When the pickup loaded with Libyan fighters rolled slowly into the village, the men immediately noticed the same thing: a single green flag fluttering above the breezeblock houses, a symbol of lingering devotion to Muammar Qaddafi.
The visitors, loyal to the country’s now ruling National Transitional Council (NTC), had driven up el-Merdome’s dirt road to find one of the men’s sisters, due to give birth soon, and move her to friendly territory, they said.
As they approached, a silhouette appeared on the outskirts of the village – the outline of a man with a rifle held up in the air. It was time to go.
“Weapons ... let’s get out,” a journalist travelling with them shouted. When the NTC fighters heard of the man, they peeled away, a cloud of dust in their wake, training their guns on the unseen enemy behind.
It was a telling moment. Libya’s rebels became the country’s de facto rulers when they took control of Tripoli, but the south remains a patchwork of lightly manned checkpoints, barren highways and villages with conflicting loyalties.
Anti-Qaddafi fighters venture into this no-man’s land cautiously, often in small groups, to do reconnaissance and sometimes to run missions like this one, to retrieve or visit family on the other side of the divide.
Even with the capital under NTC control, paranoia is rife, with frequent talk of a pro-Qaddafi “fifth column” and divided tribal loyalties. The suspicions, often conflicting with an instinctive hospitality and desire for national unity, can manifest in unusual ways.
A few minutes before the men fled the village – 20 km west of one of Qaddafi’s last stronghold towns, Bani Walid – another pickup of anti-Qaddafi fighters had stopped a silver sedan driving the opposite way. Then both sides started shouting.
The four men in the car had three Kalashnikov rifles between them – not unusual in a country glutted with guns. But these guns stood out with their green ribbons, the color associated with loyalty to Qaddafi.
The fighters took the weapons and escorted the men out of town, where other NTC fighters waited. After some questioning, the men were given bottles of water to drink. One fighter stood by, smiling: “We’re Libyans. We’re all the same.”
A commander promised the detained men they could return home because no one had been hurt, but urged them, “When you go back home, help us, don’t fight us.”
Many Libyans still strongly identify with their regions and tribes. Initially made up of three distinct regions and only winning independence from Italy in 1951, some analysts say that Libya lacks the sense of historical continuity of neighboring Tunisia and Egypt.
King Idris, the independent country’s first ruler, did little to engender a sense of national cohesion, spending time mostly in his native east. When Qaddafi ousted Idris in a 1969 coup, he shifted focus back west, sparking complaints from the east.
Over the next four decades, the mercurial leader exploited tribal rivalries and used a network of informants to keep power, further undermining the country’s sense of common identity.
Many young Libyans, hoping for a better future, brush off concerns those divisions will endure. “We’re one people, one body,” a Benghazi engineering student on his first trip to the country’s west said when asked if it would be hard for Libya to stay unified.
He was travelling by boat to Misrata in the west from Benghazi in the east to meet a friend who had been stranded in Misrata during the fighting.
“With this revolution, Libyans are hearing about cities in their country they didn’t know existed. It’s a new country, a new thing,” he said.
But regional and tribal politics still matter, as shown when a dozen fighters sat and joked in the shade of a small mosque near the Qaddafi loyalist stronghold Bani Walid.
The fighters were from Zlitan, a coastal town now under anti-Qaddafi control but which some rebels viewed with suspicion because, they say, its residents did not rise up against Qaddafi when they were expected to.
“Maybe 80 percent of the people in Zlitan are with Qaddafi, I don’t know why,” one fighter said.
Another fighter, named Ahmed, disputed the figure, saying it was much lower. Nearby, some graffiti read: “Zlitan is with the Feb. 17 revolution.”