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Saturday 23 August 2014

The Dubliner who fought Gadaffi

Sam Najjair's memoir relives his summer fighting for freedom in Tripoli

Don Lavery

Published 08/09/2013 | 05:00

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Battle zone: Housam 'Sam' Najjair, in Libya after he joined the rebel forces fighting against the Gadaffi regime.

An internet cafe in Dublin seems a strange breeding ground for the birthplace of a revolutionary – but it brought a young man fond of the night life of the city to the white heat of battle.

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It was a transformation that saw Housam 'Sam' Najjair, an Irish-Libyan, move from playing the 'Call of Duty' computer game in Dublin to becoming a deadly sniper in the Libyan revolution in 2011.

Sam was one of several Irish-Libyans to confront the evil of Gadaffi's regime – a journey which saw him rekindle his religion and his self-esteem.

His grandparents were the famous Abbey actors Geoffrey Golden and Maire Ni Dhomhnaill and he was brought up on tales of the War of Independence.

Sam's mother was Joanna Golden who met and married his father Mohamed Najjair when he came to Dublin as a student.

Joanna converted to Islam and was one of the first women in Ireland to wear the hijab.

Sam's life as a schoolchild and adult appears to have been rebellious and confrontational.

He was suspended from school, became a dad but then saw his marriage break up, earned good money in the boom but then spent it easily.

The family had been back and forth to Libya and as a youngster Sam even shook hands with Gadaffi, remembering "the milky softness of his hands".

However, his brother-in-law Mahdi Al-Harati – who also lived in Ireland and who became commander of the Tripoli Brigade in the revolutionary forces – was well aware of the rotten core of Gadaffi's regime.

Gadaffi had been around a long time, he took power in 1969, but for decades had been an international pariah.

By the early 21st Century he was in the process of being rehabilitated. But Gadaffi used aircraft to attack protesters in Benghazi and other cities after the arrest of a human rights campaigner in February 2011.

After much bloodletting the UN Security Council authorised a no-fly zone and air strikes to protect civilians.

With social media playing such a large part in the Arab Spring, young Irish-Libyans followed the developing war on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter in internet cafes .

Sam, whose younger brother Yusef and brother-in-law had gone to join the rebels, saw video clips of people being murdered by their own security forces.

His mother rang asking was he going – and when he heard Gadaffi had supplied Viagra to foreign mercenaries to help then rape women, he said: "It became too much to bear."

He explained: "My life had been trapped between opposites.

"I was Sam, I was Housam, I was Irish and Libyan, Western, Muslim, father, childless, partnered, single, good, bad.

"I needed a showdown between all of these opposing forces in my life to achieve some kind of balance and then along came the revolution – Libya's chance to sort out its problems and my chance to do the same."

He travelled to Tunisia and crossed into Libya to join the Tripoli Brigade after basic training. It was a rag-tag army with little equipment and training, relying on dubious arms suppliers and captured vehicles and weapons to wage war.

Sam recounts how one rebel armed with a knife attacked a tank, killing all the crew. Sam later became a skillful sniper, armed with a much-prized Romanian PSL rifle.

As the 1,400 strong Brigade headed towards Tripoli, Sam took part in many desperate firefights with superior Libyan forces.

Shortly afterwards, he killed his first soldier but said: "I had no time to reflect on my feelings about my first direct hit." As the hotch-potch of 4x4s advanced, they came under fire at a bridge.

Under fire, Sam got on top of a flyover and raised their flag shouting: "Allah Akbar."

Buoyed by his courage the column again headed towards Tripoli and when he saw them, he said: "It was the most exhilarating feeling I ever had in my life."

Among the first rebels to enter Martyr Square, Sam and his comrades again fought for their lives but secured the city.

Even though fellow rebels had been killed left and right of him, Sam was "completely bullet hardened" and felt if death was his fate then so be it.

He also became an angry interrogator of Gadaffi loyalists and mercenaries.

At one stage he admits he held his knife to the eyeball of a man to get him to talk, and in another incident fired blank bullets from an AK-47 at a prisoner.

In his simply told but riveting account, he said it would be tempting to leave out such stories, "but it's important for people to understand the forces at work".

For Sam those forces are still at work – and after the Libyan revolution he has found a new battleground – Syria.

WAR Soldier For A Summer Sam Najjair Hachette Books Ireland, €18.70

Don Lavery is a writer on security and defence affairs.

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