From the Front: An Encounter with Libyan Rebels
The two thuwar (revolutionaries) on the highway that runs east from the Tunisian border had time to chat on that bright Wednesday morning, four days after Tripoli rose up against Qadhafi. The more hardened fighters were still away in the capital, perhaps, leaving these two 23-year-old accountancy students to man the checkpoint by the turn-off to their village, Kabaou.
They sat on an iron bedstead beside the sentry-hut, Kalashnikovs across their knees, in shirts, tracksuit bottoms, and cheap flip-flop sandals. In a Portakabin on the other side of the road the television was on Al Jazeera and a sound-bite from some Obama speech came floating out. One brought over dates and milk for the visiting journalists, in spite of their own Ramadan fast.
In the capital, the air was no doubt still dark with death and violence. Through the previous night, the big guns of the international media had been moving up the highway, drawn irresistably towards the front line in Tripoli.
Three men from Kabaou died yesterday in the fighting in Tripoli, said one of the thuwar. And it’s not only young people who have died. There have been married men with children.
He himself had been just a couple of months into a postgraduate accountancy course in Perugia, Italy when he decided it was time to come home and defend the village from the shells that pro-Qadhafi forces were lobbing in its direction.
Not that his family had dared say anything by phone — under Qadhafi the whole telecoms system was designed for easy listening. He had gleaned information from phone calls with friends who were already training with the thuwar. Once the decision was taken it was a short flight to Tunis, where a minibus was laid on to ferry him and a handful of others down to the Dehiba crossing.
The pair have Tamazight as their first language but hardly correspond to the “Berber tribes coming down from the Nafusa mountains” of some news media. And forget training camps hidden high in forested slopes; the Nafusa mountains turn out to be hot and stoney, offering little shelter. They had 45 days of training in a camp just across the highway, with a Libyan veteran of the Chad war as their instructor. A separate group of volunteers from Tripoli being trained alongside them.
They were well-informed about what was going on across the country that Wednesday morning, but it didn’t sound like they would need much persuading to put down their weapons. “We would have preferred to have done it just with demonstrations,” said one. But in the case of Qadhafi that had not been an option.
Waheed Burshan had driven along the same highway the previous day, heading for his family’s hometown of Gharyan, south of Tripoli.
Crossing over from Tunisia at Dehiba, he had looked like an American soccer dad on a family outing, with supplies of mineral water in the back of the car. He hadn’t been back to Gharyan — liberated from pro-Qadhafi forces the previous week — for 16 years. And he hadn’t lived in Libya for more than 30.
As a teenager he had been active in the students’ union, and with military service looming, his father packed him off to Italy. There had been reprisals against the family – travel restrictions and an uncle in prison – and threats against himself, but his activism continued through studies in the US (telecom engineering), raising a family in Chicago, and project management in the Qatari state sector.
Since April, he explained, he had been “project managing” the rebel push from the Nafusa mountain area for the Transitional National Council (TNC), working between Benghazi and Tunis. Once the Americans and others had been won over to the plan, senior Libyan military figures who had defected to the TNC in Benghazi had to be persuaded to let the grassroots take the initiative, in what was a genuine popular uprising, he said.
“A lot of the youth here in the Nafusa are very, very smart. They had no military experience, they’re not very rugged and some of them were not very strong,” said Burshan. “But they learn quick and adapt. And their heart is in the right place. They really wanted to be do something about this regime.”
Something between 5,000 and 10,000 were trained in the area, and “sometimes we inflated the numbers just to scare the heck out of [the pro-Qadhafi loyalists]“. Women and children from the region’s towns and villages were sent over the border into Tunisia to let the men focus on their fighting.
With NATO, in the air, “taking out” the Grad missile launchers and other armaments used by pro-Qadhafi forces, and with weapons flown in from Benghazi to an airstrip improvised on a widened section of the highway, the rebels gradually found themselves on the offensive. The cost was maybe some hundreds of deaths among their own ranks, more on the pro-Qadhafi side, said Burshan. By May, “the TNC in Benghazi was recognising the Nafusa as part of the new Libya”.
He is not very polite about the old-school military in Benghazi who felt they had “ownership” of the revolution: they were out of touch with the thuwar way of doing things and were best given offices, a salary, and consigned to “an advisory role”. Nor is he overly respectful of the few British ex-commandos who arrived as trainers. There were also a few Qatari instructors who arrived along with sophisticated weaponry sent by their government, he adds.
Driving eastwards from the Tunisian border, Burshan offers comradely greetings to the thuwar who emerge, sometimes bearded and in long gowns, from graffiti-bedecked Portakabins or tent-like shelters as the car zig-zags through artificial sand-banks erected ahead of checkpoints.
He is only mildly put out when they detect something unfamiliar in his accent and ask his nationality. In the wider Transitional National Council, he is the member for Gharyan, although he will have to see how he is received there this week by locals who have already organised their own post-revolutionary committees.
“Libya is one country and Tripoli is its capital,” reads a roadside sign. A car-park style barrier is lifted up to let us pass, beside another improvised sign that reads, “Welcome to Nalut”. It soon becomes clear that each rebel brigade is operating entry and exit checkpoints to its own area.
The rebel forces were deliberately organised by town so as to let brigade members vet applicants and exclude possible pro-Qadhafi infiltrators, explains Burshan. About 50 per cent of applicants were respectfully turned down. Now the main task will be “nation-building”, along with “good governance, justice, equal opportunities”, he says.
He dismisses talk of the movement disintegrating into regionalism or tribalism: “Tribalism, where is the tribalism? It all works on personal relations. I know each commander from here to Gharyan.”
As for Islamist currents among fighters in the Nafusa, there is nothing there yet that makes him uncomfortable: “We are not Yemen. It doesn’t mean we don’t produce extremism, but our society will deal with it, just like any other culture that has these shades of political views. These are the complexities of open societies and open economies.”
But it was rather worrying to him that Abdelhakim Belhaj, formerly of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, had earlier that day been announced as leader of Tripoli’s military council: “I don’t know whether he put himself in that position, or whether somebody appointed him.”
Nalut, the main town of the Nafusa area, took a battering from pro-Qadhafi forces in the spring. Outside the rebels’ military HQ, a surreal sculpture of assorted metal parts stood mounted on the back of a pick-up van. It was a section of a jet engine recycled as a rocket launcher. “You see how ingenious we Libyans are!” said Burshan. A rectangle of chintz-covered padding borrowed from someone’s living room serves as incongruous blast protection over the back of the driver’s cab. “In the early days they even used stones” against the pro-Qadhafi forces, said Burshan. “Nalut was held for months with just 350 Klashnikovs. That’s all they had — it was pitiful.”
Maybe it’s an old habit, but he never refers to Qadhafi by name. “The guy made of a lot of stupid mistakes,” he says.
“People did this rebellion happily,” strange as it may sound, he adds. “The weight on them. The shame they’ve been carrying for all these years. These are proud people. These are cultures that are thousands of years old, and it was somebody who just came in yesterday. Some kind of an idiot. They are so embarrassed about what happened to them.”
Burshan continued on to Ghariyan, and the next day found us heading back to Tunisia, with a stop-off in Kabaou. The landscape is dry as a bone, apart from some long-established olive groves. Over the years many families have moved away to Tripoli. The village had been free of Qadhafi’s rule for some months, although shells fell worryingly close in early August.
The president of the village’s civilian council, Abrahim Makhluf, is a mining engineer who before the revolution he was supervisor of infrastructure for Nalut state. The priority would be to “build up the country” with a strong civil society and institutions, an independent judiciary, he said. Not so different, then, from Tunisia across the border.
There will also be moves to rehabilitate the Berber language. “Over the years we lost a lot of vocabulary, even before Qadhafi,” said Makhluf. “Under Qadhafi we could only use our language at home, and he rewrote history, with his Green Book, to say ‘Your origin is Arab’. There was no way to express feelings and culture.”
His colleague from the village’s military council, Suliman Sharche, is an affable retired airforce officer who for some years now has been director of the local hospital. As a pilot through the 1980s he helped Qadhafi to “help revolutions” in Uganda, Burkina Faso, Rwanda, Burundi, Liberia even Nicaragua, he said. It was a time of constant propaganda, with some bright new idea from the Guide every year.
Taking us on a tour of the village, he points out the remains of an ancient synagogue in the abandoned old quarter. In Kabaou, “we started off as Jews, then became Christians, then Muslim!” he says.
Back at the council house, he talks of rural poverty and the need for better health services so that people will no longer have to travel to Tunisia for treatment, and of how there should be real jobs for Libyan professionals, instead of the pretend jobs they had under Qadhafi.
We ask what should be done with Qadhafi once he is caught. Sharche cracks up. “Who cares? Qadhafi is over and done with.” It seems to be the most hilarious question he has heard in a long time, and it has made his morning.
This was first published on The Moore Next Door and is a report from western Libya by Eileen Byrne ([email protected]), a friend of TMND and journalist based in Tunis.