independent

Saturday 19 April 2014

The Irish family who took up arms to overthrow a despot

Patriotic: Dubliner Madhi Al Harati with his wife Eftaima. Inset: her brother Husam Najjair fighting in Tripoli

Six months ago they were living humdrum middle-class lives on Dublin's southside. Husam Najjair was a builder and his brother-in-law Mahdi Al Harati a teacher.

By this week, the Dubliners were leading a brigade of rebel fighters from the west of Libya into Tripoli and all the way to the gates of Gaddafi's heavily fortified compound.

At her home in Firhouse, Mahdi's Irish-born wife Eftaima (28) waited anxiously for news of her husband and Husam, her brother.

Mahdi (39) and Husam (32) are a pair of most unlikely revolutionaries who dropped everything in suburban Dublin to fight for Libyan freedom.

After sporadic contact during the uprising, Eftaima finally got through to Mahdi on a crackling phone line on Tuesday afternoon as the drama of Gaddafi's downfall unfolded.

Having battled his way into the Libyan capital, Mahdi told how his rag-tag rebel army had broken through the first barrier at the famous Bab-El-Azizia fortress.

The green gates of Gaddafi's complex were blasted open after a seven-hour gun battle.

"As I talked to him on the phone I could hear gunfire in the background," said Eftaima. During the civil war, Mahdi, commanding officer of the Tripoli Brigade, had already been injured with shrapnel in his leg in a gunfight in Nalut in western Libya, and the situation was still perilous.

"The real worry for me in these battles was that he would be killed,'' Eftaima told Weekend Review.

So how did Mahdi and Husam, two Dubliners with little military experience, end up fighting their way into the heart of Gaddafi's citadel?

It is a mark of the strength of feeling against Gaddafi in the Libyan community here that these men were prepared to put their lives on the line.

Husam, who was brought up in Rathfarnham with Eftaima and five other siblings, just happened to be in Libya at the start of the uprising in February. "He was over there attending the wedding of one of our cousins,'' Eftaima said.

Surprising reporters on the Libyan front line with his Dublin accent, Husam explained why he decided to stay on to fight.

"I heard there were rapes and oppression. I could not just sit there like a couch potato watching it on the news," said the Dubliner, brandishing a rifle he had only recently learnt how to use.

It was a sentiment shared by many Libyan-Irish people. They could not bear to see their country's fate being played out on news channels.

Soon afterwards, Husam was joined in Libya by Mahdi, who left Eftaima and their kids -- two boys aged 11 and 10 and two girls aged seven and two -- back in Firhouse so that he too could fight.

Mahdi had moved to Ireland 20 years ago having suffered under Gaddafi's oppressive regime as a teenager. He was tortured at the age of 14, because of his family's anti-Gaddafi sympathies. Mahdi and Eftaima met and married in Dublin.

Once in Libya, Mahdi and Husam hatched a plan to set up their own Tripoli Brigade with the aim of liberating the capital. It started with just 15 volunteers, but quickly swelled to almost 600, mostly native Libyans.

Eftaima said: "Those who joined are not military men. They were people like businessmen, shopkeepers and doctors.''

The born-again rebels had to take a crash course in military skills. They learnt how to fight mostly in the heat of battle.

Eftaima said she was not surprised that her husband took command. "He is very much loved and liked by people who meet him. He is a born leader.''

Husam was also apparently unfazed by the sudden necessity to learn the skills of soldiery. "It's not rocket science,'' the Dubliner said. "You just hold your breath and shoot."

He promoted the work of his brigade on Facebook and confessed that he was not always a good Muslim back home in Dublin. "You could say I spent some time at nightclubs,'' he joked.

These unlikely warriors were joined by other rebels from Ireland, including Kareem Salam from Galway.

He said he learnt first aid during a stint with Ballinasloe Civil Defence, and ended up using these skills in the middle of gun battles. Just a year ago he was at the Electric Picnic. This week, he was in a warzone.

Now that the Gaddafi era is over, members of the Irish-Libyan community will have to decide about their futures. For Eftaima, her husband and her brother, it will be a difficult choice.

"My home is in Dublin and that is where I grew up,'' said Eftaima, who has never been to Libya. "I am sure I will go Libya to visit, but I think I will stay living here.''

Eftaima and Husam's father is a Libyan who came to Ireland as a student in the 1970s. He ran a business selling handbags. Their mother, Joanna Golden, is from Blackrock, Co Dublin.

In an emotional phone call to his mother this week, Husam described how he narrowly escaped death as his convoy approached Tripoli. He came under sustained gunfire from Gaddafi's troops and two of his comrades were killed.

Volunteers such as Husam and Mahdi could have turned their gaze away and continued with their comfortable middle-class lives in Ireland but they were determined to help. Now they hope that their country will have a brighter future.

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