Teenage mercenary awaits fate for role in murder of civilians
Crowded into an empty classroom which they filled with the stench of unwashed bodies and fear, Col Muammar Gaddafi's defeated mercenary killers awaited their fate.
A week earlier, the men -- Libyan loyalists of the dictator and black African recruits -- had landed at airports throughout eastern Libya and were sent out into the streets to shoot protesters. They murdered dozens before they were overwhelmed by anti-Gaddafi militias.
The mercenary survivors were exhausted, filthy, far from home, and fearful of execution, even though they had been assured by their captor of good treatment.
Fifty of them lay on mattresses on the floor in one classroom alone, with nearly 100 more in the same school building that was being used as a temporary prison. Most looked dazed. Some were virtually children.
"A man at the bus station in Sabha offered me a job and said I would get a free flight to Tripoli," said Mohammed, a boy of about 16 who said he had arrived looking for work in the southern Libyan town only two weeks ago from Chad, where he had earned a living as a shepherd.
Instead of Tripoli, he was flown to an airport near the seaside city of Al-Bayda and had a gun thrust into his hands on the plane. Col Gaddafi's commanders told the ragbag army rebels had taken over the eastern towns.
The colonel would reward them if they killed protesters. If they refused, they would be shot themselves. The result was bloody mayhem.
About 50 people were killed in Al-Bayda and 20 more in a village near the airport. Dozens of anti-Gaddafi militia were killed or wounded during a firefight at the airport where 3,000 local men gathered to attack mercenary reinforcements as they disembarked from a plane.
In Arabic, Mohammed, the young Chadian, tried to explain how he drifted into Libya looking for work, like many sub-Saharan Africans
"I wanted a better life, not war and destruction," he said.
He insisted that he had been treated well since his surrender, with regular meals, and said he hoped he would be allowed to return home soon.
"I didn't really know what was going on. They told me to do these things and I was really scared when the shooting started," he said.
He looked ridiculous, wearing a windcheater indoors with the hood up. He must have wanted nothing more than to get back to life with his goats in Chad. What horrors he had witnessed during his brief career as a militia thug could only be guessed at.
The man most responsible for Mohammed's ordeal -- excepting Col Gaddafi himself -- was being held in an adjoining classroom, with the rest of the Libyan prisoners.
"I am sorry for what happened," said Othman Fadil Othman, a Gaddafi loyalist from the southern town of Sabha. It was Mr Othman who had approached Mohammed at the bus station in Sabha as he rounded up recruits.
"Gaddafi betrayed us all. We were told we were being sent east to stage demonstrations in favour of him. I didn't know there was going to be an attack on the protesters," Mr Othman said
It seemed more likely that Mr Othman was trying to save his skin than tell the truth. A beefy, confident man of 30, with three wives and several children back home, he told us he spent a career as a party organiser in Col Gaddafi's Soviet-style dictatorship.
He worked for the youth wing headed by the dictator's son, Saif al-Islam. Mr Othman still couldn't quite bring himself to condemn the colonel. It was painfully obvious that he was unsuited for Gaddafi's attempt to terrorise his own people into submission.
Instead of being cowed, Libyans were appalled that their dictator was murdering his own people with foreign killers, and they could see that instead of a formidable security operation, Col Gaddafi's ragbag army ran away as soon as protesters fired back.
Horrified and growing in courage at the same time, Libyans all over the east rallied to the protesters' cause.
Beaten and captive, Mr Othman was doing his best to do what political organisers everywhere try to do in a tight corner -- talk their way out of trouble. He oozed unconvincing gratitude for his captors.
"I thought they would shoot me when we were captured," he said. "But they have treated us so kindly."