08.29.111:08 PM ET

Gaddafi's Unwilling Army

The Libyan dictator's family has fled to Algeria as his regime nears an end. Babak Dehghanpisheh talks to the coerced, brainwashed, and bribed young Libyans who have been fighting the rebels.

Nesrine Ferjani, 19, doesn’t look like a killer. With her delicate features and blue and gold scarf, the petite teenager wouldn’t be out of place in a high school classroom. But her life took an unexpected and tragic turn a year ago when her family had a bitter dispute with a member of Muammar Gaddafi’s feared Popular Guard militia. The quarrel could have blown over but the Guard member was out for revenge: Ferjani was forcibly taken away from her family, she says, and enlisted at a Guard camp near Gaddafi’s Bab Aziziya complex.

As the battle for control of Tripoli raged last week, Ferjani says she was forced to fight. At one point during the chaotic firefights, government soldiers rounded up a number of rebels beneath a tree and gave her a deadly ultimatum. “They told me to shoot the people or they would shoot me,” Ferjani says with her breath quickening. She pauses a moment before continuing. “I did shoot.” At the recollection of her actions, Ferjani’s face twists into a grimace and her eyes fill up with tears.

As the violence begins to ebb around Tripoli, a picture is beginning to emerge of the individuals who, willingly or unwillingly, fought to save the regime in its last days, even as the Saharan madman and dictator was making his escape. With Gaddafi on the run, the future of the country largely depends on how the rebels now treat these former regime loyalists. Can they keep their impulse for revenge in check and push toward reconciliation instead? The life of Ferjani and hundreds of others hangs in the balance.

When the rebels overran Ferjani’s fighting position in Tripoli last week, she knew she was in trouble. Ferjani jumped out of a second story window to escape. Now, Ferjani and roughly two dozen other wounded fighters are being treated at the Mitiga hospital in Tripoli. Armed guards are posted in their wing, ostensibly to prevent them from escaping but the bigger risk is a revenge attack on the wounded regime loyalists. Ferjani alone is thought to have killed sixteen people, says a medical resident at the hospital who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject. For the moment, there’s no sign of ill treatment: the patients’ rooms are clean and both nurses and doctors regularly make the rounds.

Among those being treated now at Mitiga are some true believers. Faraj Mohammed, 20, is from Sirte, Gaddafi’s hometown, and he joined a pro-government militia six months ago, shortly after the uprising kicked off. There was a heavy government recruitment drive at the time and many young men were getting bombarded with government propaganda. “They said ‘Go to fight the rats,’” says Mohammed, a tall man with curly hair and long, thin fingers. “We thought Gaddafi was winning. I had no idea about the real situation.” Gaddafi has long showered his tribesmen in Sirte with favors, doling out cars as gifts and building roads, bridges and a modern airport while neglecting more unruly parts of the country, like the city of Benghazi in the east. So there’s little surprise that support runs high in Sirte.

After signing up, Mohammed was sent to a base in Tripoli where he learned how to fire and clean an AK-47. In the middle of intense fighting last Wednesday, he was hit in the left leg with an anti-aircraft round. An elderly rebel fighter came across him and almost executed him on the spot but Mohammed convinced him to take him to a hospital instead. Looking back at the past six months, Mohammed says he would never have fought if he knew the rebels were fellow Libyans but his support for Gaddafi hasn’t wavered. “I regret fighting,” he says. “But if I had a choice I would want to go back to the Gaddafi regime.”

Other recruits joined the fight for money. As the only son in a poor family, Ibrahim Fathi, 18, saw an opportunity when a widespread military recruitment drive kicked off in Tripoli at the beginning of August. He was promised 100 dinars a month in the military, a fortune for Fathi. His family begged him not to sign up but Fathi did anyway. “I didn’t care if Gaddafi stays or if he wins or loses,” Fathi, a broad-shouldered young man with a soft voice, says. “I just cared about the money.” It was a difficult decision: one of Fathi’s cousins had fought with the rebels in western Libya and had been wounded. He could now be squaring off against other young men just like his cousin.

When the rebels blew into Tripoli last week, Fathi tried to escape. He was looking for a cell phone to call his family for help when a rebel patrol caught up with him. He raised his hands to signal his surrender and began saying the shehada, a Muslim declaration of belief that’s often recited before death. “After I surrendered they shot me,” he says, looking around nervously. “I had no weapon in my hand.” Fathi is now receiving treatment at the Mitiga hospital for the gunshot wound to his right foot. Asked if the rebels shot any other unarmed prisoners, he nods and vigorously rubs a set of silver prayer beads.

Ahmed Wali, a burly 27-year old rebel supporter wearing a checkered scarf around his head, walked among the wounded regime loyalists at Mitiga hospital on Sunday. He talked to Mohammed, the fighter from Sirte, to figure out why he fought. “I feel he’s brain-washed,” Wali said, after the conversation. “He should see what Gaddafi really did to people.” Still, Wali is optimistic about the chances of reconciliation despite the deep divisions in the country. “This is the first time in my life I’m seeing Libyans come together,” he said. “If I saw [Mohammed] on the street, I would treat him like a brother.”