MELISSA BLOCK, host:
It's been only a week since Libya's second largest city fell into the hands of rebels but already, the revolution in Benghazi has its own pantheon of heroes. They include a human-rights lawyer whose arrest sparked the uprising and a balding, middle-aged oil executive who led a daring raid that dealt the final low to the regime there.
NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports now from eastern Libya.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Fathi Terbil wears a New York Yankees baseball cap and a black-and-white keffiyeh - the checkered scarf made famous by the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
He looks pretty scruffy as he sits down for a press conference in front of journalists from all over the world, addressing matters of global importance.
Mr. FATHI TERBIL (Lawyer): (Foreign language spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: He's earned the right. Terbil is a lawyer who represents the families of those killed in a prison uprising against Gadhafi's regime in 1996. Human-rights groups say 1,200 people were slaughtered at Abu Selim prison - among them, three members of Terbil's family, including his brother.
For years, he held an often-solitary weekly protest in front of the courthouse, demanding justice. He was arrested seven times, and says he was repeatedly tortured.
But the regime of Moammar Gadhafi made a fatal mistake when it nabbed him again on the 15th of February in Benghazi. Protesters came out to the streets to demand his release, lighting the spark of revolution.
Mr. TERBIL: (Foreign language spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Now, he spends his days in meetings as part of the transitional governing council of Benghazi, but he retains his humility. At 39, he says he's never had time for a wife. His only pleasures are watching sports.
He has no desire to lead Libya, he says. He just wants to meet a girl when this is all over, and settle down.
One of the most dramatic incidents in the uprising took place over the skies of Benghazi. Forty-nine-year-old air force pilot Captain Abdul Salam Al Abdely was told to bomb rebel targets in eastern Libya during the first days of the rebellion. When he refused, his co-pilot put a gun to his head. Instead of complying, Abdely ejected from the plane. His father says he told him: I couldn't bomb my own people.
Possibly though, Libya's unlikeliest hero is Mahdi Ziu.
Across town, attached to the gates of the state oil company is a huge picture of the bald, overweight, bespectacled man. Ziu was a middle manager, father of two girls, who worked in a cubicle. He suffered from diabetes.
Mohammed Abdelhafif was one of his closest friends.
Mr. MOHAMMED ABDELHAFIF: (Foreign language spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says Ziu joined the protests in Benghazi as soon as they happened, but became furious and saddened by the bloodshed.
Most of the pro-Gadhafi forces were holed up around the main military base in the city, using their guns to mow down the protesters. The demonstrators were having no luck breaking into the heavily defended compound.
Ziu's wife said he would come home with his clothes smeared with blood from carrying dying and wounded comrades.
On the 20th of February, sickened by the carnage, without telling anyone, he loaded his black Kia with propane cylinders. He drove to the base and rammed his car into the front gates, blowing them up.
Twenty-year-old Hamed Salah was outside the base, protesting, and saw the whole thing.
Mr. HAMED SALAH: (Foreign language spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says Ziu sacrificed his life for us. We would not have been able to take over the base if it wasn't for his courageous act.
Hamed's brother, who was being held inside the base after being arrested by Gadhafi's elite forces, echoes the praise, saying he's sure he would have been killed if the base had not fallen.
It proved to be the turning point in the battle for Benghazi. A few hours later, the base was overrun, and the city was in the hands of pro-democracy forces.
Ms. SAMIRA ZIU: (Speaking foreign language).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ziu's wife, Samira, says: I am proud of him, but we have no son to carry his name. But such are the blessings of God, she says, that his name is now written in the history of this city.
Lourdes Garcia-Navarro NPR, News, Benghazi.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.