Gaddafi’s mercenaries reveal all

Some people get a taste for war and fight for others when their own cause is finished.  These mercenaries then become the ‘smart money’ in the stockmarket of the battlefield: when they start leaving, you know their employer is doomed.  In Libya, where Gaddafi’s use of mercenaries was identified early in the conflict but roundly denied by the regime, the foot soldiers were from Chad and countries further south but the commanders were from places like the former Yugoslavia, where the end of the civil war left a pool of skilled fighters with few opportunities to apply their particular talents for killing except organized crime or going to war on behalf of men like Gaddafi.  Time magazine found a Bosnian Croat artillery specialist named Mario who fought in Libya and fled a couple weeks ago when he saw the regime collapsing.   Mario describes a Keystone Kops atmosphere in the regime camps but confirms that it was NATO’s intervention that tipped the balance of the war against Gaddafi:

“My men were mainly from the south [of Libya] and Chad, and there were a few others from countries south of Libya.  Discipline was bad, and they were too stupid to learn anything. But things were O.K. until the air strikes commenced. The other [rebel] side was equally bad, if not worse. Gaddafi would have smashed the rebels had the West not intervened.”

Gaddafi was the man who introduced Silvio Berlusconi — and, soon enough, all Italians — to the expression “bunga, bunga” which became the catchphrase of the scandal involving Berlusconi and some underage prostitutes that has roiled Italian politics for the last year.  Apparently, the partying continued through the rebel war:

“Life in [Gaddafi’s] compound and shelters was so surreal, with partying, women, alcohol and drugs,” said Mario, 41. “One of the relatives of Gaddafi took me to one of his villas where they offered me anything I wanted. I heard stories about people being shot for fun and forced to play Russian roulette while spectators were making bets, like in the movies.”

Click here to go to the Time website to read the full interview.


Update (31 Aug): In the Atlantic, Peter Gwin has an interesting interview with a Tuareg mercenary from Mali that offers, in a sense, the other side of the story, as seen by the rank and file Gaddafi fighters.  Though far less revealing about high-level strategy or behind-the-scenes decadence, the mercenary (given the pseudonym Abdullah) says the regime’s approach to controlling protests in Tripoli was straightforward: “We would kill three or four in the front of the crowd and they all ran away. It was very easy.”  Abdullah, too, confirms that NATO was instrumental in changing the balance of the fighting:

Abdullah’s unit moved on to Brega and then to the outskirts of Benghazi. “We were six kilometers [about four miles] from Benghazi when the first NATO bombs hit us.” First, a missile hit a vehicle carrying an artillery piece near his position and killed eight men. “We never heard it or saw it. The men just blew up.” He and his fellow soldiers were spooked. They were well trained to fight on the ground, he said. “None of us was good at shooting down airplanes.”

The interviewer, Peter Gwin, was reporting from Mali so focuses more on the consequences for that country than most pieces about the Libya fighting do; in particular, what will happen when the estimated 10,000 Tuareg mercenaries who had been fighting for Gaddafi — many having served in Libya for years before the protests — return to Mali, well-trained in killing and with few local opportunities for employment.  Expect trouble ahead for Timbuktu.


Click here to read the Libya article I wrote and photographed for Travel + Leisure to gain a sense of what Libya felt like to experience on the ground.  Or here for an excerpt from my Libya journals about the surreal experience of running through the Tripoli medina with a human rights activist.  Or here for a look inside my copy of Gaddafi’s infamous Green Book.

Also, click here to read my Sarajevo article for Travel + Leisure about the repercussions of the Yugoslav war.  Or here for my photographs of Italy, including one from the day the news broke about Berlusconi and the prostitutes.



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