Spring break in Libya
College student Chris Jeon hungered for "real" experience, says Joshua Davis. So he joined a revolution
HIS PLANE TOUCHED down in Cairo on Aug. 23, 2011. School didn't start again for another month, and Chris Jeon, a 21-year-old UCLA math major, had told his parents he was going sightseeing in Egypt. What he didn't tell them was that he had decided to fight with the Libyan rebels against Muammar al-Qaddafi. He wanted to see something historic, he told friends. His $9,000-a-month internship at BlackRock, one of the world's largest asset management firms, bored him. After 12- to 18-hour days in his cubicle, Jeon felt like he was dying. He packed one pair of jeans, three shirts, a leather jacket, a pair of Converse, and two condoms. He hopped a bus in Cairo and headed for Saloum, on the Egyptian-Libyan border.
The rebels guarding the border were playing FIFA soccer on a PlayStation when he arrived. Jeon waved at them. They glanced at his passport and went back to their video game. "Okay, cool," Jeon said, and simply walked into Libya.
It looked like the moon: empty, burnt-brown desert stretching for mile after mile. The front lines were 500 miles to the west, and Jeon, the son of successful Korean immigrants, didn't speak Arabic and hadn't done much research on the region. He'd read the Wikipedia page on Libya and watched a bunch of YouTube videos documenting the war. He particularly liked one that showed a group of rebels chanting in unison after a victory — he'd never felt that fired up about anything. A year before, in search of "real" experience he and a friend had spent spring break surviving on the streets of Seattle with $1 in their pockets. Jeon did another "dollar trip" to Las Vegas. For Jeon, living outside the "bubble" of UCLA was a revelation.
In early September he finally managed to get a ride to an oil refinery close to the front lines. Pickup trucks mounted with rocket launchers streamed out of the complex, heading west. Tripoli had fallen, but Qaddafi was still at large and unbowed. On the radio that day, he vowed to fight a "long, drawn-out war."
Qaddafi's loyalists had concentrated their firepower in the central coastal region, near his hometown of Sirte, the city the rebels were heading for. As they rolled out of the refinery, each truck blasted a different song: Tupac bled into high-pitched Arabic music followed by the Scorpions. The men onboard wore green camo with red-checkered kaffiyehs over their faces. One of the trucks stopped, and a young rebel stuck his head out of the window.
"Jackie Chan!" he shouted at Jeon and swung the back door open.
"Holy s---, this is really happening," Jeon thought as he squeezed in among the men, the RPGs, and the AK-47s. Nobody asked who he was or why he was there. They just handed him a grenade, some earplugs, and a cigarette. Twenty minutes later, they stopped on the side of the road, where a clump of pickups stood in the open desert. Suddenly, a shell landed nearby and sent a huge plume of dirt into the air. The rebels in Jeon's car leaped out of the cab, returning fire with the .50-caliber machine gun mounted on the bed of their truck. Others fired cannons and launched rockets. There was no coordination. Everybody just let loose with every weapon they had, aiming in the general direction of the incoming fire.
Shells rained down around them. The rebels panicked, scrambling to get into their vehicles. As they sped away, one of the rebels put his hand on Jeon's chest and felt his heart thudding heavily. Everybody glanced at Jeon and laughed. He looked terrified.
"Where you stay?" the rebel asked.
"Nowhere," Jeon replied.
"No problem," he said. "You stay with us tonight."
TWO DAYS LATER, Cmdr. Absalam gave Jeon an Arabic name, Ahmed, and the next day a rebel gave him a Russian shotgun. The kid was no longer an observer. He was becoming part of the katiba, the Libyan word for brigade. He still didn't speak much Arabic, but that didn't seem to matter. There was a cheap Casio keyboard in the town house where they stayed, and when they weren't on patrol, Jeon taught a skinny 17-year-old named Akram how to play Beethoven. Akram showed him how to assemble and break down an AK-47. After two days, the Casio was covered in gun grease, but Akram could play "Für Elise" and Jeon could field-strip the gun in less than 90 seconds.
Akram explained that Libya under Qaddafi was hell. A few months earlier, his cousin had spoken out against the dictator and had been executed. "I am fighting for my cousin, for my family, for my country," Akram said. "I have no fear because death would be better than living the old way."
A couple of days later, the katiba drove into the desert and fired cannons at loyalist positions. Jeon helped load the ammunition. "My lips were cracked and bleeding, I hadn't brushed my teeth in days, and my face was peeling, but it didn't matter," Jeon says. "I was totally happy — happier than I'd ever been."
He was standing beside a truck, watching his friends fire the cannons, when he heard the whine of an incoming shell. Everybody dove for cover, and the ground shook. Sand rained down, and somebody screamed. When he finally stood, he saw a mangled, charred body lying near the blast. It was Akram.
He stared at the body. Just a few nights before, Akram had played "Für Elise," jumping up and down when he did it without a mistake. He was only 17. "Those f---ers," Jeon kept saying.
That afternoon, at a rebel checkpoint in the desert, Jeon saw three trucks appear out of the heat shimmering off the road to the west. They were moving fast, inbound from Qaddafi-held territory. The rebels around him picked up their weapons, cigarettes dangling from their mouths.
As the trucks approached, Jeon saw someone lean out one of the windows with a gun. It seemed surreal, like a mirage in the desert heat. The rebels around him started yelling, and he heard bullets whiz past. They were under attack.
"Motherf---er," Jeon hissed, grabbing an AK-47 out of the bed of a truck. He knew how to assemble and disassemble the gun but had yet to fire it in battle. Now he could see the faces of the loyalist forces as they drove off-road, circling the rebels and strafing the checkpoint. He flipped the safety off.
A bullet pierced the leg of a man next to him. The screaming was buried underneath the report of automatic weapons. Jeon was breathing fast. He popped up from behind his vehicle, took aim, and fired at one of the circling trucks. The gun jerked wildly, and he ran out of bullets. He loaded another clip. This time, when he squeezed the trigger, he saw the passenger's head snap back — blood splattered the inside of the car.
After another volley, the attackers sped back to the west, and it was quiet again, except for the growls of the wounded. One of the rebels walked up to Jeon and slapped him on the back.
"You are Libyan now," the man said.
CHRIS JEON DECIDED to return to California the day after his first battle, a changed young man. He was scheduled for a full load of classes in the fall semester of his senior year — linear algebra, differential equations, game theory — but by November, he'd lost interest in math and almost everything else he used to care about. He slept during the day and stayed up late so he could talk to his Libyan friends on Skype. By spring break, he'd decided to go back, and I went with him.
The sun is setting in Benghazi when we touch down, in April. That night, we walk to Freedom Square, where the revolution started. The buildings around the square are lined with oversize photos of rebels who died in the war, which ended just five months ago. A group of men approach and ask where we are from. When Jeon introduces himself, they throw their arms up, shout, and embrace him. They had heard the stories of the Asian kid from L.A. who had fought on their behalf.
"He is famous here," Mohammed Al Zawwam tells me, explaining that rebel fighters had spread Jeon's story. Al Zawwam, a 28-year-old youth organizer, gets choked up the more he talks. "I don't have words to describe how I feel about what he did. He was fighting very bravely for us. He is amazing."
The next night, Jeon reunites with five of his rebel friends at a second-floor hookah café on the outskirts of Benghazi. "We thought American people didn't care about Libya," says Ebrahem Benamer, a 23-year-old rebel with a soul patch, "but after we met Ahmed, we realized we were wrong."
When the hookahs are smoked through, Jeon gets antsy. He's heard there's an informal "drifting" competition in the square, and he wants to check it out. When we arrive, four cars whip past us, skidding sideways. Benamer wants to give it a try in his pickup truck, which is still emblazoned with the spray-painted logo of his brigade. He honks his way through the crowd, stomps on the accelerator, and starts fishtailing across the square. When he comes to a stop near us, Jeon, dressed in a goofy T-shirt, yanks open the back door and leaps in. I follow him.
Benamer peels away before I even shut the door. As I struggle to close it, I notice his AK-47 rattling on the floor. It looks like it's loaded. "Libya drift 2012!" Jeon shouts. He's filming himself with a pocket camera. Benamer spins the wheel, forcing the car into long, semi-controlled skids, and then accelerates. We spin sideways at about 40 mph, heeling up on two wheels before the truck crashes on its side.
In seconds, Jeon is standing on the overturned pickup screaming, "Libya is great!" Ten minutes later, the car is surrounded by men with machine guns. They are accusing us of being with the CIA, but my translator is sure they just want to rob us.
"These are very bad people," he says. "They are going to take us into the desert, and we will not come back."
I can see some crumbled buildings 50 yards away. Maybe we can make a run for it. I look over at Jeon and see him smiling. "Dude, are you scared?" he asks, laughing. "You look scared."
Another truck of armed militiamen pulls up, and the new arrivals begin arguing with our captors. We are driven to a militia compound, where the argument continues for hours. Finally, near dawn, we are released with no explanation.
Back at the hotel, Jeon is ecstatic. We all are. I am still worried that a militia might track us down at the hotel, but I also feel the rush of being free. It's 6 in the morning, and I'm not tired at all. In fact, I feel enormously alive.
"You see what I'm saying about Libya?" Jeon asks me. "It's amazing."
He says he craves the instability. "It's the total opposite of what I was doing before," he says. It forces him to take nothing for granted, to live in the moment. I can see the logic, but I still want to get the hell out of here. I book a ticket to Istanbul departing the next night.
As I'm checking out, I see Jeon in the lobby. He's heard about some fishermen nearby who throw explosives into the water and then scoop up the fish that float to the surface.
"I'm going to give it a try," he says, brightly. "I just have to find someone who will sell me some dynamite."
©2012 by Men's Journal. First published in Men's Journal. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.