When the pro-democracy uprising broke out in Egypt in late January, Suzi Elarabi, a Libyan-American who settled in Martinsville, Virginia, three years ago to provide a better life for her children, knew two things: that the protests would spread to Libya, and that her son, Mohannad, would be involved.
Mohannad Bensadik, a 21-year-old American citizen born in Eden, North Carolina, was living in Benghazi at the time. He and his 18-year-old brother had been raised in Libya but often spent summers in the United States. “I was working on bringing them here to the United States to live with me and their two sisters,” Elarabi said in an interview Monday. Mohannad’s hope, she said, was to study technical engineering at an American college.
Events, however, preempted those plans. Mass protests broke out, and Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city and the family’s hometown, became the staging ground for a revolution.
When a ship evacuating U.S. citizens from Benghazi offered the chance to escape the brewing conflict, Mohannad and his brother refused. “I knew before even asking that they wouldn’t do that, especially Mohannad,” Elarabi said. “Because one time I asked him, I was scared for him if he went out protesting. And he said, ‘If we didn’t do this, who would?’”
Opposition forces quickly repelled Gadhafi’s fighters from the city, providing at least a temporary sense of calm.
“I was calling Mohannad since this started every hour,” Elarabi said. “At the beginning, in Benghazi, they fought and they took Benghazi over, the freedom fighters, and then I thought it was going to be OK, because everything went back to normal in Benghazi.”
But for Mohannad — a boy scout leader in Libya who believed deeply in the basic rights of all people — simply liberating Benghazi was not enough.
“See, there’s people that care more than other people. Mohannad was one of these people,” Elarabi said. “He always didn’t like what Gadhafi was doing, that Libyans didn’t have any freedom, that they couldn’t say anything, couldn’t do anything. Mohannad liked freedom, he liked to say what he thought. And in Libya, if you say what you thought, you would be killed. So I knew that Mohannad will fight.”
Mohannad pressed on to the strategic oil town of Brega, and then to Ras Lanuf, helping pro-democracy forces liberate both cities and bolstering the opposition’s cause. “He was helping people there at the beginning, taking food to them, medicines, taking them to the hospitals and stuff like that,” Elarabi said. “And then he went to the front line.”
That, according to an account provided by his father, is where Mohannad was killed in an attack by Gadhafi forces just north of Brega.
The opposition fighters, loosely organized and poorly armed, realized they were outmatched by Gadhafi’s regime, with its power in the air and on the ground. According to Mohannad’s father, fellow opposition fighters pleaded with him to retreat. Mohannad refused.
“He said to them, ‘Listen guys, this is a fight for freedom, we need to carry on or we might die. What’s the point of us sitting there?’” Mohannad’s father recalled in a phone call posted Sunday by John Scott-Railton, who has been running the @feb17voices Twitter feed. “He ended up going straight to the fire line. That’s when he died. He died brave. He died for what he believes in.”
As of Monday afternoon, it’s unclear whether Mohannad’s father has been able to reclaim his body. Multiple attempts to reach him by phone in Libya failed, perhaps as a result of the Gadhafi regime’s communications blackout. Elarabi said she was unsure whether her 18-year-old-son, Mohannad’s brother, would return to the United States.
Elarabi described Mohannad as a “sweet” and “passionate” boy who liked to fish and swim when he was in the U.S. during the summers. She wanted the world to know, she said, that “Mohannad fought for the freedom of his country” and called on the international community to help the Libyan opposition oust the Gadhafi regime before the government is able to quash the pro-democracy movement.
“For now, I hope that they will reach agreement to do the no-fly zone over Libya,” Elarabi said. “I’m hoping that all the world will try to do something to help Libyan people to get their freedom.”
She added: “We don’t want all the people that died to just die for nothing.”