just a twist of a spanner,” said Gadallah el-Kadiky, 43, who dropped his job as a truck driver after the uprising against Gaddafi began in February.
Kadiky and his two teenage sons spend 12 hours each day at an arms depot on the edge of insurgent-held Benghazi repairing rebel vehicles damaged in skirmishes with Gaddafi troops in the desert expanses further west.
The boys hand him spanners and wrenches as he works to fix as many as five of the vehicles per day. Trained mechanics in blue overalls offer words of advice.
Around 100 volunteers at the depot strip down weapons, most of them the spoils of battle, repair and clean them for new service or recycle spare parts to make new guns.
They work fast under a hot sun, stepping gingerly among piles of metal, screwdrivers, bolts and wrenches scattered on the ground. Many wear name tags bearing the caption “Grandchildren of Omar al-Mukhtar,” the hero of Libyan resistance against Italian colonizers.
The fruit of their labor? A line of gleaming anti-tank guns, anti-aircraft cannon and rockets primed for battle.
A rebel army officer proudly fires off one of the cannon for the benefit of some visitors, setting ear drums ringing.
One army officer who defected from Gaddafi brought his old car to the armory, repaired it and, with the help of the mechanics, fitted it with an anti-tank gun that he plans to deliver to the front line.
“This is the least we can do to help win this war,” said Hussein el-Khafeify, a 32-year-old engineer at the depot.
With its hopes of rapid victory dashed, the insurgent leadership based in Benghazi faces the growing risk of depleted weaponry and shortages of food and other supplies.
The rebel army, outgunned by Gaddafi’s militias, has failed to hold much territory since eastern Libyans took up arms against their authoritarian leader of four decades, even with the help of NATO air strikes.
“The whole world knows that we lack weapons, but our weapon is our faith in this nation, and that faith is what enabled us to make these weapons,” said depot supervisor Colonel Ali el-Qetany.
Fears that the east would be ungovernable without Gaddafi’s oppressive security apparatus faded early in the uprising as volunteers mobilized to make Benghazi, al-Bayda, Tobruk and other eastern towns function independently of Tripoli.
Though most of oil-rich Libya’s population has lived for decades off incomes guaranteed by the state, that seems to have done little to deflate their spirit of enterprise.
With no certainty of a salary at the end of the month, utility workers kept power stations and water purification stations functioning while others found a way to make the eastern mobile phone network bypass the capital Tripoli.
Young men came out to clean the streets and collect litter, teenage boys donned uniforms to direct traffic at busy junctions and telecom engineers installed satellite Internet connections to get the rebel message to the outside world.
Engineers and decoraters have speeded the return of the police to duty by renovating damaged state security buildings and police stations.
At The Citadel restaurant a few meters from the armory, head chef Rahma Ben Zablah has stopped serving paying customers and now feeds rebel troops, partly using citizen donations.
Each day, The Citadel serves 16,000 packed meals that are dispatched around Benghazi to the needy including refugees and hospital patients and to front line troops beyond the town of Ajdabiyah, 140 km (87 miles) southwest of Benghazi.
In the kitchen, the atmosphere is frenetic as more than 100 volunteers including schoolchildren, teachers, engineers and traders chop vegetables and tend to 36 boiling pots.
“When the revolution began, I joined the protests in the (Benghazi) courthouse square,” Ben Zablah said. “I can’t go and fight on the front line so I decided to play a role in this revolution with what I do best: cooking.”
The Citadel serves meat, rice, pasta, chicken, fish, bread, honey, dried dates, juice, milk and jam. Supplies cost up to 12,000 Libyan dinars ($10,090) per day, including as much as 500 kilos of meat worth up to 6,000 dinars ($5,089).
“We forsake our income from the restaurant to supply the rebels fighting for our freedom,” said kitchen manager Fahmy el-Mawaj.