Hisham Belhaj, 31, grew up in Denmark, where his father was in exile. (Eric Kampherbeek took the picture of him above.) He returned to Libya ten years ago. When Benghazi rose up against the regime, Hisham joined other Tripolitanians in his neighbourhood and took to the streets. Gaddafi’s army shot them with a “14.5”, named for the large-caliber shells that come from Russian-made KPV anti-aircraft guns. Belhaj kept turning up on the street, and kept getting shot at. He put his wife and three girls, aged between one and five, into his car and they drove to the Tunisian border. His name was on a wanted list, so the family crossed without him. Then he ran, with Gaddafi soldiers shooting at his back, into Tunisia, where border guards protected him.
He left the family in Tunisia and crossed back into Libya’s Western Mountains. In Nalut, he was handed an AK47 and given a month’s training. Hisham killed at least 14 regime troops from the back of a technical. His ultimate commander was Abdul Hakim Belhaj, and under his direction Hisham was one of the first rebels into Gaddafi’s Bab al Azizia compound. He was there for two days, losing contact with his family, who were told that he had been killed. They only learned that he was alive when Hisham knocked on the door of the Tunisian house they were staying in.
He invited us to his home in Tripoli (where I took the picture above yesterday). The guns are his Kalashnikov and FN FAL, the Belgian-made semi-automatic rifle that Qatar passed to rebels during the war. Afterwards, we went to Bab al Azizia — Hisham is helping to secure it and open the tunnels beneath it. I had my headlamp with me and Hisham had a torch and we spent an hour exploring the vast subterranean labyrinth Gaddafi had built: the colonel knew his day would come.
Hisham told me the best snipers he faced were Serbian women. A Nigerian woman they caught, who’d been shooting at them during a battle in the Western Mountains, said she’d become a Gaddafi mercenary to raise money for Haj — a common excuse, apparently.
Each time he leaves home Hisham’s eldest daughter, whose name is tattooed down his arm, begins to cry. “She understands,” he said. “The other two are young.” Today or tomorrow, Hisham will head southeast to join the battle for Bani Walid, which he and others think will be one of the bloodiest and most dangerous yet.