In the remote Nafusa mountains of western Libya, rebel forces are holding dozens of captured soldiers from Moammar Gadhafi's army. Many of these prisoners are sub-Saharan Africans, paid to fight for the beleaguered Libyan leader.
After the rebels took the village of Gualish from Gadhafi's forces this week, they captured 14 sub-Saharan Africans. A young Ghanaian, who was dressed in civilian clothes speckled with paint, said he was a plasterer who had been caught up in the fighting.
"I don't have any gun," he said. "I don't even know how to hold a gun."
It's long been a question here: Is Gadhafi using African mercenaries in his fight against rebel forces?
Millions of foreign workers lived in Libya before the civil war erupted, many of them Africans working in all sorts of menial jobs. After the fighting started, some of these Africans were mistaken for mercenaries and killed by angry mobs of anti-Gadhafi protesters or rebel fighters.
Some in the international community dismissed the reports of African mercenaries joining the Libyan army. But the rebels have maintained that they've been facing off against well-trained and well-paid guns for hire, flown in from neighboring African countries.
NPR was given rare access to the prisoners from Gadhafi's army in the rebel-held city of Zintan. After interviews with half a dozen recently captured Libyan and African detainees, the picture that has emerged is more complex.
Speaking Wtih Captured African Fighters
At a makeshift prison located in a school in Zintan in the western mountains of Libya, the prison warden lists the nationalities of the most recent batch of Africans captured in the fighting this week.
"Mali, Niger, Mali, Niger, Mali," he lists off.
Behind a metal door, dozens of detainees lie on mattresses covered in blankets. The room is crowded. The men, though, seem well-treated and well-fed.
Most of the sub-Saharan African men who are held here acknowledge that they were fighting in Gadhafi's army.
But they also say they were living in Libya as foreign workers before the uprising began, and they became soldiers for hire only after being promised money or documents.
The three men who spoke with NPR are still wearing army fatigues and white T-shirts.
Issa Munir, 22, from Mali, says in broken Arabic that he came here a year ago and was working on a farm in southern Libya. He says he was conscripted into the Libyan army in June after being picked up for being here illegally, and that he was promised money and a Libyan passport if he stayed on to fight.
He says he couldn't refuse — he needed to be a Libyan citizen to be able to travel.
Munir says he was kept in a barracks near Tripoli and then he was given a gun. He says wasn't told he was heading to the Nafusa mountains to fight; they just loaded him in a truck and took him to the front line.
Ibrahim Salah Yousef, 25, is from Niger. He says he actually volunteered to join the army. He was a cleaner for a Brazilian company here; when the uprising took place, his employers fled and he found himself without work and with no income and no prospects.
He says he couldn't even buy cigarettes, so he joined the army for the money.
Mehdi Hamid Issa, 26, also from Niger, was living in Libya and volunteered just after the uprising began. He says recruiters came to speak to the African community where he was staying, promising them money to fight. Many enlisted.
Not 'Fearsome Mercenaries'
Captured Libyan army officers, in interviews conducted separately, estimated that some 50 percent of Gadhafi's fighting force these days is made up of sub-Saharan Africans.
If those captured in Zintan are anything to go by, even though the Africans were paid to fight, they aren't the fearsome mercenaries described by many rebels. None of them had previous military training.
Abu Jela Dau Arafa, 38, is a Libyan captain who was captured on Wednesday when the rebels overran the village of Gualish.
He says Gadhafi doesn't have enough soldiers to man the front lines now, and that's why he's hiring sub-Saharan Africans.
Other captured Libyan soldiers describe a force that is suffering from lack of basic supplies like food and fuel. They say desertions are common. Many of the enlisted men stay on only out of fear or promises of money, they say.
Abu Jela says the sub-Saharan Africans, on the other hand, are fearless; he says they have no mercy — they fight to die.
But that's not what Mehdi Hamid Issa from Niger says about his experience in the Libyan army. Looking weary, he says he didn't like to fight and completely regrets it now — he doesn't want to kill anyone.