John Moore/Getty Images
Libyan rebels battle government troops as smoke from a damaged oil facility darkens the front-line sky Friday in Ras Lanuf, Libya.
John Moore/Getty Images
The conflict between Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's forces and anti-government rebels runs from east to west along the coastal highway, with much of the fighting located near the oil port of Ras Lanuf. The area between the city and the Gadhafi stronghold of Sirte is the scene of explosions and gunfire, charging rebels and circling fighter jets.
But wander just a short way off the highway, and you sometimes find a semblance of normal life, laced with anxiety for the future.
Al-Ogeil is a village between the oil ports of Brega and Ras Lanuf. Normally a somnolent place, its gas station became a hub of rebel fighter activity this week, especially when rebels abandoned parts of Ras Lanuf.
But just up the hill, quiet prevails. On one side of a dust-and-sand road, ramshackle stone houses are scattered in various states of disrepair. On the other side sits a neat row of unfinished new houses. Residents say construction began six years ago, but they were never finished.
Why not? "Because Gadhafi is our leader," comes the reply.
'Life Was Bad Beyond Your Imagination'
Mohammed Omran, 30, was an accountant at the oil refinery in Ras Lanuf until the artillery shells and rockets started to fly and everyone fled.
When asked why so many people instantly sided with the rebels in the east, Omran laughs and wonders how much time a reporter has to listen.
"Life was bad beyond your imagination," he says. "Go to any small house, see three families living there. For the few who had jobs, the salaries were terrible. We couldn't build houses — the government owns the land. Every day I saw huge money being made from our oil wealth, and we got nothing."
Omran says that because he had an accounting degree, he got hired at the refinery, but most jobs went to Gadhafi supporters or foreigners.
When asked if he's married, he laughs, displays his ringless fingers, and says, "How can I marry when Gadhafi is in charge?"
Omran says internal security men routinely terrorized the population, especially when they got wind of a strike at Ras Lanuf in early 2009.
"They heard about the strike and started arresting people," he says. "There are still people from Ras Lanuf being detained in Sirte. But of course we spoke out anyway. We went on strike in August of 2009, and the local police attacked us with live fire, but no one heard about it. It was a total news blackout."
Omran says Libyans want to be reunited under a new leader. But if the world doesn't help quickly — with a no-fly zone and weapons — he doesn't believe the rebels can advance farther west.
That opinion is shared by another young man coming up the dirt road, but he has a different view on how all this will end. "Chaos. Civil war. There's going to be a war among the tribes. It will never calm down," says 31-year-old Salah al-Sourir.
A Country Divided
Sourir brings news from Sirte, the Gadhafi stronghold where some of his elite military units are based. When asked how he got here, he shrugs and says it's simple — just get off the highway and use the desert roads. He has family here, and he's coming to visit.
Sourir says people in Sirte are convinced that the rebels are a bunch of poor young men from the east coming to take whatever material wealth they can steal from the west.
He also says he doubts this country now split into a rebel-held east and Gadhafi-controlled west can be put back together again. In his view, Gadhafi will just hang onto the west, with its untapped oil resources, and allow Libya to turn into another Somalia or Sudan.
"The country is already divided," he says. "And Gadhafi is going to leave the east — he doesn't need it. It will never be one country again. The west is stable now — it has no problems."
Sourir says he'll be heading back to Sirte soon — back through the desert, steering clear of Libya's highway war.