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In Libya, an unlikely hero of a youth-led revolution

By Leila Fadel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 28, 2011; 10:41 PM

BENGHAZI, LIBYA - Mehdi Mohammed Zeyo was the most unlikely of revolutionary heroes. The bespectacled 49-year-old worked in the supplies department of the state-owned oil company. He was a diabetic with two teenage daughters.

But something snapped inside him as a youth-led uprising in Libya against the government of Moammar Gaddafi quickly turned bloody.

For days Zeyo had carried the bodies of teenage boys from outside a security base in the center of the city where Gaddafi's militiamen fired on young protesters. Every day he went with hundreds of others to the cemeteries to bury the boys. His outrage grew, until Zeyo quietly made a decision, according to his family, friends and witnesses to his fiery death.

On the morning of Feb. 20, he walked down the stairs of his apartment building with a gas canister hoisted on his shoulder, witnesses said. He put two canisters inside his trunk of his car, along with a tin can full of gunpowder. Driving toward the base, he flashed the victory sign to the young men protesting outside and hit the gas pedal.

Gaddafi's security forces sprayed his black car with bullets, setting off a powerful explosion, witnesses said. The blast tore a hole in the base's front gate, allowing scores of young protesters and soldiers who had defected to stream inside. That night, the opposition won the battle for the base, and for Benghazi, as Gaddafi's forces retreated.

More than a week later, Benghazi remains the center of resistance to Gaddafi as Libya's leader of 41 years clings to power in the capital, Tripoli. Here, Zeyo's face has become the symbol of courage for this youth-led rebellion. A video of the explosion has spread across the city, passed from one cellphone to the next.

"What he did helped a lot of people live," Yousef Salah said as he stood outside Zeyo's apartment building, which has been labeled "the building of the martyr."

Salah said he was imprisoned inside the base that day. He had been protesting and throwing stones when security forces detained him. Every hour, Salah said, he was kicked, punched and threatened with death.

If Zeyo had not used himself and his car as a weapon, "I would have died. One more day and I would have died," the 21-year-old Salah said. He said that his father was killed at Abu Selim prison and that he had joined the demonstrations to protest his father's death.

Inside Zeyo's home, his widow, Samira Awad Nobous, 44, was still in shock Monday. She spoke stoically about the "beautiful" 21 years she spent with her husband. His face is on posters labeling him a martyr, and yet she cannot fathom that he's gone.

"Until now I don't believe it. He's just a regular person who loved life," Nobous said while sitting on pink couches in her home. "I'm so proud, and I'm so sad. But this is what was written for him by God."

As she spoke, her daughters returned home holding a large poster of their father. Since his death, they have gone to the courthouse, the main center of continued demonstrations, to tell the world of their father's sacrifice. It helps them deal with the grief.

"This is a disaster for me," said Zuhour Mehdi, 18. "We were so close, and he loved life so much."

Every year, she said, her father took his daughters to Lebanon and Syria for vacation. They had just returned when the protests started, and watching the daily carnage clearly affected him.

"He was so sensitive," a female relative said. She brought out the bloodied clothes he had worn while carrying the bodies of those killed by Gaddafi's men.

"The oppression will end soon. It's coming soon," his friend of 25 years, Mohammed Abdul Hafidh, 52, recalled him saying. A few days later, Hafidh got a call informing him that his friend was dead.

"He used this uprising to show his courage and his feelings for this country," Hafidh said.

Zeyo had left a will listing the debts he owed so that they could be paid, but Hafidh said the community and the company where Zeyo worked would take care of his family. On Zeyo's desk Monday was a printed piece of paper pasted to the computer screen.

"We are from God and we return to God," it said.

At home, his wife put her head down.

"We had no sons to carry on his name. But this is how God works, and now his name is written in history," she said.

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