Road trip! American student joins rebels in fight for Qaddafi stronghold
AN NAWFALIYAH, LIBYA // At the centre of a circle of cheering rebel soldiers near Colonel Muammar Qaddafi’s hometown this week stood an improbable figure who gives new meaning to the American expression “road trip”.
Chris Jeon, a 21-year-old university student from Los Angeles, California,shrugging cooly, declared: “It is the end of my summer vacation, so I thought it would be cool to join the rebels. This is one of the only real revolutions” in the world.
In a daring, one might even say foolhardy, decision two weeks ago, Mr Jeon flew on a one-way ticket from Los Angeles to Cairo. He then travelled by train to Alexandria and by a series of buses to the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi. From there, he hitched a ride with rebels heading west towards the Libyan capital of Tripoli. After a 400km (248-mile) trek across the desolate North African landscape, he was now in the town of An Nawfaliyah, the toast of his comrades and a newly anointed road warrior.
“How do you fire this thing?” he asked on Wednesday as a bearded rebel handed him an AK-47. Locating the trigger of the assault rifle and switching off the safety, Mr Jeon fired it in the air in two short bursts.
“I want to fight in Sirte!” he proclaimed, using hand gestures and pointing west towards Sirte. Whether the rebels understood him was far from clear. “It’s hard to communicate. I don’t really speak any Arabic,” he said.
Nevertheless, the rebels have clearly taken to the mathematics student with no obvious political leanings who decided to slum it as an Arab Spring revolutionary before going back to his calculator for fall semester.
At first glance, Mr Jeon looked like someone who took a wrong turn on their way to the beach or the Santa Monica Pier. He wore a blue basketball basketball jersey emblazoned with a script “Los Angeles” and the number 44. The rest of his outfit, including army camouflage trousers, a grey-and-black kaffiyeh on his head, clear safety glasses and a bullet hanging on a necklace, came courtesy of the rebels, he said. He had been sleeping in the homes of local families or in the open air with the insurgents.
On Wednesday, Mr Jeon was carrying a Russian-made 12-gauge shotgun, not a typical accessory for a student strolling the country-club campus of the University of California, Los Angeles, where he expects to graduate next May.
His new mates have even bestowed on him a moniker that is a mish-mash of the names of local tribes and areas: Ahmed El Maghrabi Saidi Barga. When communication invariably reaches an impasse, he merely repeats his name and the rebels erupt in raucous cheers.
Although Mr Jeon did not arrive in Libya in time to catch the liberation of Tripoli, he has seen history unfold. He was aboard one of the first cars to roar into An Nawfiliyah last weekend, armed with his shotgun and a camera that no longer works because the battery is dead. “I have great footage,” he said.
As with most students, money is a concern. He did not buy a round-trip airplane ticket, he explained: “If I get captured or something, I don’t want to waste another US$800 [Dh2,900].”
As he waited along with the rebels this week for what many expect in the coming days will be the climactic battle for Colonel Qaddafi’s stronghold of Sirte, Mr Jeon wondered how he would deal with the inevitable question, “How did you spend your summer vacation?”
Only a few friends back in Los Angeles knew his true plans, he admitted. His family? Well, they thought he was going on a different trip.
As he recalled that deliberately vague version of his itinerary, it dawned on Mr Jeon that he might be blowing his cover by speaking with a reporter on a far-flung stretch of desert more than 11,200 kms (7,000 miles) from home.
“Whatever you do, don’t tell my parents,” he pleaded. “They don’t know I’m here.”