DAFNIYA, Libya (Reuters) - When the war in Libya started, many young men now on the rebel front line at Misrata were so interested in computer games and mobile phones that older residents never thought they would turn into fighters. “Before the uprising, all those young men cared about was hair gel, clothes, music, mobile phones and hanging out in cafes,” said Mahmoud Askutri, a businessman who has formed and funds the 1st battalion of the Al Marsa regiment, one of the rebel units fighting here to end Muammar Gaddafi’s 41-year rule.
“But now they fight and are willing to die for a cause.”
Amid the Arab Spring protests that swept the region early this year, the people of Misrata and elsewhere in Libya demanded greater freedom, so Gaddafi sent in the troops to silence their protests.
After those troops opened fire on demonstrators, the people of Misrata rose up, initially fighting back with petrol bombs and hunting rifles.
Since then, they have wrested control of Libya’s third largest city from Gaddafi loyalists and, after mistakes that cost many lives, this army of former civilians has consolidated a front line 36 km (22 miles) west of Misrata.
They have recently encountered better trained troops and have moved forward slowly under sustained bombardment to conserve ammunition, hold territory and reduce casualties.
That they are around 10 km (six miles) east of Zlitan, the largest city between here and the capital, Tripoli, is testimony to the courage of the young men in this force.
“They treat me with great respect,” Askutri said before a visit to the men of Al Masra on the front line. “But when I see them I do not feel worthy of that respect. A few months ago they were civilians. Now they are willing to die for their freedom.”
Salah is typical of many young men on the front line here. The 20-year-old was attending medical school when the uprising started. Life was easy and he spent a lot of time playing soccer games on Playstation.
“Fifty fifty,” he says of his record on Playstation.
Sitting with a group of other young men, he says he is a big fan of FC Barcelona. A second young man shakes his head and says he likes Real Madrid, while a third looks down at the Manchester United logos embossed on his shoes and says nothing.
Salah plans to return to university after the war, as he wants to become a cardiologist.
“But first we must beat Gaddafi,” he says. “We cannot be free if we live under him.”
Mobile phones are common at the front line, even though the city has been without mobile reception since the uprising.
Young fighters use them to take pictures of each other and videos of battle. Some of them hand out email addresses, though again internet is available at very few spots in Misrata.
Another sign of the times is that the Al Marsa has an amateur videographer. Yezid, a slight 23-year-old microbiology student with round spectacles, carries a video camera to the front.
He has been wounded twice, with a bullet in his right thigh and a piece of shrapnel in his left knee that makes walking painful and running impossible.
“This is my gun,” he said, holding up the camera with a smile.
Dressed in t-shirts, jeans and whatever sensible shoes they have, the teenagers and twentysomethings here have come a long way in just a few months. They joke when Gaddafi forces fire Grad rockets at them from nearby because they are not very effective at close range.
But like soldiers anywhere, what they do not like are mortar attacks where the bombs hit closer to the front line and cause more casualties.
“A Grad is no problem, but I don’t like the mortars,” said Ahmed, 21, an engineering student sharing a bunker with two friends who jokingly refer to it as a five-star hotel. “The small pieces of metal from the mortar cut you.”
When the crump of a mortar is heard, many of the men in the line say “Allahu Akbar,” or “God is Greatest,” before it lands. Muslims believe that dying with those words on your lips brings you closer to God.
Despite the concern about mortars, the men at the front all seem focused on their cause.
Asked what thoughts he had of a future beyond the war, one 21-year-old who gave his name as Ali shook his head.
“I don’t care about that now,” he said. “All I want to do is kill Gaddafi.”
Since speaking to Reuters, Ali has sustained a shrapnel wound in the leg but has returned to the front line. Wounds for the “thowar” or revolutionaries have become, as Agila Erfaida, a lecturer at the University of Misrata’s Faculty of Medical Technology puts it, “badges of honor.”
Certainly the young men of a unit led by Tariq Madi, a former bank employee, are keen to show off their scars.
“Most of the men here have been wounded more than once,” said Madi, 36, who managed the safety deposit boxes at BNP Paribas’ Misrata branch before the war. Most of them are aged between 17 and 20.
Being wounded is one thing, but watching friends die is another.
Groups of weeping young men can often be seen outside Al Hekma hospital in Misrata after one of their comrades has been killed.
At the field hospital closest to the front, one young lightly injured man wandered around shirtless, bandaged and crying inconsolably, not for his own wounds but for the friend who died next to him.
The toll of those losses can be seen in the faces of men like Sofian, a 21-year-old engineering student.
When asked how he adapted to life in the front line, Sofian responds with a laugh “war is fun.”
But the laugh does not reach his eyes. When he looks at you, the eyes of an old man stare out of a young face.
“Now we have begun, we have to go all the way to Tripoli,” he said. “If Gaddafi wants to get back into Misrata, he will have to come over our dead bodies.”
Older men in the city, like Mohammed Erhyam, are impressed.
“We did not expect this from our young people, that they would fight so hard,” said the 49-year-old.
“But they are braver than we are. And braver than we thought they would be.”
Editing by Giles Elgood