MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Rebel commanders say one of their key objectives is the city of Zawiyah. It's the site of a major oil refinery near the coast. For some of the rebels, the battle for Zawiyah is about much more than a refinery. The rebel force includes people who were chased out of the city by Gadhafi's forces, and some who have come a much longer distance to fight.
NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro gathered this story today from the rebel frontlines.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: In the boiling sun, at a dusty concrete factory that is littered with shrapnel, members of the Zawiyah Brigade are holding the line.
So I'm standing about two and a half kilometers away from the Gadhafi frontlines. This is the last position that the rebels hold on the road to Zawiyah. And they are getting grad-rocketed every day. Yesterday, three of the rebel fighters were injured but this conflict, at least on this end, is at a stalemate. For now, neither side is advancing.
Mr. MUSTAFA ISMAEL (Soldier, Zawiyah Brigade): (Arabic language spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mustafa Ismael sits in the shade, his face is lacquered in sweat. When asked what he's doing here he makes a throat-slitting gesture, saying he wants to kill Gadhafi.
Mr. ISMAEL: Gadhafi, call all the people here like cut Gadhafi.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ismael belongs to the Zawiyah Brigade, as it's called here. Zawiyah was one of the first cities to rise up against the Libyan regime, but because it's located so close to Tripoli, the rebellion there was brutally crushed. Many who fought there ended up fleeing for their lives.
Some of them made it to the western mountains and about three to 400 have formed a fighting force focused on getting their city back. They man this final rebel position near the town of Bir al-Ghanem, about 30 miles into the desert from coastal Zawiyah.
Mr. ISMAEL: (Arabic language spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: It wasn't an organized thing, he says, we all just ended up in the mountains here and formed this group.
Ex-pat Libyans have also joined them. A father and son have travelled from Pittsburg in order to fight. At the Zawiyah Brigade's base in Zintan, basically a house where they can sleep and get a shower away from the front, the pair have just returned from training.
Malik Eshnuk is 21. He's wearing a baseball cap and military fatigues. He's a chemical engineering student.
Mr. MALIK ESHNUK (Soldier, Zawiyah Brigade): It wasn't really much of a decision. As soon as it became as the summertime, and as we saw that the situation is going to be a long war possibly, and there's still something we can do to help, we said we're going to go.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Malik's father, Mabrouk, originally hails from Zawiyah. He left when he was 18, eventually settling in the U.S. and marrying there. He became an imam and taught Islam in state penitentiaries in Pennsylvania. He got a real estate business going. Six of the brothers he left behind though still lived in Zawiyah. And when the uprising happened they all took part in the fighting.
About two weeks into the rebellion, Mabrouk received a call from Libya with terrible news. One of his brothers' sons had been killed.
Mr. MABROUK ESHNUK (Soldier, Zawiyah Brigade): And it was really the truth is it was just like a dream, it's not true for a long time
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Then another brother and his sons were arrested. The rest of the men in Mabrouk's family fled Zawiyah.
Malik says the death of his cousin, who was his age, hit him hard. They'd become close after Malik spent the summer in Libya a few years ago. At the time, he wasn't impressed with Libyan youth.
Mr. MALIK ESHNUK: I thought they were like bums. They stayed in the streets, they smoked, they put gel in their hair and that's all they care about. And so I didn't know that they had it in their hearts to stand up and be brave and, you know, risk their lives and stand up for a just cause like this.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: After the death of Malik cousin, the family convened in Pittsburg. There were discussions over weeks about who would go to fight in Libya. All the children, Mabrouk says, wanted to come.
Mr. MABROUK ESHNUK: I said, well, I'm like a judge. The one who proves his case, we're going to decide and then we have to put approval by the family.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: In the end, Malik as the middle son, was allowed to come with his father. They bought equipment, flak jackets, a satellite phone - it was all confiscated in Tunisia.
They've been here for about five days and Malik is having trouble understanding and speaking Arabic. He misses having an Internet connection. Mabrouk is worried about his family at home. But they say they will stay on and fight.
Mr. MABROUK ESHNUK: If I can help participate and fight and free Zawiyah, I'll be very happy to do that. That would be a dream come true, yeah.
Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News in the western mountains.