MISRATA, Libya — The only proof that Mohammed Gugu, 21, is a legitimate Libyan fighter is the shrapnel scar on his left leg that he picked up last year in during the battle to liberate the country from Moammar Gadhafi. Gugu works as a shutter installer most days, except when his self-proclaimed brigade commander calls him back to the front lines, as he did Wednesday.
Gugu, a member of the Eagles of Misrata brigade, donned his ill-fitting camouflage jacket and reassembled the machine gun mounted on top of his pickup truck, which he fired for the first time a year ago. Two Libyan journalists had been captured from the last bastion of Gadhafi supporters, offering commanders the perfect pretext to order their fighters back to finish the war.
On the same day last week that Libya held historic elections for its first post-Gadhafi Parliament, it was confronted with a new round of score-settling. The kidnapped journalists are from Misrata, the third-largest city and home to more than 200 militias, including some that led the final push into Tripoli to topple Gadhafi in September. They are being held in Bani Walid, a valley town still filled with Gadhafi supporters, about 80 miles away.
The potential battle is a reminder that despite its move toward democracy, Libya in many ways remains an ungoverned state controlled not by elected officials but by the various armed factions that fought against Gadhafi a year ago. Even before elections, in the long limbo between the fall of the regime and last week’s voting, a decentralized system had emerged, with each city forming its own defenses.
Even if it forms a national government, Libya is still years away from a national army. In the absence of that is a nation of self-proclaimed soldiers that seems one local dispute away from a major conflict.
The fighters reject the name militias, calling themselves brigades. They are trying to perform like brigades, training and waiting for orders from the division commander in Misrata and eventually the Ministry of Defense. The ministry has nominal control over the militias, but they sometimes act on their own.
“This is a test of their patience and wisdom. It shows they are organized. They don’t belong to any group,” said Lufti al Min, 39, who serves as the Martyrs brigade commander when he isn’t working his day job, in telecommunications. “We think that being patient will make us successful.”
But al Min concedes it is becoming increasingly difficult for the fighters to show restraint.
The journalists were captured Saturday while traveling back by road to Misrata from the western town of Mizdah, where they were covering the parliamentary elections. Militias began calling in thousands of fighters from across the country. By Wednesday, mounted pickups were showing up all over Misrata, heading to and from militia bases. Some brigades fired warning rockets toward Bani Walid.
On Thursday, the extended deadline for the journalists’ release came and went, as thousands of men like Gugu began preparing their weapons. Local council members and journalist syndicates continue to negotiate with Bani Walid for the journalists’ release, but fighters said they believed the Ministry of Defense would eventually act.
“I think we will be ordered into Bani Walid sooner rather than later,” al Min said.
The militias here have learned from the mistakes of other cities, al Min said. Earlier this year, when someone from a nearby town killed an individual from the western town of Zintan, the Zintan fighters rushed in with no plan and lost.
“The Zintan fighters had no legitimacy. They just entered,” al Min explained. “We will not go in without legitimacy. We will have orders.”
A port city that was isolated as a rebel stronghold during the uprising and received some of the heaviest bombardments by Gadhafi’s forces, Misrata became critical to the end of Gadhafi’s 42-year rule. After its fighters helped lead the charge into Tripoli, they collected the best weapons and formed more militias than any Libyan city. Here, it seems that every home is armed, and as an economic hub, it has rebuilt faster than many other cities.
Misrata is trying to shake off its reputation as bloodthirsty, but its hatred for the old regime has become its trademark.
When Gadhafi was killed, his body lay on display here for several days. There’s now a museum here dedicated to the uprising, and sitting outside are captured Gadhafi tanks and the famed statue of a giant hand crushing an American fighter plane, a favorite of the former dictator’s. Gadhafi’s hats and pajamas are on display inside; a TV plays looped video of his final moments, being dragged, bloodied, through streets just before his death.
The people of Bani Walid have asked for prisoners held in Misrata to be released in exchange for reporter-cameraman Abdelqadir Fassouk and cameraman Yusuf Badi, who work for the Misrata-based Tobacts TV station.
Atria Youssef, a spokesman for the elected local council in Misrata, rejected that.
“They are civilians,” he said, referring to the journalists. “The people they want released are prisoners of war.”
There is a reason Gadhafi fighters have remained safe in Bani Walid. Filled with valleys and hills, it is difficult terrain for even the most experienced fighter.
“They know their terrain better than us,” al Min said.
But Gugu, for one, could not hide his enthusiasm to get back to the front lines. He stood on top of his truck facing a mound of dirt so he could test his weapon, but he couldn’t get it to work. Regardless, he said, “I am ready to fight.”
McClatchy special correspondent James Lawler Duggan contributed from Misrata.