Misrata’s Homemade Weapons

Spaces,Technology July 17, 2012 7:05 am

No signs marked the entrance to the Mad Max weapons factory on the outskirts of Misrata; it was just an old garage with bare concrete walls. A bookshelf full of manuals for farm equipment stood near the door of the cavernous hall, serving as dusty reminders of better days, when mechanics focused their energies on maintaining a well oiled agricultural economy around the flourishing coastal city. In the summer of 2011, however, the civil war transformed everything.

Farms around Misrata turned into tactical terrain where troops loyal to Colonel Moammar Gadhafi fought pitched battles against ragged volunteers from the rebellious city. Rolling dunes on the city outskirts became sand bunkers. Scenic highways along the Mediterranean served as strategic corridors. The city itself looked like a Hollywood set when I visited in August, with so many burned cars and walls scarred by explosions that it seemed a figment of an overzealous imagination, some dark and twisted vision of a post-apocalyptic landscape.

An equally bizarre collection of vehicles roared along the ruined streets, like products of a science fiction universe with their homemade paint jobs and jury-rigged armor. These were the rebels’ battle wagons, usually pickup trucks some kind of artillery welded to the back.

This crazy species of fighting vehicle evolved from the light gun trucks that played an important role in dozens of African wars, fought across vast distances by small groups of men with modest budgets. The Somalis made the “technical”, a type of improvised fighting vehicle, famous in the 1990s. But many other armies throughout the continent’s history have discovered that fast, agile forces can beat stronger, slower opponents.

Desert wars are sandstorms, blowing in with tremendous speed and ferocity. The Libyan war was no exception: when you’re not sure whether the front lines are 300 kilometres away or just over the next ridge; when you’re not entirely clear about what your friends are doing and even less sure about your enemies, you really want to feel some oomph under your gas pedal.

I followed one of the battle wagons to the garage to see the place where this species of homemade fighting vehicles was assembled and repaired. Despite the lack of signage, the spot was easy to find because of the loud bursts of automatic gunfire coming from the shop’s test range. Fighters gathered there in the evenings after days of battle under the blazing sun, telling stories and hammering their broken weapons back into service.

The rebels were badly outgunned but compensated with wicked creativity. They fashioned shotguns from steel pipes and drilled out the bores of starter pistols to make handguns. They ransacked a military airfield and stripped the weaponry from old Russian fighter jets, then reinforced the chassis of pickup trucks to handle the groaning weight of aircraft guns.

One particularly gifted welder even built his own troop carrier, layering steel plates around a Chinese pickup truck, but the behemoth went into retirement as soon as the fighting broke away from the block-by-block grind in the city centre and  the rebels needed faster vehicles for the surrounding countryside.

Some of these modifications seemed unnecessarily theatrical—in a war fought with 14.5-millimeter machine guns, how often do you need a battering ram?—and the mechanics would sheepishly admit that they added a few flourishes for the sake of intimidation. Many of them had watched the Mad Max movies and would discuss the merits and drawbacks of the military hardware used by Mel Gibson’s character in the series.

These were not lighthearted conversations, however. The mechanics of Misrata went about their work with a grim seriousness, a profound desire to get back to repairing farm equipment someday, much later, when the killing would end.

Photo by Charla Jones.