TRIPOLI, Libya — Adham had never picked up a gun before, never mind fired one. But all that changed on Aug. 20, when the tall, lanky, 26-year-old Tripoli resident was handed a weapon and a grenade to fight against the 42-year regime of Muammar al-Qaddafi. "It was the first time for everyone," he tells me.
I meet Adham on Friday, Aug. 26, in a darkened alley not far from the Mediterranean coast. It is just after sundown, and as the power went off in Tripoli earlier in the day, it is almost impossible to see anything. After I tell him I am a journalist, he welcomes me to a small, impromptu iftar dinner and gives me an impression of how, block-by-block, the Tripoli underground managed to seize nominal control over most of the sprawling capital in just two days.
On the evening of the 20th, a Saturday, the uprising within Tripoli began with men chanting anti-Qaddafi slogans at the central Ben Nabi Mosque. This was the "zero hour," as another rebel fighter would tell me. For weeks, rebels had smuggled guns into Tripoli and left them in safe houses; some of the guns used by rebels were also purchased directly from members of the kataib, or Qaddafi militias. With the Aug. 13 fall of Zawiya, a strategically located city about 30 kilometers west of the capital, all the pieces were in place for rebels to take Tripoli.
But before that could happen, the capital's citizens would have to rise up first. Upon receiving orders from their neighborhood commander, Adham and his fellow rebels immediately began to set up roadblocks with whatever materials were available. "Everyone took their place," he says, in a pattern replicated across the city, while NATO military advisors reportedly coordinated the overall battle plan with rebel commanders outside Tripoli. The fighting on Adham's block was intense, and about four or five pro-Qaddafi soldiers were killed over the course of 48 hours. The rebels in his neighborhood captured 35 Qaddafi loyalists, all of whom, Adham says, were taken to the local rebel council that had been set up in advance of the uprising as a shadow government to seize control of the city as the regime fell to pieces. "If someone fights, we shoot, but we never kill someone who gives up," he tells me when I ask about reports of reprisal killings.
Soon, we are joined by Nasser, a middle-aged rebel fighter. Hearing that I am an American, he immediately tells me a story that, given the fog of war, may or may not be true. Just the other day, he says, rebel soldiers apprehended four Americans -- an elderly woman and three men -- trying to flee Tripoli by boat to the Mediterranean island of Malta. They were public relations consultants working on behalf of the "son of a bitch" Yusuf Shakir, a regime propagandist, Nasser says. When the rebels who had arrested the Americans turned them over to the Tripoli council, its leaders determined that the Americans should be kept at the downtown Corinthia Hotel. "The council treated them with respect," Nasser tells me. The practical difficulties of communicating with sources and venturing around Tripoli make this tidbit of information impossible to confirm.
I HAD ENTERED Tripoli the morning of Thursday, Aug. 25, three days after rebels claimed to have gained control over most of the city. That might have been the case, but Tripoli did not exactly feel secure for those of us journalists driving its empty streets. Having spent the previous evening sleeping on thin, dirty mattresses in an abandoned apartment building in Zawiya (a town where, we discovered upon our arrival, four Italian journalists had been kidnapped just hours before), a few colleagues and I convinced two Libyans to drive us to the Corinthia, where we knew many journalists were staying. Rebels had set up checkpoints at what seemed to be every other intersection, so a trip that should have only taken about 20 minutes turned into an hour. Along the way, we passed the headquarters of the Khamis Brigade, named after Qaddafi's youngest son, which rebels had overtaken on Aug. 21. Everywhere lay the detritus of armed combat, from burned-out tanks to spent bullet shells. Arriving at the Corinthia, we were told by the unflappable man behind the front desk that the hotel was full, so we asked our drivers to take us to the Radisson, the other hotel where journalists were shacking up. We made it out right in time; 15 minutes after we left, we later discovered, a huge firefight erupted just outside the Corinthia between Qaddafi loyalists and rebel fighters.