For much of this week, a group of local volunteers served food to rebel soldiers - also volunteers - out of a newly renovated restaurant that was built for expats in the oil business. Those foreigners are long gone and the menu now consists of macaroni and a suspicious tomato broth boiling in vats.
Even in Benghazi, with the enemy approaching, their aircraft making sorties over the city most of the week, you could still count on that impulse to do the right thing. There were about a dozen kids hanging around Sami Shakmak's restaurant a few days ago, helping serve the 5,000 meals handed out every day to the soldiers, along with bags of food prepared for families in the city who have run out of money.
It seems typical of human nature that after several disastrous international interventions in the past decade, when one comes along that really is a good idea there is a great deal of hesitation. In the case of Libya, however, the Boys Scouts are right: You can do the right thing or just stand there and watch the old lady cross the street and get hit by a tank.
To many journalists, the faith that people in Benghazi placed in the outside world seemed naive. But after decades of Moammar Gadhafi's violence, corruption and dishonesty there is simply nowhere else to turn. This is a good war, however creepy that may sound.
Having lived through a few years of the war in Iraq, like everybody else, I am extremely skeptical of international interventions, both their methods and intentions. Bombing always goes badly. In the fall of 2002, I was in Basra when an American missile destroyed an anti-aircraft position and sent many to the hospital, others to their grave. In Iraq, even the sanctions were a disaster. As for the invasion, only a self-deluding fabulist like Tony Blair, who still thinks he invaded to get al-Qaeda, could think it was a good idea.
But Libya is different. The Good Guys - that awful trope - are many. The Bad Guys few, mainly a single family. We used to read Christopher Hitchens' articles out loud to each other by the side of our pool in Baghdad and laugh at his ignorance. Ditto Thomas Friedman. But Libya - it's a liberal-hawk dream.
And in Benghazi they are grateful, or will be when the strikes actually come.
Friday evening at the rearguard of the front lines, there was free tea for Canadians from a small group of volunteer fighters sitting in the lee of a pickup, a 106-millimetre artillery canon in the back. The CF-18s, or at least the idea of them, were much appreciated.
In the distance, 20 kilometres away the sounds of an impressive battle came across the desert. Whatever ceasefire Col. Gadhafi was said to be offering did not include the road between Ajdabiya and Benghazi. Had there been air strikes yet? "No - Sarkozy is asleep," said one of the young men nursing a small fire.
Earlier in the morning at the Abollonia cafe, the macchiato and cappuccino, legacy of an earlier, much less popular foreign intervention, were in great demand. It had been a long night of celebration during which more ammo was fired in the air than was probably ever fired at the enemy. Indeed, it has been a long month. Since Feb. 17, when anti-Gadhafi protests started, the people of Benghazi had been hanging their necks out and the noose was tightening.
Beside me at the bar, Rabir Faraj was getting a long espresso as he does twice a day at the Abollonia, which makes downtown Benghazi's best coffee. He was happy, of course. "France is good. It is much easier now." With him was 3-year-old Mohammed, his nephew. Rabir pulled out a cellphone to show me a film. "Mohammed's father, Hashim, was a martyr in the Feb. 17 revolution." Shot six times, Hashim's body lay on a gurney as it was rushed inside the hospital on the small cellphone screen.
It has been a hard few weeks here but whatever the worries, people in Benghazi seemed remarkably calm. It is hard to tell how much is denial, and how much just fatalism. Col. Gadhafi's time is up, they are certain, it was just a question of how many more Libyans he and his family would take with them.
Visits to the "front," a vague notion in desert warfare, were not reassuring and made it pretty clear that without international help of a serious kind, government forces would win. Of course, they still might.
It was these doubts about the rebel army, and much experience of the international community's consistent ability to make the wrong choice, that convinced most journalists to leave Benghazi this week. No one seemed particularly interested in witnessing another Sarajevo.
One day near the "front" we stopped by the side of the road. Some men stopped in front of us with a pick-up and a large gun in the back, the kind of anti-aircraft weapon the rebels fire in the air to scare journalists when you first arrive at a checkpoint. One of them got out wearing a beret, sunglasses and a Scandinavian patterned sweater.
The dress code of the rebel army is varied, ragtag as they say. You see a fair number of Afghan pakools (those iconic mujahedeen hats and no doubt the legacy of earlier jihadi interventions), a lot of berets, and a range of uniforms from "I fought with Rommel" to "I liberated Kuwait but all I got was this faded camo."
The man from the truck spoke a little English with a great deal of enthusiasm. He pulled out what looked like two silver milk cans with fuses on them. "Are those fishing bombs?" "Yes, fishing bombs." "So you're a fisherman?" "I used to be but I stopped a long time ago. Now I am fighting." "Have you used any fishing bombs?" "No - you must be very close for the fishing bombs."
So far, the Revolutionary Army, as they prefer to be called, has not been able to get too close. But that hasn't stopped the shebab, the male youth, from rushing up to the front in large numbers. When I first arrived a few weeks ago, I hired a friend's nephew as a translator. Until then, his parents had kept Abdullah, a 23-year-old engineering student, locked in the house for fear he'd go to martyr himself. Thankfully, it is the tradition here that you cannot become a martyr without the blessing of your parents. But they were not taking any risks.
Benghazi is small and every evening large crowds gather on the sea front to support their very new revolution. The other night, as Abdullah and I moved through the crowds along the waterfront, his friends gathered around. It's amazing how young 23-year-olds look when they tell you how they plan to go and fight. Have they ever fired a weapon? Not exactly, they say, but they're willing to learn. I tried to convince them that Libya would need engineers, not more dead shebab. Their patriotic duty is to live. The youths were unconvinced but a few trips to the front lines at least managed to dim Abdullah's enthusiasm.
On one of these visits a doctor explained to us the enemy's tactics as he took a breather from the fighting. First, soften up a town by firing volleys of 40 to 60 rockets, follow this with tanks and mortars. Obviously, fishing bombs are not that effective in this scenario. However, it turns out they are excellent for celebrating the rumoured victories that sweep through Benghazi every day or so.
At the front, as well as the rear, you hear a lot of complaints about the lack of support from outside Libya. They have a point. You also hear a great deal of support for "President Bush." In fact, "Free Libya" became something of a Red State as the world hesitated.
This would have been a perfect war for the neo-con president. It involves oil, always of great interest. And unlike Iraq, there is no invasion force required, just a few dramatic bombing runs from an aircraft carrier and, well, Mission Accomplished. Nor are there significant tribal factions despite decades of Col. Gadhafi's divide-and-rule policies in an attempt to set the tribes against one another. His own tribe, the Gadafa, are split into four parts only one of which still backs him. Estimates vary, but genuine popular support seems to hover around 50,000 to 100,000 in a country of approximately 6 million. If Libya were Toronto, Col. Gadhafi would have the tribal support of Cabbagetown.
If you have any lingering sympathy for Col. Gadhafi's socialist, anti-imperialism ask yourself what you know about Libya and its rich history going back to ancient Greece. Not much, I'd guess. That's because there is not much left of it. Col. Gadhafi has systematically destroyed what came before him with his brand of Islamo-Maoism. His methods are familiar and weirdly similar to the Italian fascists who once ran the place. Wipe out the indigenous culture. Hang a lot of people publicly. Throw others in prison with no charge or trial for decades. Get family and friends to inform on each other.
Of course, all most of us know about Libya is Col. Gadhafi and his antics, the speeches and the tent and the female bodyguards. And that's the point. He destroyed Libya, burned its books, wiped out any history that didn't suit his interests and then let it slowly disintegrate from corruption, neglect and fear. Like all dictators, he substituted himself and his fantasy life for the state and the people. It's amazing what petrodollars can buy you. The man belongs in Hollywood, not running a country.
One of the reasons people revolted here, especially the young, is that the education is terrible and they had no future. Benghazi, a Mediterranean seaside town in one of the world's richest per capita countries has all the charm of the Albanian Riviera, its sewage pouring into the aquamarine water below the corniche. This week, as if to make the point absolutely clear, Col. Gadhafi bombed the city from the air. For the first time since the American invasion of Baghdad, I kept my sliding door open so that the pressure from explosions would not shatter the glass. Odd, then, to be wishing to hear a few American missiles tossed this way.
But it has been an odd week. Colleagues disappeared in the fighting for key towns but were later released. A camera crew from Al Jazeera was hunted down by a sleeper cell, its cameraman murdered. Libyan friends phone every few hours to check on us, promising to fight to the death.
A few days ago I could not find Abdullah and assumed he was doing what you do at 23 during a revolution - sleep in till noon. When we met up late in the day, he smiled sheepishly as we drove to pick up the usual chicken dinner. "Today, " he said. "I learned to take apart a Kalashnikov." "Can you shoot it?" "That comes later."
Patrick Graham is a Toronto-based writer who covered Iraq for Harper's magazine, the London Observer, The New York Times Magazine and others. He recently co-wrote Afghan Luke, a feature film about Afghanistan, with the producers of Trailer Park Boys.