Fatal Inaction

04.21.15 7:00 PM ET

My Libyan Friend Didn’t Have to Die

The corruption and incompetence of Libya’s “leaders” and the world community has spawned a massive migrant flow into the deadly Mediterranean—and killed my young friend.

My friend Ahmed was killed Monday in Sabratha, Libya, at the age of 22. To most Libyans, this fact would hardly raise an eyebrow; they have become so used to youthful deaths. Three Libyans I got to know during the 2011 revolution have been killed in the last year, but Ahmed was the only one to pick up a gun. The others were assassinated by terrorists in Benghazi.

Ahmed died fighting for what I regard as a terrible cause, on the side of “Fajr Libya,” the Islamist militias who seized Tripoli in August 2014. Most politics in Libya is local, and the people of Sabratha threw in their lot with Fajr. From Ahmed’s standpoint, he was defending his hometown, a picturesque coastal city featuring some of Libya’s most spectacular Roman ruins. It is also one of the ports where migrants are crowded onto boats trying to get to Europe or die, as thousands of them have done. These are the wages of chaos.

Sabratha is a conservative place with a jihadi streak—lots of men from there fought with the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, and when I visited from time to time in 2011 and 2012, I saw more and more women in full-face veils on the well-groomed streets. But Ahmed wasn’t a political guy. Like other Libyans, and like Americans in our Civil War, he fought on the side of his relatives and neighbors.

This young man’s death is part of a uniquely Libyan tragedy. If the Libyan government hadn’t spent 2012-13 funding every militia in sight to the tune of an estimated $2.6 billion, Ahmed would most likely have chosen a different way of life. But Libyan politicians did fund the militias, fearing that otherwise they’d turn against the government. Even when they did turn against the government, they still paid the fighters.

And Ahmed was a naturally talented soldier. After dropping out of high school to work as a fisherman, he found himself in the revolution. He was an ingenious tinkerer and when I met him in a training camp for Sabratha revolutionaries in July 2011, he was a skinny, shy kid with a big smile who told me he wanted to be an inventor. But he also loved war and was both cunning and a born leader. Just after I met him, he captured seven of Muammar Kaddafi’s soldiers without firing a shot.

After Kaddafi was killed, I introduced Ahmed to a general in the Libyan Army who told him that if he went back to finish high school he would help him get into the military academy. But Ahmed didn’t like school and he was making good money for not much work as a thuwar, or revolutionary. Life isn’t difficult in Libya: housing is cheap, food is cheap, gas is cheap. He was also just 19, high-spirited and ready to enjoy freedom for the first time in his short experience. He loved working on cars, fishing, driving fast on Libya’s empty highways, not worrying about Kaddafi’s police everywhere.

In the fall of 2011 Ahmed took me to see his parents and sisters, who lived in a big house in a palm grove: quiet, respectable people. I think I met his older sister, married with kids. Then, in April 2012, Ahmed was in a terrible car accident in Tunisia. His older, married sister had been killed; Ahmed was in a coma for days. He had been at the wheel, taking her for to visit a doctor as many Libyans do in Tunisia.

People have choices about how to react to tragedy. Ahmed could have decided to go back to school and devote his life to designing systems to improve car safety. Or persuading Libyans to use seat belts; his sister probably would have survived the accident if she’d been using one, but almost no Libyans do.

Ahmed’s reaction was to plunge into frivolity. When I saw him again in August 2012, he had bought a Jetski with a bonus payment he got for being a revolutionary. But he could barely walk, his legs had been so broken in the car accident. His older sister’s husband re-married just two months after her death, infuriating Ahmed’s younger sister.

Ahmed seemed sad that August. He was a kind and gracious host to me, a very Libyan characteristic, but I didn’t see how he would get over what had happened to his sister, and I also felt angry at him on her behalf.

That was my last trip to Libya. In 2013 I heard Ahmed was going to get medical treatment overseas for his legs. And then I lost touch. I tried calling him a couple of times but his phone didn’t work, which happens a lot in Libya. I hoped his bad legs would keep him out of the civil war.

It seems they didn’t. Ironically, I got in touch with both Ahmed and one of his brothers on Facebook just a day before Ahmed’s death. Ahmed sent me his new Libyan phone number. I was relieved he’d survived so far—and the war was drawing to a close.

When Libyans die, even terribly young, the accepted reaction is to post fatalistic quotations from the Quran on their Facebook page. From God we come and to God we return, and so on. But in the case of most Libyan deaths I know, this fatalism is not in order. Something could have been done. All too many of these deaths are preventable.

Stupid, selfish politicians created the conditions which made fighting the best economic choice available to someone with Ahmed’s inclinations and talents. Ahmed was enough of an outlier not to fit in to Kaddafi’s Libya, and typical enough to fit into the militia culture that followed. And by and large, the West stood by as Libya committed suicide by militia in the last few years.

Things might have gone very differently for Ahmed had there been tech incubators in Sabratha rather than militias. Or a new U.S.-organized military academy with exciting engineering courses. Or if the West had pressured Fajr’s foreign funders, the Qataris and Turks, to stop buying weapons for the militias.

Ahmed was a big-hearted, immature young man in a big-hearted, immature democracy: a run of the mill Libyan tragedy. I miss him.