London teenager drops Wii for gun to join rebels
Sam shifts nervously from foot to foot, his hands gently chopping the air as if to emphasise what motivated him to quit his marketing degree in London, leave his friends behind and head to the front lines in the Libyan Desert.
"I just couldn't sit there and watch the news, I was going mad. I felt I had to do something, you know whatta mean?" he said in a London accent full of glottal stops and double negatives.
After getting his parents' approval last week, Sam left for Egypt, where he joined a middle-aged businessman and an older doctor – each with their own past – to cross the border into eastern Libya, get some military training and join the fight.
"I just hope they show me how to use a gun," said the London teenager as he prepared to join rebels in his native Libya fighting to overthrow strongman Muammar Gaddafi.
"I have no idea how to use a gun. My only experience with a gun has been on a Wii," the video game console, Sam said, letting out a giggle.
The stocky 19-year-old, who loves football, grew up in London "not speaking a word of Arabic."
He spent a year in Libya in his early teenage years to learn the language and to familiarise himself with Libyan culture and traditions.
Sam is one of thousands of Libyans who were scattered across the globe after Gaddafi, who came to power in 1969, began a slow campaign to crush dissent.
But as anti-regime protests which erupted on February 15 turned into a full-scale war pitting the regime against rebels trying to overthrow him, the second generation exiles began to mobilise through Facebook and other social networking sites.
From Valletta to Cairo, Atlanta to Manchester, young Libyans – many of whom had never been to Libya – pooled their resources to organise demonstrations, humanitarian aid convoys, and raise awareness about the country they knew so little of first hand.
"It's kind of strange to see all the Libyans come together like this. When we were younger, we all tried to avoid other Libyans, because no one knew who was pro-regime and who was opposition," said one young Libyan in Cairo.
In 1977, as a young leader, Gaddafi introduced his "state of the masses," which in theory vested power in the people, but in practice saw more power concentrated in his hands, freedom of speech curbed and human rights abused.
Opponents were silenced, jailed, disappeared or killed.
A 2006 Human Rights Watch report, based on the watchdog's first ever trip to Libya, highlighted the regime's intolerance of dissent.
"Government critics are arrested and detained in violation of Libyan and international law, and the fate of many political prisoners remains unknown. Interrogators sometimes use torture to extract a confession," HRW said.
"The fear among ordinary Libyan citizens was palpable and intense, and even government officials were sometimes nervous to discuss the sensitive issue of human rights," it said.
The regime's campaign to crush dissent stretched beyond Libya's borders, culminating in a series of assassinations of prominent exiles – whom Gaddafi labelled "stray dogs" – in Western Europe in the 1980s.
Another, Youcif, came from the United States to the Sallum border post to help get medical equipment into the country, with reports that the fighting has left at least 6,000 dead and scores more injured, according to human rights groups.
"We all want to help in our own way, some by raising money, some by demonstrating and some by fighting," said the Libyan in Cairo.
Slinging a backpack over one shoulder, Sam flashed a big smile and a victory sign as he said goodbye to friends before heading into Libya.
"Inshallah (God willing), when I'm back, we'll have a giant get-together in Tripoli, yeah?" he told friends as he walked out the door. "Pray for us."