Photo by: Malcolm Mc Gettigan
Sam Najjair works in insurance now, but four years ago he had a very different occupation.
His book is Soldier for a Summer.TRANSCRIPT
Sam Najjair – Soldier
“Do you not recognize who we are? We are the cause of your worry, of you and your family leaving in a hurry. Do you not recognize who we are?
We are those who leave you sleepless, that screaming voice that never ceases. Do you not recognize who we are?
We are warriors for a cause, without any doubt, the cause of your destruction, you dirty coward. Men you could measure on every scale, not rats like you called us; our story will tell that you didn’t recognize who we are.”
* * *
My father was a student, and my mom – she was just out of college at the time, as well. They met in a restaurant in Dublin, and my mom heard my dad talking from a distance about Islam. She’s been very active in the papers, talking about women’s rights in Islam. She kind of like shouted over, “Oh yeah, you all just treat your women like rubbish, and you’re all just very degrading to your women” etc. etc. My dad just said to her, “Listen, if you really want an answer, it’s gonna have to be from a Muslim woman. I tell you what: why don’t you go and talk to them yourself, see what they say to themselves and you can make your own judgment from there?” She went to the mosque, she met them. In her own words, it’s like “I went there to liberate all these poor women from their chains of oppression.”
She said she sat down the first time and was taken aback by how generous, kind, open and how warm they were towards her. So she went the second time, the third time… She just realized that she was totally wrong. She was in contact with my dad, got together and got married, and she became a Muslim herself then after.
I’m born and raised in Dublin, a normal guy like everybody else. I laugh, I cry, I listen to music… Growing up here, I was known as Sam. I am Houssam Najjar. I am half-Libyan, half-Irish.
There was a bit of an identity crisis at some stage. It was nearly like having two personalities. Sometimes you would have to suppress one to enjoy the other. I always used to call it like Windows in Mac, having to deal with my two cultures. By nature I’m more sociable, I like to mix with the guys, the girls, have fun, go out, do all those kind of things, yet I had been raised as a very good, young Muslim boy. I rebelled, yeah, I rebelled big time…
What does rebelling mean?
Rebelling meant leaving the house at 16 years of age, living around the corner with a babysitter… It’s like something out of a soap opera, you know? You don’t get this in Coronation Street, you know?
How old was the babysitter?
She was 20 odd. So I moved in with her… It wasn’t even that far, it was only around the corner, so it wasn’t even a proper effort of an escape, you know? But the first time I ran away, they were like, in tears and looking for me, stuff like that. The second time I chanced my luck again, and they were like, “Oh, whatever. You’re gone – you’re gone.”
My dad was very tough. He was one of those real tough, old-school kind of fathers. If you watch Robert De Niro in A Bronx Tale, he was something like that. He was kind, nice, and stuff, but he was tough, and he had his moments.
I just about finished my studies, and I went to work in a restaurant, just to make ends meet. It was all Lybian-owned – it was a Lybian owner of the building, and Lybian guys who were running the business. And those guys who were running the business I was working with, they suddenly had to go. The owner didn’t want to be left with these premises and all the equipment etc. and now just close down. So he offered it to me, and I was only 19 years of age. Of course, 19 years of age, no parents to tell you what to do, and a girlfriend at that stage as well… I was making a lot of money and spending a lot of money. Drinks, girls, going crazy – all that kind of stuff… Just living it up, big time. Too much money for my age, do you know what I mean? I was pulling in something like a thousand pounds a week. That’s good money now, never mind back then.
At this stage, when I was about 20, 21, still happened to be fallen out with the parents… While I was in the restaurant my cousin contacted me and said, “Come over for my brother’s wedding, in Lybia.” Now, I hadn’t been there for ten years, I hadn’t been since I was a child. I told my girlfriend at the time, “I’m going for two weeks and I’ll be back.”
The people were actually struggling at that time, really badly struggling, and struggling because of him. It was the embargo at the time, no foreign goods whatsoever. It meant everything that was foreign was sky high. I remember one of my cousins, who had really been kind to me and looking out for me, he was like, “Poor you, over in the heat, living this crap with us… Here’s this box of Corn Flakes.” I’ll never forget it, but like something special, a box of Corn Flakes… And the Corn Flakes was like 20 dinar, when a wage for the month was 300 dinar, so it was really like a day’s work.
I enjoyed the two weeks, and I’m having fun, and everything’s good and so forth, but then I said, “Okay, now it’s time to go back.” I went to look for my passport, and my passport was gone. A month passes, two months pass, three months pass, I searched everywhere, did everything… I said, “Listen, somebody must have taken this.” My cousins were like, “What? We don’t know… What?” all that kind of lark… So my dad was putting word across to say to my cousins over in Libya, “Get rid of his passport, because he’s just running amok over here.” They were probably worried that I was going to get that girl pregnant. Those two weeks ended up becoming two years.
If the circuitry in a Mac motherboard goes a certain way to get to a certain folder, and Windows goes a different way to the same folder – that’s exactly what it’s like between your Irish culture and your Libyan culture. For example, in Libya, I was getting into the car with a tank top on and shorts, I was picking up some cousin’s girls, and stuff like that… My cousin had to sit me down and said to me, “Listen, you’re not in Europe now. It’s different, more conservative. You can’t be sitting in a tank top here, looking like a surfer boy or something like that, with a bunch of girls in the back of the car.”
What were you doing for work?
I worked in a diamond jeweler’s and I worked in a travel agency. A travel agency… There was no travel industry in Libya, yet here we were… It was one of Gaddafi’s right-hand men, one of his son-in-laws who was very wealthy had come out with this idea of a travel agency, but it was always just a show… So we will be basically giving them the five-star treatment, showing them what Libya had to offer. So they’d come over, we’d have a fleet of black beamers, put them up in the best hotels, and some of them probably were shocked and didn’t even realize they’re gonna get such treatment.
Gaddafi had this group called ‘the cleansing unit.’ What they meant by ‘cleansing’ was it was a financial police. He basically had his own book of law, and in that book of law he had come out with all these mad, crazy… He could just wake up in the morning, think of something, and that will become law. And one of them was called “From where did you receive this?” meaning you can’t own two houses. Everybody can, can’t they? You can inherit it; you can have your own home and then you inherit another home etc. In Libya, no. In Libya, if you’re part of the regime, yes, you can. But if you’re just about going about your business, then the other parts of the regime would come up and force that law on you, and say to you, “Unless you live in the building, it gets taken off you.” So you can imagine how many of the wealthy, original people of the land that had all these properties through their families etc., all got their properties taken off them.
Everything happens for a reason. That journey solidified my connection with the people, because there are so many half-Libyan/half-Irish here. Hardly any of them went. Hardly any.
Two years I spent over there, that’s two years I was delighted to get my new passport. I got back here and picked up from where I’d left. Got back with that girl, that girl became the mother of my only child. Becoming a parent is life-changing. I raised her to the best of my ability, but myself and her mother weren’t working out. She had converted to Islam. She knew that I was moderate, like I was in no way fully practicing it, but she got immersed in it. I always said to her at the time, I said, “You know, I love you for who you are, and it doesn’t make a difference to me,” and she convinced me that this was what she wanted. And she resented me over it; even though it wasn’t me, she resented me.
Her parents obviously hated my guts then, and when we split up it was a very messy kind of split-up. I went to the courts here probably about over 30 times, 35 times over a four-year period. Without saying too much publicly, if the mother for example doesn’t want to have the father in the child’s life, and is willing to make up any story to back it, it’s a very hard road for the father, especially if there’s no marriage. We’re not given automatic guardianship rights. All you’d have to say is something like, “I’m afraid that he might run away with the child and not come back.”
I went a very long time without seeing Laila. I went on a war path myself… I lost my partner who I’d been with for years, lost my child now as well, I had no access to her, and so I went heavy on the drink and the craziness, wanting to hit the bottom of the barrel. Just wanting to be lifted out of the gutter.
Again, everything happens for a reason. Again, if I had Laila in my life at the time, maybe I wouldn’t have went. Two things have changed me as a man: becoming a father, and surviving a war.
* * *
In January 2011, the Arab Spring was just barely starting. The first spark of the Arab Spring was a man, Bouazizi, who set himself alight…
This was in Tunisia…
In Tunisia, yeah. He was like the catalyst of it all.[His closest friends, anguished by Mohamed’s actions, took to the streets and began a popular uprising that lasted for weeks before it toppled the 23-year ruler, president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali]
Tunisia was already after the events in Egypt started to kick off.[I’ve been out all day on the streets of the Egyptian capital. There’s tear gas in the air, and people of all kinds are demanding the end of the regime.
“It is the time for the European Union to support Egypt, the Egyptians, not the president of the regime.”]
One of the lads said, “Do you know what it would be like if something like that’s gonna happen here?” And one of the other lads said, “That’ll never happen here. He’ll crush anything.” And he’s right… We all went, “Yeah, you’re right.” Because we knew Gaddafi.[background noise; people rioting]
That’s when the revolution kicked off in Libya.[The wave of discontent is rippling across the Middle East, is now surfacing in Libya…]
First of all in Benghazi, in the East, and then in other cities.[Demonstrators set a police station on fire in the Eastern city of Albayda…]
We were glued to the screens here… I lived in Portobello, and down below me there was an internet shop owned by a Libyan guy. The rows of the machines were full of Libyans, and we’d all have the earphones on, and we’d be like, “Did you see this? I’m gonna send it to you.” “Did you see that? I’m sending it to you.” And the amount of videos coming out was like as if you were there.
First of all, it was the guy with the placard in the middle of the square. He’s on his own, standing and going “We want the end of the regime.” That was never… You couldn’t even… Even crazy people were not allowed to do that. Even crazy people that would have a mental disorder, that might go out and go “Oh, screw Gaddafi,” or something like that – he’d be gone. You wouldn’t see him again.
* * *
The East had liberated itself completely from the regime. Tripoli was still under the thumb of Gaddafi, and so were so many other cities in the West. My brother-in-law, Ahmed, he was married to my sister. My brother-in-law made his way to Sudan, and from Sudan made the journey through the desert to the East of Libya. His idea was to form a brigade from the sons of Tripoli, because eventually the goal is Tripoli, and what better way to enter Tripoli than with its own sons? He formed a brigade called the Tripoli Brigade.
I’m from Tripoli. I’m half-Dublin, half-Tripoli, capital city boy. I was sitting in that internet cafe, just after watching the video clip of a woman being raped by mercenaries – foreign voices, foreign accents. Her screams just resonated in my ears; it was as if she was a family member. That’s when I started realizing that he’s gonna do anything to hold on to power. So I thought if there’s any way to that I can help, or if there’s anything that I can do, then I’m gonna do it. You know, I have to do it. I remember my mother saying to me, “You know, son, now you’re gonna realize what you’re made of, as a man.” And she was so right.
Did you tell your dad, as well?
Yes, he was like, “See, son? That was all those beatings I gave you as a kid. They toughened you up and made you a strong man, you see?” It was his kind of blessing for it, “It’s my good doing. You see, it’s my raising you up tough that made you the strong man that you are.” Classic old-school dad… You know, he was a proud etc. you know.
* * *
Four months into the revolution at this stage, and Tunisia calmed down again, so I went over. There was gas in the air when we arrived in the airport, and the Sunway travel advisor was like, “Would you want to go on a quad bike adventure?” I said, “If only you knew where I’m going right now… I don’t think any quad bike adventure is gonna come close.”
We drove through Tunisia and crossed across a small countryside border called Wazen. Even driving through the landscape, you had to drive through places like Tatooine, from the movie Star Wars. When we arrived at the border there was a bunch of shells and spent missiles. Of course, it was in revolutionary control when we were going through, but you could see the scars of the battle, where the Gaddafi loyalists tried numerous times to retake it.
We arrived at this old secondary school, we had taken as a base. I went in, got myself in one of the rooms; 8-10 guys per room, and each room had such a mixture of people… Usually, I hung around with people that were either a bunch of rich people, or I hung around a bunch of poor people, religious, non-religious… But this was like, you know, you could nearly pick one from every background and you could put them in a room and see them getting on and chatting, and having a laugh.
The first morning we got up for the Fajr prayer, which is the dawn prayer. Somebody was walking down the corridor banging a pot, or something, and it was time for the dawn prayer, people have to get up out of their sleep. Now, I wasn’t really practicing beforehand, but when we were there, obviously, there were people who were praying all the time, and I felt guilty, so I became part of it straight away. After the prayer, I was sitting down up against one of the walls, and I could see a guy… Everyone had gotten up out of their places after the prayer, except this one guy; he was sitting, kneeling down in the same spot and he was bawling his eyes out, crying.
I was looking at him for a while, I sat down and leaned up against one of the walls and I was looking across at him, and one of the guys who had traveled with me, who became my friend, came and sat down beside me and I said, “Why is that guy crying?” He said to me, “Police from Tripoli and a bunch of loyalists raided his house last night looking for him, and they’ve scared his mother up so bad that she died.” I remember going over to him and I gave him a hug. A queue had formed, of people who were going over to him, giving him a hug. I said to him, “Your mother is like my mother, and I’m so sorry to hear that.” This was the first time, I knew from then that all these guys were subsequently going to be like my brothers. Their families were going to be like my families, and what happened — their destiny was the same as mine.
I remember coming in on one of the days, there was a beautiful sniper rifle that was standing up against the wall. I ran straight over to it and I was looking at it, “Wow this is really cool.” Even before the war I had this thing for the sniper role within a war. Even as a kid I had Quasar — something like a laser game. There’d be guys running around shooting, and stuff like that, but I’d be the guy that would be hidden somewhere, and while the unsuspecting guys would run by, I’d be shooting and I’d have a huge headcount by the end. Plus, there was the fact that I was so cautious about collateral damage, I was so cautious about innocent deaths, and how I would ever feel if I did kill anyone innocent by chance. I always felt that that was another way for me to eliminate that. Being a sniper is more personal, you can see the definition of a person’s face when you shoot at them, never mind just praying about it from afar. So I said, “Listen, I want that gun. I’ll train hard for it, I’ll do what needs to be done.”
There was all this other stuff that was going on. We were meeting up with covert operatives, Western operatives from America, from France. It’s not every day that you meet these Navy SEALs, and they’re wanting to hear what you have to say, and you’re trying to give them as much information as possible to help what you’re doing. There were certain times as well where I would meet with them and give them the locations of enemy targets, and you’d hear the next day that they’ve been hit. These were all things that you’re saying to yourself, “I’m being a part of this. I’m just a normal person, but here I am, guiding air strikes and all kinds of stuff.”
Then, of course, the battles began.
The whole day they were just spraying heavy artillery, mortar rounds, missiles… A few of our guys were getting hit, mortars were landing and one of the guys got decapitated from a mortar round… It was 12 o’clock in the day at this stage, the sun was beating down on us really heavy; I’d drive up to guys and there’d be white froth on their mouths. I was coming and going from every part of the battlefield. I had a bunch of guys in my jeep, when we first arrived to the battlefield, and I’d let them out, and they started to creep their way up to the very front, past the heavy guns, past everything, like reconnaissance.
And while I was doing what I was doing around the battlefield, I drove up to Maddy one of the times, and Maddy said to me, “Don’t advance any more, don’t go too far, because we’ve got news that the tanks are going to pull out any minute; they ran out of ammunition.” And I immediately thought of my guys, I said, “Oh my god, what about my guys?” He said, “Where are they?” and I pointed over at a small outhouse, a good mile away at least. That outhouse was the only building between the barracks and us, where we were. I said, “They’re probably there at this stage. I have to go over to them, I have to get them.” He looked at me as if to say, “Are you crazy?” I said, “Well, I have no other choice. Don’t try and stop me, this is something that I have to do, it’s my men.” And he said to me, “Okay, go ahead.” So one of the guys jumped in with me and we drove around the battlefield, and every time I came up out of a dip, up on the top of a hill, bullets were whizzing over my head. Then I’d go back down again, in the safety of the lay of the land; then I’d be up again, because there was no choice… You’d go up again and the bullets would be whizzing by. These bullets are like the size of a bottle of coke, something like that, they’re designed to hit airplanes.
I started zig-zagging from left to right with the jeep, as I was going through the sand. We got to the building, did the handbrake up, locked right up against the wall. I could see my guys at that building, they were like, “Are you crazy? What are you doing coming out here in the jeep?” I explained the situation, I said, “We have to go.” All hell broke loose in that very moment. The bullets were hitting the walls, they’re starting to make cracks, and some bullets were actually making it in. I remember talking about what we should do next, and saying “Come on, we have to get out of here.” A bullet came across and hit the sand from the side, so basically that meant was it wasn’t coming from in front of us anymore; they were trying to flank us. We just looked at each other and we knew… We jumped into the jeep, about nine or ten of us, zoomed my way back. When I got back to the rest of the group, our group wasn’t able to really retreat now either, because they knew where we were now at this stage. We were in cover with the lay of the land, but as soon as a big convoy starts to leave the lay of the land, we would be like sitting ducks. We had no backup that was willing to help. Basically, we ran out of ammunition in the tanks, so we were basically on our own. We couldn’t move.
Something amazing happened… A dust storm came out of nowhere. You could barely open your eyes, there was sand in your mouth, in your eyes, so the enemy wouldn’t even have seen us retreat, and they would be too fearful to leave their barracks, as well. It was a miracle, the timing of it.
We limped our way back to the brigade that night.
What was it like to know that you could have bullets whizzing around you, and you could actually still think? I would imagine that would be… I mean, for me anyway, that would be a real question, whether or not I could actually just keep going. Your instinct must be to just stay in the ditch and just not come out.
Well, one of the guys that was in our brigade, who was built like a tank, he was muscley, and had a rag tied around his head, he was wearing a tank top, and the muscles are pumping, he’s holding this machine gun. And he’s in this pose, ducked down, and I’m driving by just to get the water. He shouts over, “Commander Sam, Commander Sam! What’s it like up ahead?” And I was saying to myself, laughing, “Rumble, the battle is two kilometers ahead. These guys were in the middle of the heat of the fire, you know?” Then I said to myself, bravery has nothing to do with your size, nothing to do with… I’ve seen smallish guys with the hearts of lions, you know? And vice versa. It really rang and struck a chord with me, what my mother had said to me when she was wishing me luck when I left her. She said, “Now, son, you’re gonna find out what you’re made out of as a man.” And she was so right, because I found out, with myself personally, that when the bullets do whizz straight over your head, there’s three options: you either retreat, or you stay where you are, or you brave those bullets and move forward.
“We are Barqa, we’re the flame that burns your heart, that thorn in your side. We never surrender, you must deal with that fact. Do you not recognize who we are?
We are Rijban, we’ll only die with gun in hand, and not far from a battle to gain more land. You will not rule again, not you or your clan. Do you not recognize who we are?
We are Libyans, who like in Tripoli can’t express their feelings, under your armed fist she takes the beatings. Do you not recognize who we are?
We are the ones who rose against you, from Derna and Bayda. We won’t stop until we’re free of you. Benghazi forges men, and I’d just like to see if you ever stop to see who we are.”
* * *
War had been going on for six months at this stage, and we got the orders that we’re going to march into Tripoli. You have to understand, for us, we are the Tripoli Brigade, we screamed it in our own chanting, “Tripoli, we’re coming! Tripoli, be patient, we’re there!” It’s the place that we know. I hadn’t slept properly in about three days, but when we heard about that it’s like somebody injected something into me, like a whole new lease of life, so I was buzzing again. At this stage I had a group of men that would follow my orders. I was ready for this.
It was crack of dawn when we left. The anti-aircraft guns went in first, they were firing away. We were advancing at a slow pace. We got up to a point where the convoy got pinned down. It was a military barracks up ahead, and that military barracks was a famous one, called the Camp 27. They had a big tank with four 32 mm barrels coming out at the front of it, fully automatic, so just basically whacking them out down the road. I drove up all the way to the very front. I’m looking through my scope, and I could see movement. Out of the blue, two big explosions hit the front of the camp, near the tank. Big explosions, not from anything that we had, like mortars or stuff like that. I knew straight away that it was NATO. I looked through my scope again, and I could see loyalists shell shocked. I was looking around me, none of the other revolutionaries had binoculars and stuff like that, and I knew that this was the time to pounce.
So I’ll never forget, I jumped into my jeep, myself and the guys, and I drove out in front of everybody, and in sight was all these guns, they’re reloading and they’re getting prepped to come out and take a shot, but I just drove out in front of them all and headed straight for the barracks. Now, I’m thinking in my mind, “If I drive out and head straight towards this barracks, a few other vehicles would see this and join in.” But I’m driving along, nobody comes behind me, I’m in the middle of the overpass now, and I’m looking back towards my men. I parked the jeep in the middle of the overpass and jumped out with a flag, stood back facing our troops, and put the flag in the air and started screaming at the top of my voice, “Chaaarge!” I’m seeing guys pointing up at the flag, cheering, and then a convoy of vehicles start to make their way to the barracks. Then I threw it in the back of the jeep, and we’re making our way to the end of the barracks, and no more than I turned towards the very end, I’ll never forget – I made the turn and then the sea faced us; it was the first time I’d seen the sea, and I gasped. I think we all gasped, it was beautiful. “Guys, it’s the sea! We’re nearly there, we’re nearly at Tripoli!”
Just as I finished my words, a spray of bullets came straight across the front of the jeep. My automatic reaction, obviously, is to lock the steering wheel, put the foot on the gas, and swerve away. While I’m doing that motion, I hear a slump in the back of the jeep. The guy beside me looks back and he’s like, “Oh no, he’s getting hit! Quick, quick! No way!” I look behind me, he’s there on the back seat with a shot in the head. He was there, gurgling on his own blood, and all these guys that were screaming and shouting the big victory that we’ve taken this barracks. I’m beeping the horn saying, “Get out of the way! Move out of the way! Let’s try and get him out to the ambulance.” We got out to the ambulance, we lifted his body and put him into the ambulance, but I knew he was gone, even though he was alive. I knew he was gone.
I went back over to my jeep and I put my fist through a couple of the windows, and I cried, and I was just so upset. Five minutes ago we were hugging and head butting and laughing, and it was as quick as that and he was gone. It’s as easy as that – one minute you’re there, one minute you’re gone.
You couldn’t be sad for every guy that died, because you’d never survive mentally. We came to the point that we were happy for these guys that made a sacrifice; they were martyrs for a cause.
What was different about this time, because I’m sure you had comrades who had died up to this point, as well?
I did have comrades, but it was just because he was close to me, and because it happened right beside me. I don’t know if I felt a little bit of guilt because I was driving, I don’t know whether it was because I put us in that situation. I lost all fear of… You know, I accepted at that point – if I was to die, I accepted it. We were coming into the gates of Tripoli, we probably kind of lost it a little bit, in a sense.
Just… A sense of calculating everything and taking everything into account, and just went all out, you know? No fear. We got to the outskirts of Tripoli… A guy had said to me, “Commander Sam, are we going to go for Martyrs’ Square, or are we going to Bab al-Azizia?”
Martyrs’ Square is the main square of the city, it’s the heart. Bab al-Azizia is Gaddafi’s major military compound in Tripoli. I felt this huge responsibility – am I making the decision of where this convoy is going? This is history, the capital of Libya is being liberated. All this emotion going through my mind, but I made the decision. I said, “We go for the symbolic gesture, which is Martyrs’ Square.”
As we’re driving through Omar Mukhtar street, the mouth of it opens onto Martyrs’ Square. As I’m getting closer, my foot is getting heavier on the gas pedal, my heart is beating along with the speed of the engine, just as fast… When we got into Martyrs’ Square I drove straight out and into the mouth of the square. Mentally, I could hear all of these guns being cocked and loaded. The whole place started spraying towards us, towards the Omar Mukhtar street.
I jumped out and I took cover, and I looked back towards the rest of the convoy and I was screaming to them, “Take cover, take cover!” While that’s happening, one of my guys shouts over to me, “Sam, we have captured a guy on top of one of the roofs!” He was there and he was captured with his sniper rifle. I went with him to see this guy, we wanted to interrogate him. We got up to the top of the roof overlooking Martyrs’ Square, and there he is – one of my guys has him on a chair, and he’s like “Tell us where they are!” and all this kind of stuff. He puts the AK right up to his head, and then he shoots a few shots right beside his head, just to frighten him, or whatever. I grabbed him and I took him up on the very top of the roof. I started softening him up… You have to give him a few punches, you have to hit him a few times. “Where are the rest of the snipers? Where are you situated? Where are the rest of the battalions? Where is the ammunition base?” And I’ll never forget, I’m hitting him and he fell back and he was out of breath; and I fell back, and I was out of breath, just from hitting him. And it had all hit me then, how exhausted I was.
At this point now, it’s probably about 11 o’clock at night. We had been battling for so long, running for so long… As I sat back on the wall, on the roof, and I sat to myself, “If I could just get even an hour or two…” While I’m just putting my head against the wall, right below me is the battle; I’m hearing the gunshots, and I’m hearing the screams, and the shouting and all that kind of stuff. How can I sleep while my guys are down there fighting? So I walked down, and my shoulder was rubbing along the side of the wall as I was going down. I prepared both of my guns, loaded them back up with all the ammunition and got them ready. As I was walking out of that building I actually came to terms with myself and said, “Listen, you made it to Tripoli. This is enough. I’m happy even if I go now.” I stepped out from the building, and just about to go into Martyrs’ Square, and one of the guys ran over to me and goes, “Commander Sam, Commander Sam, it’s liberated. The square is liberated!” And I’m looking up and around in a daze… “It’s liberated…” So I stepped out and I walked into the middle of Martyrs’ Square, I threw my SMG down on the ground in front of me, and I dropped to my knees, prostrated, like in prayer of thank you, to God. And when I wanted to stand, I couldn’t stand back up. That night I went to a friend’s place, slept…
* * *
I was a soldier up until that point. After that I became part of the security apparatus, protecting the capital, rounding up loyalists, interrogating them, recovering weapons, recovering stolen goods, or money, etc.
There’s an area beside Bab al-Azizia called Abu Salim, and this area is all like high-rise towers, very run down… All the high-rise towers had snipers in them, and they were just popping off revolutionaries unsuspectingly. We had to enter Abu Salim and sort it out. I’m below these high-rise towers and I’m seeing a bunch of our revolutionaries go through the front door of the building. This girl jumps from the second floor balcony, so I ran straight over to her, lifted her up, her pelvis was sore. She was young, she was very thin, very frail, I was able to lift her up easily and carry her back to one of the jeeps. I went to the hospital…
And did you guys talk at all?
Not really, no. There wasn’t much to… I could just see that she was more… She was in pain, she was crying, you know? I brought her in the hospital, and just said to the guys there where I had gotten her from, and all that kind of stuff. About two or three days later they contacted me and said she’s okay now, and “Listen, you can’t just bring people here and just leave them in the hospital without us knowing who or what they are.” So I drove back to the hospital. As I’m going into the corridor, I see the corridor is full of journalists. I’m like, “What the hell is going on here?” What hit my mind straight away was, they’re going in to interview her. Why? One of the guys in the hospital said, “Sam, she’s a loyalist.” Straight away I’m so worried that she’s going to be in this report; I’m worried about her saying something like, “They raped me, or they did something like that to me,” or just any kind of lies. So let a roar out to the journalists, I said, “You’re gonna all have to leave this corridor right now. Nobody’s getting an interview with the girl.” One of them came up to me and said, “On who’s authority?” and I said, “On my authority. I’m the head of security in the hospital right now, and I’m telling you, you all have to leave. Now move it!” I got them out, and as they’re walking out, one of them looks at me with a kind of a smirk on her face and says, “Well, you’re too late anyway. There’s somebody in there already interviewing her.” I went over, banged the door in, and there was a blond woman, I think she was Swedish, just sitting there with her. I walked straight over to her and grabbed the notepad out of her hand, ripped the page off and handed it back to her, and said, “You have to leave now.” She was so scared… I was in military gear and stuff, and she ran out.
One of the revolutionaries was inside in the room while the girl was in for the report, and I asked him, I said, “What’s going on?” He said to me, “She’s admitting to 16 kills.” I looked over at her, and all these faces run through my mind… I said to her, “Why did you kill these people?” She said, “They had me in the window, the loyalists. They were telling me to shoot anybody who came by. Shoot or be shot. And by night they were raping me.” I said, “Why didn’t you shoot away from them, or not kill, or whatever?” and she was like, “I was scared and I didn’t know what to do.” I felt like killing her, but I looked away from her, I went over towards the window and I just gathered my emotions, and I was thinking about everything. I said to myself in my mind, “Ultimately, there is one person that’s responsible for all of this. Responsible for taking this young, 19-year-old girl from her family, training her to become a monster, keeping her in poverty so that she would be hungry, and then luring her to do what she’s doing now.” So ultimately the blame was on him and was on the regime, him and his henchmen. I kind of like redirected all that hatred from her to him. She was like crying, “I want to see my momma, I want to see my momma…” I had to take her from, because the hospital said she’s okay to leave, so I had to take her. I said, “Yeah, I’m gonna bring you to your momma.” I’m driving up, she said, “This is not my momma’s house.” I said, “Listen, you’re not going to your momma. You’re responsible for killing 16 men. This is where I have to bring you now.”
I’m seeing rows and rows of mercenaries being admitted into the prison… We brought her to the women’s new wing, and when we walked up to the cell and they pulled the door back and she was stepping in, two girls that were sitting down in the corner stood up and went over to her, and gave her a hug. They knew each other by first name. That’s when it hit me, that it wasn’t just kill or be killed, guys holding her and all that… She was part of the sniper unit. She was willingly a sniper in his battalions, well before the revolution.
* * *
Do you feel like you could still see the humanity in your enemies? Or was that something you needed to push aside in order to do what you did?
To be honest with you, every… When I used to stroll up and down the prison cells, and I used to interrogate a lot, I had to do a lot of rounding up of mercenaries and loyalists in the aftermath, journalists used to come up to me and say, “Sam, are you okay after the war? Are you feeling okay, is everything alright mentally?” I said, “Listen, I’m fine,” just as I’ve said to you now, I’m fine. The only thing that was getting to me at that point was having to lay my hands on people who had burned seven people alive, or who had raped a whole family, or knowing that I was going out that morning to capture somebody who had massacred ten people. You know, good, young men, just shot them up. So having to arrest them, having to put them in a room, having to sit down and look at them, and having to interrogate them, having to listen to their whimpers – all that kind of stuff really got to me after a while.
While I used to walk through those jail cells it was very rare – and I know it might seem okay, like, seriously, there had to be somebody – but I never ever came across somebody – and I came across thousands of them – I’d never ever came across somebody where I had felt like there was what you were saying there. Most of them were criminals… You know, when you see somebody and you say, “That guy is bad news, he’s a criminal” or “He’s the junky kind, he’s just an evil kind of person,” you know, dirty in their hygiene… The men who were dying for the cause, for the revolution, were some of the best men I’ve ever met in my entire life, and these were men that were dying at the hands of these mercenaries, and criminals.
You have to understand, by the way, Gaddafi, before we had entered the capital, emptied out all the prisons, and gave them all weapons, and told them to run wild and pillage. He did that on purpose. I don’t connect, or have any kind of connection with a man who puts one man in front of the will of his own people. I can’t understand it, no matter what he sings or dances. I’ll never have that kind of understanding where I’ll be like, “I can see where they’re coming from.” Yeah, I can understand they were brainwashed. It’s funny because somebody was saying to me recently, “Okay, but you can’t just paint the revolutionaries in a good brush, and then that’s it.” I said, “Okay, yeah, we had some bad apples.” You know, there’s bad apples everywhere, but it’ll never take away from the purity of the cause; what it was all about will never be tainted by the actions of one, or two, or three, or four.
I’m curious… You were shooting at people, you were doing these things that in any other context outside of war are generally considered very bad. How do you reconcile that? How do you continue being a good person when you were doing these things that in any other context would be considered bad?
To be honest with you, Nick, I don’t see it even outside the context of war, as far as I’m concerned, outside the context of revolution, and I will always differentiate revolution from conventional war. You could say, “How? Why? It’s the same bullets, it’s the same guns, it’s the same everything else.” There’s a reason why I sleep at night every night with no remorse whatsoever, I’m not depressed and I’m not feeling low on myself and down on myself, why I don’t have to deal with any of the PTSDs, and I don’t have to deal with all the other letters – it’s simply because there was never a time I went into a town that we had just liberated where I’d seen women and children’s remains scattered all over the ground from the jets that I’ve fired down on the city before we had made our entry, for it to be later on discovered, in hindsight, that it was all for a bogus reason, and there was no real WMD, and it was oil deals, and it was this and it was that. I never had that. I went over to protect the people from a monster. Yes, I did fire a gun, I did fire missiles, I did fire RPGs, I targeted buildings, I gave NATO locations for them to bomb certain positions that could have taken out a load of men, but there was no collateral damage. Yes, there was resolve in what were determined, but it was very calculated.
I became a sniper simply for the reason that I wanted to make sure that I was on target with every bullet that I shot. If I had killed civilians, I probably wouldn’t be able to sleep at night. And I very nearly did once or twice… I went into a building, I was spraying all these buildings, and one of the buildings – I don’t know why it happened, I didn’t spray in through this white sheet that was covering the doorway. When I pulled away the sheet back, there was this old man that was just lying there, that couldn’t get away from the war and he was stuck there; he had nothing to do with it. And I remember saying to myself afterwards, it was like a blessing that I didn’t shoot in through that door, otherwise he would have been dead, and I would have been in a different place mentally.
What kind of interactions do you have with people back in Ireland now, when they find out… Because I know, generally, the Western bombing campaign was very unpopular there. Do people ever give you shit?
I get mixed reactions over here, of course; you get all kinds. I’ve had heated rows, I’ve had Republicans, like IRA kind of style republicans who would be like, “Oh, Gaddafi was a good man,” because of the whole supplying arms to the IRA. I said, “That’s not a sufficient enough reason for you to support a man who would massacre tens of thousands of people.” Once there was an old man, and he was a staunch republican, probably with IRA ties. Somebody had said to him, “Jimmy, Sam’s just back here from Libya. He was one of the lads that fought against Gaddafi.” And his initial reaction was disgust. I was surprised, because I think it was the first time that it happened that I had gotten that reaction from an Irish person. I was just so used to people saying, “What an amazing feat, what a great job you’ve done!” My family’s roots go way back and deep into the cause against British rule. What I did in Libya, I consider it very similar to what the Irish did. He was saying to me things like “You were played, and the only reason why Gaddafi was taken out was because he was anti-imperialistic.” Okay, you can think what you like about all that, but you have to say to yourself, “Why did the people rise against him?” I told that old man, I told him “Did you know about a massacre that happened in 1996, when he gunned down 1,300 men who were political prisoners, similar to what the men here in the Maze would have been? Can you imagine if the British were to have come out and mauled down and shot down 1,300 men? What kind of massacre would you call that?” And of course, with the drink involved and stuff, it was probably going in one ear and out the other.
* * *
I had to try and transition back to normal life, but the thing is it’s there, and it will always be there in my memories. I do sit down sometimes, behind the desk, and I just, like a little giggle to myself, and I’m saying, “Wow, it’s kind of like surreal now, thinking back.”
How are things going with work? I know you were saying you started to do insurance, right?
Yes, I did. I started in Allianz Worldwide Healthcare. It turns out you guys over in America are the most expensive in the world, because I’m never going over there to break an arm, or anything like that. By God, looking at people’s invoices, how do people survive over there, man? Craziness, man…
* * *
At the end of the day I would love to see this book being adapted into a movie, that would be my dream. I hope it doesn’t have to be one of those movies where the star always has to die… The subject they’re making the movie about is always dead by the time they get around to making the movie about him, you know?
Oh gosh, let’s hope not…
Nick van der Kolk, Host, Director & Producer
Brendan Baker, Producer
Ciara O’Connor, Producer