Battle at army base broke Gadhafi hold in Benghazi
BENGHAZI, Libya – The young men of Benghazi pounded the dreaded military barracks in the city center with everything they could find. They threw stones and crude bombs made of tin cans stuffed with gunpowder. They drove bulldozers into its walls. All under a blaze of gunfire from troops inside that literally tore people in half.
More than 100 were killed in three days of fighting. But in the end, the base fell and Moammar Gadhafi's forces fled, executing comrades who refused to shoot.
The assault on the base known as the "Katiba" was the defining battle in the fall of Libya's second largest city to the opposition uprising that has swept away Gadhafi's rule in the eastern half of the country.
Now children clamber over the abandoned tanks inside the base and families drive around inside the sprawling compound, gawking at what for years had been a sort of feared Bastille, where detainees disappeared and where Gadhafi stayed when he was in town.
The revolt in Benghazi, about 580 miles (940 kilometers) east of Tripoli, began with protests that centered in the square outside the city's courthouse overlooking the Mediterranean.
Thousands held rallies there for several days, turning it into a Libyan version of Egypt's famous Tahrir Square. On Feb. 17, the protests turned deadly, when troops opened fire, killing 14.
The next day, a funeral procession of thousands made its way to the cemetery, filing past the Katiba.
Accounts differ on whether mourners began throwing stones first or the soldiers of the Katiba opened fire without provocation. But the result was a massacre, with the city's main Al-Jalaa Hospital alone reporting 24 deaths in its morgue and hundreds of wounded.
On Feb. 19, a new procession thousands strong carried the dead from the previous day and once more passed the Katiba to the cemetery in an act of defiance.
"The people whose brothers had died the day before were in the first rank and they were the first to start throwing rocks," recalled Aboul Qassim Bujezia. "The soldiers in the Katiba opened fire and everyone in the first rank died."
The slight 27-year-old lay in his bed at home, recovering from his wounds that day. His father proffers an X-ray showing the 7.62 mm Kalashnikov slug lodged in the muscle of Bujezia's calf. The doctors say it is too dangerous to remove for now.
"People around me were shot in the neck, head and eye, some twice, God was with me that day," Bujezia said, describing how under heavy gunfire that day, the wounded were ferried to safety.
The city's only trauma ward, at Al-Jalaa Hospital, was buckling under the flood of casualties.
"It was miserable for us, it was a very bad three days, like in Gaza," recalled Dr. Hossam Majli.
What shocked the doctors most was that the soldiers were clearly shooting to kill, with most shots concentrated in the chest and heart, they said days later when the clean, brightly lit walls of the hospital showed little sign of the blood bath.
One of the few bodies remaining in the hospital's overflowing morgue attests to the ferocity. As the drawer slides open it reveals a bearded man's peaceful face. His body ends below his chest. His lower half was a red mix of shredded bone and muscle with a charred protruding spine — the likely effects of being hit by a rocket propelled grenades, guess the doctors.
Dr. Abdullah, who insisted his last name not be used, is the hospital's head of surgery and casualty unit, and has dealt with effects of violence several times in his career, including after U.S. airstrikes and attacks by Gadhafi's security forces. Most of his colleagues, though, were not ready for these kinds of injuries.
"There is a shortage of professional people to deal with these cases," he said. "Our nurses are from the Philippines and other countries and their embassies are withdrawing them and we will have no nurses."
Ayman Salam, a frail 28-year-old shot in the abdomen walking in the Feb. 19 funeral procession, was one of eight gunshot victims still in the hospital Thursday.
"They came out and started firing immediately. As I was shot I saw four others go down with me and I just lay there," he said in a whispery voice, covered with tubes and bandages.
Benghazi's youth focused their rage on the Katiba, throwing whatever they could at it.
"Every time they killed one of us, more came," said Mohammed Haman, a lanky 29-year-old sporting a bandanna and an American accent from six years living in Baltimore. "When they started shooting, we hit back with bricks."
Others fired homemade explosives known as "jalateen" — essentially gunpowder stuffed into a tin can normally used in the unsportsmanlike local style of fishing. They fired them over the high walls with spear guns, also used for fishing.
Others commandeered bulldozers and tried to breach the walls, often succumbing under heavy fire.
"You wouldn't believe how much they were trying to capture the barracks," said Dr. Abdullah. "The young people were making human shields for the drivers of the bulldozers," he added, describing how he received four people all shot in the chest at the same height, while guarding a bulldozer.
As the battle wore on, a mob descended on a local army base on the outskirts of town and forced the soldiers to give up their weapons, including three small tanks. Truckers drove them into town and rammed those too into the Katiba's walls.
Days later, the burned hulks of the armored vehicles can still be seen, stuck halfway into the breaches they made.
The fighting petered out by around 5 a.m. Feb. 20, with 30 people killed in the day's fighting, according to Al-Jalaa's morgue.
With the new day, another funeral cortege wended its way past the Katiba toward the cemetery.
This procession, however, contained a surprise. As it approached the barracks, a 49-year-old named Mahdi Ziu peeled out from behind with a car rigged with four propane tanks and filled with makeshift explosives.
He rammed the imposing gates, blowing them into a twisted pile of concrete and rebar, dying in the blast.
The battle was on once more. Again, it dragged on for most of the day, with the attackers joined by people from the eastern towns of Derna and Beyda, who had liberated weapons from local security bases.
It was the bloodiest day of the battle, with 42 bodies brought to Al-Jalaa's morgue.
It only ended that afternoon when the Interior Minister Abdel-Fattah Younis showed up with contingent of special forces from the nearby base who had stayed out of the battle.
Charged by Gadhafi with relieving the besieged barracks, Younis instead announced his defection and promised the soldiers of the Katiba safe passage out if they would leave eastern Libya.
And with that, the last remnants of Gadhafi's power left the city.
The final days inside the barracks were undoubtedly grim. In the Al-Jalaa morgue were eight badly burned bodies that doctors say had their hands tied behind them and bullets in their head. They are believed to have been soldiers who refused to fight.
The vast enclosure, filled with burned out buildings, is now a macabre tourist attraction. Children play on an abandoned tank that is still functional enough to raise and lower its huge main gun, much to their collective glee.
Metal doors open into strange dark tunnels leading underground, one to a large room with a heavy door, its purpose unknown. In one corner of the compound, people frantically dig into the soft earth with makeshift tools over rumors someone was buried within.
Soldiers now with the rebellion were also there to recover boxes of ammunition in the ongoing effort to retrieve the many weapons that fell into civilian hands during the days of chaos.
Near the entrance is the remnants of the imposing proscenium stand where Gadhafi once declared himself the king of kings of Africa, now fallen down. Nearly every building is covered with triumphant graffiti declaring "the New Libya."
"I'm 41 years old, and this is the first time I had ever been inside and its been sitting in the middle of Benghazi all this time," said Atif al-Hasiya, standing in front of the ravaged complex with a huge smile on his face.