How the dynamiting fishermen of Benghazi helped bring down Qaddafi

The fishermen of eastern Libya are among the most fervent advocates of dynamite fishing, where a block of explosives is thrown into the ocean to kill dozens of fish in one quick blast. The practice is abhorred for the damage it does to marine environments, but it may have saved the lives of some early rebels on the streets of Benghazi.

Wanis, 37, right, and Ahmed Warfallah, 27, left, fishermen in the Bankina district of Benghazi: Wanis is carving out a firing pen from a WWII-era landmine. Bradley Hope / The National
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BENGHAZI // One more warning to dictators: beware of fishermen.

In the early days of the revolution, Libyans were armed with clubs and Molotov cocktails, not the ubiquitous AK-47s, FN rifles and lorry-mounted machineguns of today.

But they had a secret weapon. Since the Second World War, the eastern coast fishermen have been among the world's most dedicated practitioners of dynamite fishing, in which a block of explosives is thrown into the sea to kill dozens of fish in one quick blast. While the practice is widely abhorred for the damage it does to marine environments, it may just have saved the lives of some of those early rebels on the streets of Benghazi.

"The youths didn't have bullets or tanks, so they came to us and we found a way to use our explosives against Qaddafi," says Ahmed Warfallah, 27, a fisherman in the Bankina district of Benghazi, next to the Mediterranean. "We were there in the first four days. Our dynamite helped defeat the katiba."

The katiba, or brigade, was a central fortification in Benghazi overrun by rebel fighters after some daring moves. One man loaded his car with gallons of fuel and flammable material and crashed into the gate in a ball of fire, killing himself.

Mr Warfallah says it was fishermen's gelatine dynamite that blew open the gates, allowed access to rooms full of guns and ammunition and tipped the fight back towards the ragtag rebels.

In the Bankina district on Sunday, Mr Warfallah disappeared into a shack and came back swinging a 6kg landmine dating back to the Second World War, when the Germans and the British fought over this desert, and plunked it on the concrete. He also revealed several blocks of explosives from Poland.

The munitions were recovered from Qaddafi warehouses recently, but fishermen in eastern Libya have been making their own dynamite for years, using household chemicals and fertiliser, he said.

Wanis, the 37-year-old fishermen in charge of the crew, insisted on a demonstration. Using a serrated knife, he carved out the firing pin of one of the land mines, which had been harvested from near the border with Egypt.

"We'll start out with a small one," he said, with a grin. "You are new to this."

A young man brought over a drawer of equipment. It contained a spear gun, a pistol, ammunition, tools, and hand-made fuses. Wanis taped the whole contraption together tightly with black tape and led the group towards the edge of a pier.

"If Qaddafi was still in power, he would come after the fishermen first," he said. "He is afraid of us. If it weren't for our explosives, he would have gone 'zenga, zenga'". Zenga is an Arabic word for small alley between two houses or buildings. Qaddafi had said in a speech earlier in the year that he would search for the rebels house by house, alleyway by alleyway.

Along the way to the pier's edge, an elderly man appeared embarrassed that a reporter's first introduction to gelatine would be so small. "Please, let's get a bigger one, maybe 25 kilograms?" he asked Wanis, puffing on a cigarette without removing it from his mouth. "We can make all of Benghazi shake."

Nonetheless, Wanis opted for the smaller bomb. Borrowing a lit cigarette from the old man, he touched it to the fuse and tossed it into the water. Three seconds later, a deep, reverberating boom came and water sprayed skywards. It seemed that Wanis did not even blink.

Among the fishermen and rebels both, there is one legendary figure that stands out for his role during Libya's uprising. Ahmed Khafash, also known as Batman, grew up in the Bankina area alongside the fishermen and spent much of his time at sea, fishing and tinkering with gelatine. He was arrested by Col Qaddafi's secret police and imprisoned for several years, inflaming his hatred of the regime.

He was considered one of the most fearless fighters and adept users of gelatine in guerrilla warfare. One story making the rounds has him loading a hand-made bomb to a spear gun and taking out a pro-Qaddafi sniper's nest with a single blow.

He led one of the first ships to Misurata as rebels there were embroiled in some of the most intense fighting Libya saw in the last six months. "He took a boat with some men, some guns, some gelatine," one resident of the Bankina area said.

"He went, even though Qaddafi still had a navy and submarines at that time. We have a phrase in Arabic for people like him: dead in the heart. He did not fear death."