He fought in Chad, a decade-long border conflict, a gory, seesaw of ambush and retreat waged in oases and wadis in the south, where the Libyan army broke down and never really recovered. The ghosts of that war — a kind of Vietnam for Libya — hover over the revolution of 2011 more than most outsiders understand.
Akhdar says he watched in bitter silence as Gaddafi degraded his army, always wary of rivals in the ranks. “They told us to fight. We fought. But Gaddafi had no respect for us, no decent salaries, just war without reason, on and on, doing his terrorism,” said Akhdar. More than 7,500 Libyan soldiers died, a tenth of the men under arms at the time.
Akhdar says he meet Gaddafi once, in 1975, at a checkpoint at Zawiyah, when he was on guard duty. He admired the daring young Libyan army colonel who overthrew King Idris in a 1969 military coup. Young Akhdar believed in the revolution. “In the beginning, Gaddafi came in peace, but he is like all dictators. Now his heart is dry, and he loves only power.”
As the revolt against Gaddafi intensified, he often referred to revolutionists as extremist Muslims or al-Qaeda terrorists or, simply, rats. “But he is our rat,” Akhdar said. “He never in his life imagined that he would be hiding in a hole in Tripoli. But we know rats. We will hunt him in his hole and we will kill him, like a rat.”
After his discharge from the army, Akhdar worked as a guide steering Italian and French adventurers in weeks-long, four-wheel-drive treks across the great sand seas south of Zintan. He hungers for the desert constantly and believes it taught him lessons in devotion, humility, endurance.
Akhdar was chosen by the consent of his men to command the Zintan Martyr Militia, a group of 300 or 400, depending on what day you ask, with about 60 hard-core fighters who leap to the front lines at Akhdar’s quiet order.
His brigade is headquartered in an abandoned school. “Look what we’ve done to it!” Akhdar said in shame. “This was a place for scholars.” Now the place smells of men and war: a stink from dirty toilets, gun oil, burning trash, unwashed feet.
Akhdar said he threw himself into the revolution because had no choice. When Libyan citizens protested, they were shot. Among the macho tribes of the mountains, this was Gaddafi’s greatest blunder. Gaddafi sparked the revolution. “His people offered the tribes money to go back home, and when we did not, they came with tanks and we defended ourselves, and as we began to fight, we saw they were not strong. They were weak! So we began to kill them and they ran.”
For weeks this summer, the rebel advance was stalled at a forgettable village called Qawlish. It sits on a hilltop, abandoned, overlooking a deep canyon and in the distance, what was the Gaddafi-held town of Asabah.