By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 8, 2011; 8:09 PM
BENGHAZI, LIBYA - Abdullah, a lean young Libyan in a soldierly blue beret, knows he came to the uprising against Moammar Gaddafi one day late. Unlike many members of the Libyan army, he didn't immediately defect to the rebel cause - he surrendered to it, racked with remorse, the morning after he obeyed orders to fire as protesters stormed the gates of his military base.
He hit at least one of them.
"I can still picture his face. He was very young," said Abdullah, who agreed to talk about his experience on the condition that he be identified only by his first name. He sat in a spare room of Benghazi's old courthouse, which now houses the rebels' provisional government. Officials agreed to let him speak but not to be photographed.
Abdullah came to the courthouse the morning after the shooting and turned himself in. "My life was miserable," he said. "I couldn't eat. I couldn't sleep."
Abdullah is one of nearly 40 detainees housed by the rebels in three packed cells. Thirteen are Libyan soldiers who didn't switch sides fast enough. The rest are immigrants from elsewhere in Africa who were arrested out of fear that they might be mercenaries.
Given the state of the rebellion's fledgling justice system, the men are not likely to learn their fates soon. An official at the temporary attorney general's office said the Libyan fighters would face a military trial, but not until the contest for control of the country is over.
For the Africans, most of whom have been cleared of being part of Gaddafi's mercenary army, the future is even less clear. Most were swept up without passports, and the rebel council has no way to get them back to their home countries. But it could be disastrous to release them when tales of atrocities by hired soldiers, whether true or not, have fueled public rage.
"At least they are safe in here," said Sabah Eltwel, a lawyer investigating detainee cases for the attorney general's office. She wears a floral scarf over her hair and a somber black wool coat to protect against the sea wind that rattles the old windows. "If they go outside, the Libyan people would hurt them. It's not safe to have black skin in Libya right now."
One of the foreign detainees, Abdullah Mousa, agreed to be interviewed. Mousa, a 23-year-old construction worker from Niger, entered Libya illegally eight months ago after a 20-day trip across the desert in the backs of pickups.
When the fighting broke out in Libya, he joined thousands of foreign workers fleeing to the borders. But he and two friends were arrested in Benghazi.
"They asked me if I was a soldier," said Mousa, who can hear revolutionary crowds roaring each night in the nearby square. He held out rough and calloused palms. "See, I am just a worker. I did not carry a gun. They take any black person from Africa."
Mousa is in the cell next to Abdullah, the soldier who freely admits to a role in the fighting. But Abdullah said he stayed with the army only out fear for his life. His commanding officer told the soldiers that he would have any man who refused to fight the protesters killed and burned, Abdullah said.
But when the shooting began, he did his best to avoid hitting anyone. "I fired into the air, into the ground," he said. "I was afraid."
Then he saw a protester go down, hit in the leg. He knew the bullet had come from his rifle.
"It was an accident," he said, raising his hands to his drawn cheeks. "I didn't want to shoot a Libyan."
Abdullah says he has been told the protester survived. He hopes that, and the fact he turned himself in, will work in his favor at trial.
In the meantime, he wears a filthy white T-shirt with "Libya Is Free" emblazoned across the chest in Arabic. A wrinkled plastic patch of the red-green-and-black rebel flag is stuck to the back.
"I am part of the revolution now," he said as the guards led him away.