January Issue: The Real Story Behind College Student Turned Libyan Freedom Fighter Chris Jeon
Photo by Mark Edward Harris/KoreAm
In the summer of 2011, UCLA student Chris Jeon left his $9,000-a-month internship at a San Francisco financial firm to fight with the rebels in Libya. What was he thinking? For the 21-year-old from Orange County, it all made perfect sense—which is why he went back again.
by JOSHUA DAVIS
It’s midnight in Libya, and the math major from UCLA is standing on an overturned pickup truck screaming, “Libya is great!” He has just survived an amateur “drifting” accident—the pickup he was in tipped over on its side, skidding across Benghazi’s Keish Square at 40 miles an hour—and he is jubilant. With his carefully tousled hair and goofy T-shirt (featuring a cartoon bomb that’s crying while it explodes), he looks like a stoner undergrad on spring break, which, remarkably, he is.
“This is wild,” he says.
There are a thousand or so Libyans standing in the overheated square, watching a 21-year-old Korean American kid from Orange County pledge his allegiance to their country. Not all of them are amused.
A year before, Chris Jeon knew next to nothing about Libya. In the spring of 2011, as Libyans were rallying in Benghazi, igniting a revolution against Muammar Qaddafi, Jeon was a business-minded junior, angling for a high-paying summer internship at BlackRock, the world’s largest asset-management firm. The pay was good, and the internship was a steppingstone to a career path he’d spent his life gunning for, but it disappointed Jeon almost instantly. Each monotonous day in his cubicle at BlackRock’s San Francisco headquarters showed him how boring his life could be.
So that August, with the rebels advancing on Qaddafi, Chris Jeon flew to Cairo, hitchhiked across the Libyan border and joined a rebel battalion. From the outside, it was an inexplicable departure: One week he was a finance trainee in a slick San Francisco office tower; the next he was in the stifling desert, dodging mortar fire and going by the name Ahmed Mugrabi Saidi Barga. To Jeon, however, it made perfect sense. Now, five months after the end of the war, Jeon is back in Libya for spring break. He’s abandoned the idea of a career in banking and says he wants to return to Libya to help his friends rebuild their country. But as he stands on the overturned truck, he seems a little dazed. His eyes are wide with adrenaline. He starts chanting in rudimentary Arabic, trying to lead the crowd in a call and response. They’re not going for it.
“I think we should get out of here,” I say, but he ignores me. Somehow the formation of an angry mob doesn’t seem to bother him. Our translator, who’d been watching the rally from the far end of the square, pushes through the crowd to tell us that we need to leave immediately. Jeon doesn’t want to go—he’s taking pictures now—but the translator is insistent. People are demanding to know who we are. We head to the translator’s car and get in. The crowd follows us. Someone shouts that we’re with the CIA. Dozens of men circle the vehicle. Fists start banging on the roof. “Ameriki go home,” someone screams. Jeon just waves.
“They’re so passionate,” he says. “It’s wonderful.”
The translator gets out to reason with the crowd, and someone puts a gun to his head, forcing him back into the car. A large man with a wide, flattened nose climbs into the passenger seat.
“What’s happening?” I yell, in a panic.
“You’re being kidnapped,” the translator says. I look over at Jeon. He’s laughing.
“You gotta love Libya, right?” he says.
Ladera Ranch bills itself as “one of Orange County’s premier master-planned communities.” The development sprouted out of the brush-covered hills of Southern California in 1999 and offered a slice of sunny perfection to anyone who could afford it. The newly paved streets are lined with saplings, American flags hang from porches, and buyers can choose from a handful of elegant home models. The community of approximately 8,000 households has its own schools, freeways and shopping centers. Soon after Chris Jeon’s family moved there, the local branch of the American Society of Civil Engineers voted it Project of the Year.
The Jeons came to the U.S. from Korea in the 1980s. Chris’ father, Peter, studied at UCLA, racking up an impressive list of degrees: a bachelor’s, a master’s in mechanical engineering and a medical degree in dental science. His wife, Jane, became a pharmacist, while Dr. Jeon ran his own orthodontics practice in Orange County. Chris was their eldest, a first-generation American, and his parents had high hopes for him.
He didn’t disappoint: National Honor Society, a 4.3 GPA, vice president of the Future Business Leaders of America. When other kids were shotgunning beers in the parking lot behind the cineplex, Jeon was home practicing piano and guitar. “My parents sacrificed a lot so their kids could have opportunities,” Jeon says. He had no intention of wasting them. “I wanted to be the perfect kid for him,” he says, referring to his father.
He wasn’t exactly perfect. In junior high, he assembled a large-enough collection of death metal—Slayer, In Flames, Cryptopsy—to alarm his Catholic parents, who threw it all out one day when he was at school. “I’ve never been so angry,” Jeon remembers. In one of his first acts of rebellion, he slept in his car in the family driveway for a week.
When Jeon arrived at UCLA in 2008, he had the résumé of a classic overachiever. He joined a frat, drinking his first beer in April of his freshman year. He got properly hammered a few times after that, but never lost focus on academics or his dream of eventually landing on Wall Street. “I wanted money, status, stock options, all of it,” he says. “To me, that was the pinnacle of achievement.”
But by junior year, he started to feel anxious, stifled—and not just by academics. At the fraternity, there was talk of going to Cancún for spring break. It would be awesome: They’d chase girls and get wasted just as they had the year before.
“Why don’t we do something different?” Jeon suggested.
Only one of his frat brothers took him seriously—Ross McCray. McCray had also grown up in Ladera Ranch, in a house with the same floor plan as Jeon’s. They were both math majors whose fathers were doctors. Somehow, they hadn’t met until UCLA.
Together they decided to fly to Seattle for a week and survive on only a dollar. It was something that kids like them would never consider doing. “We were very, very on-track students,” McCray says. “This was like a release valve.”
McCray dubbed it the “one-dollar trip,” and within days, they were in downtown Seattle with nothing more than a single dollar, their driver’s licenses, and a book containing 400 investment banking interview questions. (Interviews were looming, and they needed to brush up.) They hadn’t counted on it being 40 degrees and were soon freezing and hungry. They started to beg.
For the next week, they slept in parking garages and homeless shelters, panhandling for food and struggling to stay warm. For Jeon, it was a revelation. “Between Ladera Ranch and UCLA, I’d always lived in a bubble,” he says. “It wasn’t the real world.”
A week later, they started interviewing for summer internships with investment banks. It was a hard transition. One interviewer asked Jeon to estimate the number of golf balls that would fit inside a 747. “Who the f-ck cares?” Jeon thought. But his family had worked hard to get him to this point. He ran some numbers in his head and said that roughly 15.7 million golf balls would fit in a 747, assuming you didn’t fill the fuel tanks. A few days later, he was offered a job at Black-Rock, one of the world’s largestasset management firms.
That summer, Jeon sat in a cubicle for 12 to 18 hours a day in BlackRock’s San Francisco headquarters. He spent weeks preparing a report on the micro and macroeconomic potential of the medical-insurance industry and researched the balance sheets of Brazilian mining companies. Jeon’s mind wandered. He’d Google things like “most interesting places in the world” and “unexplored frontiers.” He was ready to start living differently.
He went skydiving, but it wasn’t thrills he was looking for. One weekend, he did a dollar trip to Las Vegas, passing himself off as a bellhop at the MGM Grand even though he wasn’t dressed as one. He simply took bags out of open trunks and led guests on meandering, confused journeys through the massive hotel. Somehow he managed to make $20 in tips. He played craps with the money and drank complimentary cocktails on the pit floor. He returned to BlackRock on Monday, bleary-eyed and unshowered, wearing the same suit he’d left in on Friday. His supervisor warned him that his behavior was unprofessional. He didn’t care.
“Each day at BlackRock felt the same,” he says. “But every day on a one-dollar trip lasted so long. There was so much more substance—the emotions were so intense because I was living on nothing. In terms of experience, I felt like I was getting so much more bang for the buck.”
Interns were expected to keep up on how world affairs might influence oil prices and stock indexes—and Jeon became captivated by the scrappy rebels fighting in Libya. At the time, they were advancing on Tripoli with a ragtag army outfitted with Cold War-era rifles and pickup trucks jury-rigged with anti-aircraft guns. It’s like a one-dollar war, he thought.
This is the moment when the Western media found Jeon in Libya. “I was flanked by many of the rebels curious to see who I was and what I was about,” said Jeon. “Many of them turned out to be some of the best friends I’ve ever had.”
In early August, Jeon went out for sushi with two other interns, Astrid Fernandes and Letian Zhang. He told them that he was thinking of going to Libya to join the rebellion. It was a chance to see something historic before school started, and he wanted to feel what it was like to have different kinds of problems. “No more PowerPoints or crazy-ass spreadsheets,” he said. Libya seemed like the obvious next step in his journey.
“Are you f-cking crazy?” Zhang asked.
Zhang took out a pen and started drawing on the place mat. He’d studied math at Stanford and was heading into a statistics-focused sociology Ph.D. program at Harvard. He made a probability map for Jeon. There was a 25 percent chance Jeon would get shot before making it to the front lines. If he did make it, there was another 25 percent chance he’d be killed in the crossfire, since he didn’t speak any Arabic and had no idea what he was doing. He gave his friend a 50 percent chance of dying.
Jeon felt like he was dying already.
A week later, he and Astrid went to a liquor store, where he bought his first pack of cigarettes. He figured the rebels were heavy smokers, and so he wanted to practice. His friend watched him strike a match, take a drag and break into a fit of coughing.
CHRIS JEON LANDED in Cairo on August 23, 2011. School didn’t start again for another month, and he had told his parents he was going sightseeing in Egypt. He brought 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. “OK, 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. Jeon didn’t speak Arabic and hadn’t done much research on the region, but 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. The momentum had shifted, and Qaddafi’s grip on the country was weakening. With the support of NATO airpower, the rebels were now attacking Tripoli. Qaddafi was in hiding, but issued a statement saying the government was ready to “turn Libya into a volcano of lava and fire under the feet of the invaders and their treacherous agents.” Jeon wanted to find the fighting before it was all over.
“This is Sgt. Absulam Zawe on the left and General Absulam Reche in the center. Reche was the general of the brigade and was one of the highest-ranking officers in the rebels. I have an AK-47 and utility vest ready for the morning’s battle.” Photo courtesy of Chris Jeon.
At the border, Jeon caught a taxi for the rebel capital of Benghazi, where he planned to hitch a ride to the front. But the taxi was stopped at a checkpoint about 10 miles outside the city. Three rebels peered in and motioned the foreigner out of the car. They asked who he was, and Jeon struggled to explain that he was a UCLA student looking for the front lines. One of the rebels asked in broken English if he was a North Korean spy sent by Qaddafi. The taxi took off, stranding him there. The rebels grew impatient:
Who was he here to see? Could anybody in Libya vouch for him?
While at BlackRock, Jeon had emailed the only two people in Benghazi who had posted on CouchSurfing.org, a website that helps travelers find free places to stay. One guy had responded that Jeon should call him when he got to Benghazi. Jeon dug out his number and gave it to the rebels. It was the middle of the night, but someone picked up. Jeon could hear yelling on the other end. He figured that this was as far as his Libyan adventure was going to go. The rebel hung up.
“OK, your friend coming,” the rebel said.
A half hour later, a sleek BMW 7 Series sedan pulled up at the checkpoint, blasting Justin Bieber on the radio. A guy was sitting in another’s lap in the passenger seat, even though there was no one in the back. The passenger door flew open, and Ayman Amzain, Jeon’s couch-surfing contact, bounded out. He had long hair and no front teeth.
“Kreeez!” he said in a high-pitched voice and planted kisses on Jeon’s cheeks. He stepped back and took a good look at Jeon.
“I thought you’d be blond,” he said pouting. “And maybe taller.”
Amzain was a 31-year-old medical student who lived with his parents and dreamed of moving to San Francisco. The appearance of a Californian in Libya was probably as close as he’d get to his dream, and he was thrilled that Jeon had come. In fact, he didn’t want him to leave. He tried convincing his new friend to forget going to the war. But after four days of hookah bars and music videos, Jeon grew restless.
“I was living in a cloud of hairspray and Justin Bieber music,” he says. “It was like the revolution wasn’t even happening.”
Amzain reluctantly arranged for a friend to drive Jeon toward the fighting. He wrote a letter in Arabic and told Jeon to show it to anyone who asked questions. The letter read, “Hello. My name is Chris. I am from the United States. Please help me to go to the front lines. Thank you, and thanks to God.”
Amzain kissed Jeon on both cheeks and told him to come back soon.
In early September, Jeon was dropped at the gates of an oil refinery. He could tell that the front lines were close. 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. For the revolution to succeed, Qaddafi had to be killed or arrested, and many believed that he was hiding in Sirte, the city the rebels were now pushing toward.
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-checkeredkaffiyehs 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 sh-t, 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. He was glad he had practiced smoking.
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. This was way crazier than anything he’d seen on YouTube.
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.”
Back at the oil refinery, the rebels had commandeered a newly built two-story town house. There were a half-dozen men sleeping in each room. Two members of the battalion had been killed by a rocket that day, so some floor space had opened up. In the living room, Jeon sat on the ground and introduced himself, but the rebels didn’t like his name. Chris was too short and didn’t sound Libyan.
“We give you new name,” announced Mohammed, an 18-year-old from Benghazi.
Shouting broke out as the rebels debated Jeon’s new name. Finally, Commander Absalam, the group leader, held up his hand and pointed at Jeon.
“Chris no more,” Absalam said solemnly. “Now you are Ahmed Mugrabi Saidi Barga.”
The rebels cheered. The name was a mash-up of all the tribal names represented in the room. They would call him Ahmed.
“AHMED, YOU SMOKE hashish?” Jeon’s second day with his battalion was spent brazenly driving into small desert towns in an attempt to flush out pockets of Qaddafi loyalists by drawing enemy fire. No shots had been fired, but the stress was evident as the rebels passed around the dirty plastic soda bottle they used as a water pipe. When it came to Jeon, he hesitated. He had never done any drugs. It was then that he decided to institute what he called a “yeah, man” policy.
“Yeah, man,” he said, taking a hit. “I smoke hash.”
The next night, the battalion drove to a darkened four-story mansion on the sea. Commander Absalam blasted off the mansion’s door handle, and they walked in. The place had been hastily abandoned. Absalam explained that the only people who lived in houses this nice were people who cooperated with the regime. Therefore, everything in the house was now rebel property.
Clothes still hung in the closets, and there was food in the refrigerator. The rebels grabbed the food and rifled through drawers. Jeon saw a toothbrush lying in the master bath and pocketed it. He hadn’t brushed in days, and he could hear his orthodontist father’s voice nagging in his head.
Hanging on the wall of the living room was a shiny new flatscreen TV. Mansur, a rebel in his late 20s, handed Jeon a hammer and an AK-47. Jeon was confused.
“That’s a good TV,” he said. “Why not take it?”
“Qaddafi people, they hurt my father. They hurt my mother,” Mansur said. “This is Qaddafi people. F-ck this house.”
Jeon felt the weight of the gun in his hands and looked around the room. The leather couches were big and new. Chandeliers hung from the ceiling. It reminded him of all the McMansions back in Ladera Ranch.
He took a hammer to the TV, and then aimed the gun. He pulled the trigger, watching as the chandeliers shattered and crashed to the ground.
“This is my host Aymen in Benghazi,” said Jeon. “He took care of me like his own family and always made sure I was well fed and protected. He also liked to do my hair. I will always be indebted to him and his family.”
The next day, Mansur gave him a Russian-made shotgun. He was no longer just 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 and when they weren’t on patrol, Jeon taught a skinny 17-yearold named Akram how to play Beethoven. In exchange, 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 spoke English and wanted to know everything about Jeon’s life back in California. Jeon showed him photos of Ladera Ranch on his cellphone. Akram couldn’t believe how beautiful it was and wondered why Jeon would ever want to leave such a place. Akram explained that Libya under Qaddafi was hell. A few months earlier, his cousin had spoken out against the dictator and was 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.”
Few of the rebels seemed to care why Jeon was fighting, only that he was willing. On Jeon’s fourth day with the brigade, Commander Absalam told him that the mission they were going on was too dangerous. “You’re not ready to be a martyr,” he told him and dropped Jeon at a rebel staging area in the desert.
Two American reporters, Bradley Hope and Kristen Chick, had just arrived. “We were way, way out there,” Hope says. “And then we saw this college kid with a shotgun and a Lakers jersey. It was mind-boggling.”
Jeon explained that he was on summer vacation and “thought it would be cool to join the rebels.” He added that his parents didn’t know he was in Libya and pleaded with the reporters not to mention him, but both wrote articles about the encounter (“At first glance, Mr. Jeon looked like someone who took a wrong turn on their way to the beach or the Santa Monica Pier,” wrote Hope in a Dubai paper, The National). Jeon’s parents learned he was in Libya when people sent them articles online. They frantically started emailing and phoning news organizations in the region.
“Nobody wants their child to be in a war,” Dr. Jeon said. “Plus, school was starting soon.”
An Al Jazeera news crew spotted Jeon at the refinery where he was staying with his katiba. A network correspondent took out her satellite phone and handed it to Jeon. Within a minute, his parents were on the line.
“You have to come home, Chris,” his dad shouted. “You don’t know what you’re doing.”
“I know exactly what I’m doing,” Jeon snapped.
His mother got on the phone. She was crying. She sounded terrible. She begged him to come home. Jeon told her he’d think about it. He hung up and rejoined his brigade.
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.”
“Hanging out in the Mediterranean with Absulam and Tetty. The water was the warmest and clearest that I’ve ever experienced, and the contrast of the beautiful oceanside with the charred leftovers of destroyed cities 50 feet away on the coast was huge.”
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-ckers,” Jeon kept saying. Somebody told him to get in a truck, and they retreated.
That afternoon, Commander Absalam sent Jeon with five others to relieve a checkpoint in the desert. Nobody talked on the drive out. When they arrived, they chain-smoked and sat wordlessly under a tarp. It was 110 degrees. Jeon saw three trucks appear out of the heat shimmering off the road in 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 of 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-cker,” Jeon hissed, grabbing an AK 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 offroad, 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.
At dusk, he rolled into the refinery with a contingent from the checkpoint. As the daylight faded and the adrenaline drained out of him, he wondered what he’d just done. “I didn’t feel any remorse,” he said. “But I worried about what my parents would think if they found out.” He remembered his mom crying on the phone and got choked up.
“Problem, Ahmed?” asked Abdul Karim, a rebel friend.
“Mia, mia,” Jeon replied in Libyan slang. It meant he was 100 out of 100, feeling fine.
BY MORNING, he’d decided to go home. Chris Jeon was scheduled for a full load of classes the fall term of his senior year—linear algebra, differential equations, game theory—but by November, he’d not managed to make it to many. He’d lost interest in math and almost everything else he used to care about. He sat in his off-campus apartment and smoked with the shades drawn. An AK-47 bullet dangled from his neck on a leather necklace—a gift from his brigade. He slept during the day and stayed up late so he could talk to his Libyan friends on Skype. “I gave him sh-t because he stopped hitting me up and going out,” said McCray, Jeon’s friend from the one-dollar trip to Seattle. “He just disappeared.”
Jeon’s parents were worried too. Peter Jeon, who’d never done anything more adventurous than golf, for fear of hurting his arm and impacting his orthodontics practice, couldn’t understand why their son had sought out a war zone. “All my friends asked me where Chris had come from,” Dr. Jeon says. “I told them I don’t know.” In the U.S., many had reacted with horror to his story. Wired.com charged him with “turning someone else’s struggle for freedom into your barstool anecdote,” and the L.A. Weekly labeled his trip a “mere summer-vacation thrill.” After all, if it was combat experience he was after, he could have walked into a local recruitment office. But Jeon insists that he was simply looking for a deeper, more direct understanding of the world, from homelessness to war. Besides, he’d forged a deep bond with his rebel friends. “These people treated me like I was part of their family,” he said. “They did so much for me, I have to give back.” In January, he decided to go back to Libya during his spring break. I decided to go with him.
The sun is setting in Benghazi when we touch down in April. I’m already having doubts about the journey. Just before getting on the plane, Jeon asked to put a bottle of vodka in my bag. He said there wasn’t room in his. “Really?” I asked.
“It’s spring break,” he said. “It’ll be fine.”
The first thing we encounter is a stern-looking customs official sitting beneath a sign that says alcohol is strictly prohibited in Libya. Every bag is X-rayed. Soon, he locates the bottle and is raging mad. He pours the bottle down a drain in front of us.
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 is a 28-year-old youth organizer and 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 cafe on the outskirts of Benghazi. It’s a fluorescent-lit, smoke-filled room, and soon after we sit down, two guys near the entrance suddenly attack each other. One of the guys lands a series of rapid jabs to the face before he’s pulled off by the staff. Things calm down, and Jeon’s rebel friends tell him he looks fat. Everybody laughs, and the conversation resumes.
Ebrahem Benamer, a 23-year-old guy with a soul patch, tells me that he initially thought Jeon was a Special Forces commando sent by the U.S. to hunt Al Qaeda. Then he saw that Jeon didn’t know where the safety was on a gun, and he concluded that he was just a guy who wanted to help the revolution.
“We thought American people didn’t care about Libya,” Benamer says. “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. There are no barriers between the 1,000-odd spectators and the cars, which skid perilously close to the crowd. Within an hour, we see two sets of cars crash into each other. A spectator tells me that a few months ago, a car smashed into a pack of people, killing three.
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 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 beside me. He’s filming himself with a pocket camera. Benamer spins the wheel, forcing the car into long, semi-controlled skids, and then accelerates, gunning for a dramatic slide. We spin sideways at about 40 mph, heeling up on two wheels before the truck crashes on its side. Ten minutes after we crawl from the wreckage, we are taken hostage.
My hands are shaking; my breathing is shallow. 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.” He seems to be enjoying himself. I want to shake him and tell him to snap out of it. The only thing he’s worried about is that they might take his camera with the car-crash video on it. “Dude,” he says, “I shoved the memory card up my butt so they won’t take it. I don’t want to lose that video of us crashing.” Another truck of armed militiamen pulls up, and the new arrivals begin arguing with our captors. My translator explains that this is a different militia. We are driven to a militia compound, where the argument continues for hours. Finally, near dawn, we are released with no explanation.
When we get back to our 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.
Later that day, a youth group in Benghazi stages a protest march in the center of town. They’re demanding that the transitional government explain where all the oil revenue is going. Jeon says he wants to attend, to show his support for the new Libya. When I walk over, I see him standing in the middle of a throng holding an Arabic sign over his head. They’re in the street, and cars honk their way through the protesters. I ask Jeon what his sign says.
“Don’t know,” he says, explaining that he can’t read the Arabic. “I just grabbed one.”
He leaves the protest with the sign, still proudly holding it over his head as we walk down the street. Now that we’re away from the relative safety of the march, I tell him to roll it up. “You have no idea how people will react to whatever’s on it,” I say, stopping on the sidewalk.
“It’s all about risk and reward,” he says.
“Exactly,” I almost shout. People are walking past us, looking suspicious. “The risks outweigh the rewards.” “But you don’t even know what the reward could be,” he says. “Something cool could happen because I’m holding this. That outweighs the risk.” I hurry back to the hotel and pack my bag. 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.”
This article was published in the January 2013 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the January issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only.)