Africa

Fallen hero of Libya's final battle

Commander Lameen
Image caption Commander Lameen was liked and respected by his men

The capture of Colonel Gaddafi and the fall of his home city of Sirte follows a nine-month struggle fought largely by civilian volunteers, but what was it that made them prepared to take up arms and risk their lives, asks Jonathan Head who was recently in the city.

It was the opening day of what we now understood was the final battle for Sirte.

The road running south of the town was packed with tanks, trucks and fighters. The air shook with the blast of guns and mortars. But the only way to reach the town was across a stretch of dangerously exposed rough ground.

This was the job given to the brigade we had got to know in the week leading up to the attack.

It was one of around 70 volunteer units from Misrata, established during the earlier struggle for control of that city. It was one of the better units, thanks to the charisma of its commander, Lameen.

Rare authority

Unlike the other men, Lameen had had some military experience, although he had spent most of his working life, until the conflict broke out this year, in Misrata's giant steelworks.

He was not tall, and walked with a pronounced limp, caused by a shrapnel injury.

But with his growling voice, his thick black beard and glinting eyes, he had rare authority over his men. One barked instruction was usually enough to get them scurrying into action.

He was also instantly likeable, open, hospitable and fun.

But confronted that morning by withering sniper fire, his men baulked at making the dash in their converted gun-trucks towards the first buildings in Sirte.

I was too far back to see what happened next, but they told me Lameen decided he had to set an example by leading from the front.

He was hit twice in the chest, and died in the arms of his close friend, Aziz. He left behind an eight month-old daughter, and his wife, who is pregnant with their second child.

Image caption Aziz's youngest son Mohammed is just a month old

Most of the fighters I met in Sirte were excitable young men, who showed little awareness of the huge risks they took with their lives, not just in their headlong rush to battle, but also from their cavalier handling of all the weapons they had inherited from the Gaddafi regime.

But Lameen and Aziz were not like that.

Both of them were older men, very conscious of their family commitments, and of the pain caused by lost lives. They had endured months of savage street fighting in Misrata. They, surely, were entitled to say they had done their bit, and to leave the battle for Sirte to others.

I spent quite a bit of time with Aziz, who is a former sports teacher, and I asked him about what drove him to keep leaving his family, and head back to the front line. He has got six children, his youngest, Mohammed, is just a month old.

"I can't stop, until this is finished," he said. "I have to see it through. I owe it to all those who have died, and I owe it to our new country."

Patriotic

Many people have been surprised by the tenacity and courage shown by Libyans during their uprising.

One prominent Libyan woman explained it to me like this:

"In your country it's unfashionable to be patriotic," she said, "to care about things like a flag.

Image caption Jonathan Head's grandfather on leave from the war, with his grandmother and mother

"But in Libya, you have to understand that under Gaddafi, we never had a flag or a real country - he made everything his personal project, changing the flag, the political system, even the name of the country - we were just his props. So fighting for this flag, for our reborn nation, really means something to us."

I found it easy to empathise with this view, because I had been re-reading the diary written by my grandfather, who was passing through the same parts of Libya 69 years earlier, with allied forces driving the Afrika Korps westward.

In fact he spent the Christmas of 1942 not far from Sirte, which he describes as largely destroyed by the fighting, and so littered with mines and booby-traps it was difficult for him to explore the town.

He wrote the diary for my mother, his only child, born in the year the war broke out, because he did not expect to survive it, and wanted her to know something of himself, and his thoughts about the world he lived in.

'Guilty of heroics'

He was a man of his times - a staunch believer in the British empire, and the supremacy of Western ideas.

But he also comes across as compassionate, humorous and principled. And he tries to explain to my mother why he - an older man who had had the option of serving his country in the comparative safety of Britain - chose to risk fighting overseas.

Image caption The diary explains why Jonathan Head's grandfather chose to risk fighting overseas

"I am an able-bodied man," he writes, "and I love my country - and I really want my part in her struggle to be as much to the limit of my capabilities as the next man's.

"It's difficult to say or write anything like that without appearing to be guilty of heroics, but that is what I feel and that is the main reason for my action, for I've no more wish to be killed than you have."

My grandfather went missing, presumed killed, in 1943.

I do not know what memories Commander Lameen will leave for his young children, but I hope they come to know something about him, and his motives for putting himself in harm's way.

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