BENGHAZI, Libya — One week, Mohamed Elgarguri was a California university student with a job in a cell phone store and occasional weekend gigs as a party DJ. The next week, the 22-year-old American of Libyan descent was deep in the Libyan desert with a band of rebel fighters, firing a rifle at troops sent by ruler Moammar Gadhafi.
Elgarguri is among a wave of Libyan exiles and expatriates who rushed back to their homeland after the anti-Gadhafi uprising erupted last month. It's a movement some had been awaiting for decades.
Since the start of the conflict, when opposition forces seized most of the eastern half of Libya's Mediterranean coast, hundreds of Libyans have returned from the United States, Europe and elsewhere to lend their skills to the rebel cause. They've entered at all levels, joining the political leadership in the de facto opposition capital Benghazi, treating wounded fighters in field hospitals and even taking up arms.
They are one element in what has emerged as a multifaceted opposition movement, incorporating breakaway figures from Gadhafi's regime, dissident army officers and their units, elite urban professionals and the populations of Libya's eastern cities and towns.
The Libyans flowing in from abroad say they've come to offer skills rendered scarce during Gadhafi's 42 years of authoritarian rule and to help build a future, freer Libya.
"I dreamt it would happen, but I did not expect it would happen," said Ali Tarhouni, who left his job as an economics professor at the University of Washington to handle finances for the National Transitional Council, the quasi-government set up by the opposition in Benghazi.
Tarhouni, 60, said he last set foot in Libya in 1976, shortly after leaving to pursue a master's and doctorate in economics at Michigan State University. From abroad, he watched the regime's brutality.
On April 7, 1977, Gadhafi publicly hanged several opposition figures in Benghazi. In the '80s, Tarhouni found his own name on one of Gadhafi's hit lists, he said.
Tarhouni lived a "double life" for years, building an U.S. academic career while helping organize opposition to Gadhafi abroad.
When the uprising broke out on Feb. 17, he took a few days to organize his affairs, then returned to Libya.
"My plan now is to muster all the resources under my control — finances, oil and other things — to liberate the rest of Libya," he said.
Libyan-born Mustafa Gheriani's job since the uprising, council spokesman, has less to do with his career.
He lived in the United States for 30 years, where he ran a construction business in Fenton, Mich. He founded an infrastructure construction company in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, a few years ago, hoping the regime's overtures about modernizing the economy would mean real change.
But he remained opposed to the regime, he said. He was in Benghazi for a wedding when Gadhafi's security forces opened fire on anti-government protesters at the uprising's start.
Since then, his projects are frozen and he can't return to Tripoli, so he uses his fluent English and knowledge of American culture to communicate with foreign media on the council's behalf.
He said he'll keep the job "until they liberate all of Libya."
Though expatriates have come home to help the movement, the leadership is dominated by local elements on the ground — unlike Iraq, for example, where the opposition-in-exile played a central role in leadership following Saddam Hussein's 2003 ouster.
There is a thriving Libyan opposition movement in exile, built up over the decades as dissidents fled abroad from persecution by Gadhafi and organized themselves in Europe, the U.S. and Arab countries against his rule. Via the Internet and in direct contact with activists on the ground, those exile organizations played a significant role in organizing and spreading the word about the initial protests in Benghazi that launched Libya's uprising on Feb. 15.
But now with the east "liberated," they haven't moved back in an organized way to take a role in the uprising leadership.
Mohammed Abdullah, the Dubai-based deputy secretary-general of one exile group, the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, told AP the groups "have not decided on an organized return yet." He said the groups have not been in direct cooperation with the National Transitional Council — which is made up mainly of former reformists in Gadhafi's regime who broke away, and of representatives from opposition-held cities.
The return of Libyans to their homeland has largely been a matter of personal initiative — people inspired to join in.
At the uprising's start, Mohammed Mahfoud, 28, was in Atlanta, Georgia, doing surgery training on a scholarship from Gadhafi's government. Using a fake Facebook name to protect his family, he joined the first calls to protest in Benghazi, then rushed home when the violence started.
"I couldn't stay away," he said. "You have to share every part of it: the tragedy, the hope and the work."
Within days, he and other doctors were treating blast wounds inflicted by the munitions of Gadhafi's forces at a field hospital near the front, he said.
"It was the first time for everyone to see this, smashed limbs and shrapnel in people's faces," he said. "It was horrible."
He returned to Benghazi before Gadhafi's troops marched to the city's edge last week, taking up arms with his neighbors to protect their neighborhood.
"Either there will be a victory and we'll defeat Gadhafi or there will be massacre," he said. "So at least you need to be with your family."
He's accepted that he'll likely lose his chance to study in the U.S., but said the uprising serves a greater purpose.
"People lost their lives, so how could I be greedy and say I don't want to lose my scholarship?" he said.
For Elgarguri, the university student, the journey started Feb. 17 at an Arabic restaurant in San Francisco, where he saw video of Libyans killed by security forces.
"I started tearing up," he said. "For me to not be able to do what had to be done left me with a huge sense of helplessness and outrage."
In 24 hours, he sold his car, packed a bag and bought a plane ticket to Egypt. By Feb. 22, he was on the ground in eastern Libya.
Elgarguri, an American citizen, has cousins and other family in Benghazi. He grew up in Corvallis, Ore., where his Libyan father taught his children to love Libya, he said. He had only visited once, but fell in love with what he called the Libyans' "Middle Ages-style chivalry."
After his return, he bought an old Kalashnikov rifle for $2,000 and drove with other youths from his family's Benghazi neighborhood to the front lines, at the time near the oil refinery town of Ras Lanouf.Comment on this story
He fought for a few days, but realized that the rebels' light weapons and lack of training were no match for Gadhafi's tanks and artillery, he said.
"I had sworn to my mother that I would not throw my life away," he said. So he returned to Benghazi, where he volunteered at a hospital run by his cousin.
Elgarguri said he considers himself equal parts American and Libyan and hopes someday to gain citizenship in what he called "the Free Libya." He plans to use his U.S. education and fluent English to help Libya connect with the outside world.
When asked how long he planned to stay, he smiled.
"I bought a one-way ticket," he said.