Down the dusty, bumpy road from Tobruk, along which every few miles upended chairs and thick ropes strung across the pavement stand as mute checkpoints – many of them abandoned by their one-time rebel guards – lies Benghazi, the seat of the Libyan uprising, still brave, still mad, incredulous of the predictions of its own demise.
Nearly a month after the onset of foreign air strikes – and my first abrupt departure from free east Libya –the rebel stronghold still stands, logic be damned.
In the centre of town, the main square has sprouted new flags and new martyr memorials. The bloody combat in western Misurata has provided ample fodder for the latter.
Women and children walk the streets more frequently, demonstrating and shopping for groceries in equal measure.
New graffiti dots the walls, new aid tents have sprung up on the sunny Mediterranean waterfront, and new French intelligence agents are rumoured to prowl the smoky lobby of the Tibesty, Benghazi’s most upscale hotel.
Mixing the comical with the deadly serious, life improbably goes on in Libya’s second-largest city.
On Sunday, rebels raided a suspected pro-Gaddafi safe house 24km outside of town, killed the occupants in a shoot-out and uncovered a cache of weapons and explosives.
Most residents assume such hideouts are numerous and that members of the lijan thawriya – Muammar Gaddafi’s revolutionary committees – are still hiding throughout the east, plotting to attack and sow disorder in the rebel community.
Friends told me rebels had uncovered piles of green regime army fatigues during fighting in Ajdabiya, implying the soldiers had changed into civilian clothes.
Many say Gaddafi’s troops now move about more frequently in civilian vehicles to avoid NATO air strikes and mix in with the rebels during their regular breakneck retreats down the highway from Brega to Ajdabiya.
Almost certainly, this is how loyalist soldiers have managed to swoop in and arrest at least nine foreign journalists in the past two weeks. CJ Chivers, a New York Times’ reporter on the front line, said four captured on April 5 were stopped by Gaddafi troops driving Mitsubishi pick-up trucks.
Nearly a month ago, on March 19, as mortar shells exploded among Benghazi’s residential neighbourhoods, Gaddafi’s troops prowled the outskirts of the city, and a column of his tanks and armoured vehicles snaked down the highway to the south, waiting to pummel the opposition bastion.
Journalists fled, and rebels fought running street battles with what they say were revolutionary committee “sleeper cells.”
Yaseen Kadura, one of many young Libyan-American men who came to the east after the uprising, told me that men in his family’s neighbourhood began preparing for its defense by making joulateen, explosives-packed bottles meant to blow up large amounts of fish. The neighbourhood, just a block from the Mediterranean, is known for its fishing, and the men had become expert gelatine makers.
As they worked on the street corner, a Daewoo car sped by and sprayed the walls with automatic gunfire. Nobody was injured.
“My cousin came up from behind and shot out of the wheels of the car,” Kadura said. They found guns and a satellite phone inside, and detained the men.
In the intervening weeks, American, British and French jets have pounded Gaddafi’s positions and the fighting now sits stalled around a dozen miles west of Ajdabiya. Despite the stalemate, the attitude among Benghazi residents doesn’t seem to have dimmed.
Either they don’t realise how close they came to destruction, how their struggle has become enmeshed with international politics and interminable desert artillery barrages, or, more likely, they choose to ignore it.
On Wednesday, I went to the Salmani cafe to meet a man I’ll call Nabil, who I first encountered in March, and his friend Salaheen.
Nabil comes from an old Benghazi family his father was a prominent lawyer jailed in the 1970s for plotting against Gaddafi, and his grandfather was a deputy to Omar Mukhtar, the hero of Libya’s fight against Italian colonial occupation.
Nabil is a crisp dresser and expert gladhander, the kind of person everyone knows and greets, even if they don’t want to.
He says he wants to run for president in the new Libya.
He’s also a walking example of Benghazi’s mental block against acknowledging the possibility of a futile struggle.
He mixes the vulgar, the comic, and the serious. He described to me how on March 19, before NATO’s planes roared overhead, he and his family stood guard outside their house, next to their neighbours, ready to defend their property with
Between deep draws on a shisha, he also made a joke of Salaheen’s brother, who had been shot in the crotch during the climatic battle for Benghazi’s military garrison and had lost a testicle.
Elsewhere in the cafe, men smoked and sipped tea and coffee. The setting sun glazed the windows in orange, and it almost felt like we weren’t sitting in the middle of a city that could quite easily have been obliterated, its mosques razed into parking lots, like Zawiyah in the west.
Nabil treated it all with indifference.
“We fought the Italians for 20 years,” he said. “We will win against Gaddafi.”
Despite their lack of weapons, supplies and training, rebel fighters and Libyans in the east treat Gaddafi’s violent reprisals, more or less, with nonchalance. Sleeper cells and impending doom are almost annoyances.
Such confidence may have seemed foolhardy before, but it becomes less so as foreign heavy hitters align themselves behind the rebels.
Barack Obama, David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy have all declared that the international military campaign in Libya won’t end until Gaddafi leaves, Qatar has armed the rebels with Milan anti-tank missiles, and Britain has begun sending satellite phones and body armour.
The opposition fighters might still be stalled on the coastal highway, but momentum looks to be in their favour.
Maybe Nabil has been right all along.