TOBRUK, Libya — A ragtag band of young gunmen, among them defectors still in uniform, burst into cheers late Tuesday when a group of journalists crossed from Egypt into "liberated" eastern Libya.
Thus began a bizarre and harrowing drive from the Egyptian border to the coastal city of Tobruk for two Western journalists and their Egyptian translator. The hour-long journey just after nightfall offered a firsthand glimpse into the forces on both sides competing for Libya's future: longtime opposition activists, powerful tribes, military commanders, disenchanted youths and regime loyalists.
At the border, all official security had melted away; the youths were now keepers of the frontier, armed with assault rifles and handguns. Flashing victory signs and pointing to anti-government graffiti scribbled on the walls, the men were eager to share tales of the repression they suffered under the regime of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, who closed off the north African nation from the outside world for much of the past 40 years.
In the past week alone, they said they'd learned of air strikes against peaceful demonstrators, of rapes and looting. Their cell phones stored grisly videos of slain protesters and the corpses of alleged African mercenaries hired by Gadhafi to attack the demonstrations. Such bloodshed led many Libyan military officers to resign their posts.
"I consider myself a soldier in the free Libya now," said Attiyah al Saber, 32, a border guard who joined the protesters after his brother-in-law was killed in Gadhafi's brutal effort to crush the uprising.
"We feel pride for all the Arab revolutions. These leaders gave no solutions to the people in 20, 30, 40 years. This was overdue," al Saber said.
Only moments later, however, a communications mix-up, due to the lack of phone or internet service, left the American journalists in the back of a car belonging to pro-Gadhafi youths with a rifle in the front seat. The men had mingled with the protesters at the border and promised to shepherd the journalists to safety, even though they soon made clear their disdain for the revolt and their suspicions about foreign satellite television broadcasts.
"The colonel just spoke, and the people are happy. See?" said Salah Mheishi, 17, pointing to truckloads of youth chanting "God! Moammar! Libya!" moments after Gadhafi made a televised speech.
Gunfire rang out.
"Just for celebration," Mheishi said with a grin.
As the car sped down the fog-obscured highway, Mheishi and the driver, his 25-year-old neighbor Suleiman Harim, engaged in a wide-ranging conversation as thumping Libyan music blared from a cassette deck. They spoke of the financial obstacles to marriage, of their tribal pride, of vacations to Egypt and their mandatory military service.
The young men plied their passengers with candy bars, orange juice and bananas, assuring them at all times that they were safe and that Libya wasn't hostile to journalists.
Mheishi showed off cell phone photos of his young nephews, then flipped to an image of a smiling, statesmanlike Gadhafi.
"I support him, and want him to stay," Mheishi said. He blamed the violence on prison escapees or hired thugs and insisted that Gadhafi's forces didn't use live ammunition against protesters.
Harim, the driver, pulled to the side of the road near a cluster of men belonging to a citizens' patrol. Such ad hoc groups have replaced government security forces in eastern Libya.
Mheishi said the men were prominent local figures and ushered them to the car. The youths were silent as one of the men, a teacher who wouldn't give his name, offered a starkly different account of the violence.
The teacher leaned close to the car window and said that the Obama administration, the United Nations and human rights groups must intervene immediately to stop Gadhafi's attacks on the protesters. He described corpses lying on the streets of Tripoli, the capital. Gadhafi, he warned, could even resort to a nuclear strike.
"He's a maniac, and he'll make a catastrophe," the teacher said.
The youths thanked the men and sped off, all the while continuing their praise for Gadhafi. Unlike other Arab countries, the young men said, Libyan soldiers were paid well, and money from the nation's oil wells trickled down to the people — assertions disputed by the thousands protesting Gadhafi's political and economic stranglehold on the country.
"Look, that's Seif's summer house," Mheishi said as the car passed a gated building they said belonged to Gadhafi's son, Seif-al-Islam.
As the car neared the sparkling lights of Tobruk, the youths exhorted the journalists to be fair in covering Libya.
"Show the West the real picture," they both said.
The young men said rushed goodbyes in the lobby of a local hotel, which was abuzz with opposition activists greeting one another with kisses and congratulations.
The activists' outlook on Libya, shaped by decades of underground organizing and prison stints, appears to be the majority opinion in the east: That Gadhafi is a ruthless dictator who must be overthrown. When told that the youths in the car held differing opinions, the veteran activists, who declined to give their names, said the men were probably paid by the regime or affiliated with the intelligence service.
Why then would the pro-Gadhafi youths risk a late-night drive to deliver Western journalists into the heart of the opposition?
"Because in general," one activist said, "we are all kind people."
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McClatchy Newspapers 2010