As Saad Mahmoud queued for bread at one of the few shops still open in the deserted frontline rebel city of Ajdabiya, he had no illusions that the conflict that has split Libya was going to end any time soon.
“This is a war. [Libyan strongman Muammar] Gaddafi’s forces could come back here at any time. I fought them here before and if I need to I’ll fight them again,” the 34-year-old engineer said.
Most residents of this drab and dusty city have voted with their feet and gone to stay in makeshift camps or with relatives in the rebel capital Benghazi or other towns to the east.
There is little sign of life in the low-rise apartment buildings in Ajdabiya, most shops are shuttered and the few vehicles that cruise the bumpy streets are mostly rebel pick-up trucks with a motley assortment of weapons mounted on the back.
The frontline is a few kilometres west of the town, on a desert highway where a small band of volunteer warriors have built berms and dug trenches and keep watch for signs that Gaddafi’s troops might be headed their way.
Burnt wrecks of tanks and armoured personnel carriers lie dotted around them.
“We drove west towards Brega a few days ago and engaged Gaddafi’s troops on the road,” said Abdullah Salah, a rebel commander at the front. He declined to give details but said a few of his men were injured in the skirmish.
That encounter aside, there has been little action for about two weeks around Ajdabiya, which was the scene of deadly battles as it see-sawed back and forth between rebel and Gaddafi control since Libya’s revolution began in mid-February.
Nato firepower from the air is helping keep the status quo as the ragtag rebels regroup and train — with the help of military advisors sent by France, Britain and Italy — for what they hope will be a push west.
The fighters here were ebullient, boasting that they would soon be marching on the Libyan capital to bring an end to Gaddafi’s 41-year-old rule.
“I don’t think Gaddafi has many forces nearby. I hope we can start to move west very soon, towards Tripoli,” said Adel Faraj, a 32-year-old bearing a rocket propelled grenade launcher who said he had recently finished a 10-year jail sentence for dealing hashish.
Back in town, Ibrahim Dawas, the general manager of Ajdabiya’s hospital, said he was ready for any rapid change in the battle situation.
“We have prepared a 65-bed field hospital and we’re ready to set it up anywhere. It contains an emergency centre, a small operating theatre and life-saving equipment,” he said.
His 360-bed hospital had treated battlefield injuries during the fighting for the city, stablising the wounded before transferring them to Benghazi.
‘A freedom fighter’
But on Monday the wards were empty, and doctors and nurses chatted with fighters and smoked as they hung around in the hospital gardens.
Dawas, who trained as a doctor in Canada, said he and six of his brothers who were in Ajdabiya were also ready to fight, and said he had taken part in an earlier rebel advance westwards that was ultimately pushed back.
“I am also a freedom fighter,” he said in fluent English.
That defiant attitude was echoed by the few people who had refused to leave Ajdabiya even when it fell under the control of Gaddafi’s men.
“I never once closed my shop since February 17,” said Adel Bojaila, whose butcher shop in Kofra street displayed a row of hanging sheep carcasses in its window, as nearby stores remained firmly closed.
“I’m trying to get the other shopkeepers to reopen, to come back. But they’re still scared,” he said. — AFP