In Libya's west, rebels rise amid rights concerns, growing pride

The increasingly assertive rebels in Libya's western Nafusah Mountains have committed abuses, Human Rights Watch says today. There's also growing pride, and confidence they're going to win their fight against Muammar Qaddafi.

By , Correspondent

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    A rebel watches the battle area in Al-Qawalish in the western mountains of Libya July 13.
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His name is Bunduq Assim Bunduq but around here everybody calls him "Che."

That is because he never goes anywhere without his red beret and the 26-year-old Bunduq is the ultimate romantic rebel: a well-known singer-songwriter in Tamazight, the long-suppressed language of Libya’s Berber minority, he didn’t hesitate to pick up an AK-47 when the time came.

After the anti-Qaddafi uprising in his hometown of Zuwara failed a few months ago, Bunduq was forced to escape to nearby Tunisia in a small boat. It was just big enough to hold him and three of his friends. There was no room for his nine guitars.

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Now, Bunduq and many young men like him have come to Jadu in the Nafusah Mountains to undergo military training with the rebel army here so they can fight another day. The Nafusah Mountains, it seems, are the new staging ground for people wanting to join the fight against Colonel Muammar Qaddafi’s regime.

The uprising in the area has taken control of much of the region in the past month after having been brutally put down by Qaddafi in March. But as the rebels have advanced, some of them have shown a taste for brutality themselves.

In a report yesterday, Human Rights Watch said that rebel forces committed crimes in four Nafusah Mountain towns they seized in June and July. "Rebel fighters and supporters have damaged property, burned some homes, looted from hospitals, homes, and shops, and beaten some individuals alleged to have supported government forces," the group said.

As always in war, the picture is muddy. The towns had been used by Qaddafi's forces to shell rebel towns, sometimes directing indiscriminate fire at residential districts. Many of their inhabitants had fled when Qaddafi moved forces in April and May. The ones who remained were presumed by many rebels to be Qaddafi loyalists when they seized the territory.

Reports of rebel abuses are sure to fuel the arguments of politicians and analysts who have opposed the NATO air campaign to help the Libyan rebellion, and a reminder of the risk of reprisals if and when his regime falls.

But for the young rebels of the West, spirits remain high and there's unshakable optimism that as they become more organized and competent, victory is only a matter of time. The hope for an eventual rebel push on Tripoli, perhaps sparking sympathetic uprisings in the capital and the towns around it, appears to lie in what's going on here.

Singing commando

Some evenings, Bunduq can be seen performing at Jadu’s Freedom Square, which has a breathtaking view of the plains below, and of the positions from which Qaddafi’s army lob their Grad missiles into the mountains.

But most of the time he can be found at a former army barracks outside Jadu where he and 189 other recruits are undergoing a three-week military training program. “I love that I am fighting,” says Bunduq, “but I don’t love fighting. As soon as this is over I want to go back to my music.”

Bunduq’s class is the third to train at Jadu’s military academy. Earlier classes numbered 180 and 170 recruits.

Benghazi, the capital of the anti-Qaddafi rebels in Libya's east, also has a military training center, but there is a sense of urgency here that seems sometimes lacking in Benghazi, where the nearest frontlines are either a 3-hour drive or a 36-hour boat trip away.

In Jadu, recruits don’t go home after rudimentary training on the AK-47 like they do in Benghazi; they live together in rudimentary barracks that they’ve decorated with anti-Qaddafi cartoons.

“We’re trying to get them used to the hard life. Don’t forget that most of these people have never held a gun before in their lives,” said one of the trainers, a former Qaddafi army officer who requested anonymity because he still has family living in Tripoli.

Many of the recruits here are Berber, or Amazigh (“Free men”). They’ve come either from the Nafusah Mountains or from Zuwara on the Mediterranean coast, the second biggest concentration of Libyan Berbers.

Others have come from places like Tripoli, Zlitan, and Zawiya in government-held territory, from the Libyan refugee camps in Tunisia, or from farther abroad.

One young recruit, who declined to give his name for fear of repercussions, has come all the way from London.

“I was born and raised in the UK,” he said, “but I still have family all over Libya. After a while, demonstrating outside the Libyan embassy in London just didn’t seem enough.”

Shifting allegiances

When the rebellion began here in mid-February, local government troops, many of whom belonged to the Berber minority, were quick to switch allegiance to the protestors.

“We had been waiting for this chance for 42 years,” said one former captain in Qaddafi’s army who gladly opened his barracks’ gates when the local youth demanded access to the guns inside.

The rebels had the advantage of knowing the terrain. After all, this is where their ancestors, the original inhabitants of North Africa, withdrew to when the Arab armies invaded between the 7th and 11th centuries.

“We don’t protect the mountain; the mountain protects us. Our ancestors knew what they were doing when they brought us here all those years ago,” said the former army captain.

But for a long time the mountain rebellion remained a local affair that had little or no impact on the larger uprising against Qaddafi’s regime. The mountain rebels were at the mercy of the Grad missiles fired by the Qaddafi troops in the valley, and they were cut off from the outside world.

During the worst of the shelling some civilians even sought refuge in the traditional underground Berber houses carved out of the mountainside.

In the past few weeks, however, a string of military victories – with a little help from NATO bombings – have given the rebels almost complete control over the Nafusah Mountains.

Border control

They now have tentative control of the Wizan border crossing with Tunisia in the West – opening the way for weapons and other supplies – and they control the spine of the mountain range all the way to El Ghala in the east. They have even improvised an airstrip on a straight stretch of road where small planes can land. Only Gharyan, the gateway to the mountains and its largest city, is still firmly under Qaddafi’s control.

At one point in early July, the rebels had advanced as far as Bir Ghanem, less than 60 miles from Tripoli’s Green Square.

With Gaddafi’s troops less than a mile away, 35-year old Ziad, an air traffic controller at Tripoli airport who joined the mountain rebels 40 days earlier, was confident about the rebels’ chances of success.

“We are moving very quickly now,” he said. “But we first need to secure the cities in the west, like Surman and Zawiya, before we can move on to Tripoli.” By the next day, however, the rebels had given up their position at Bir Ghanem. Not for the first time, the rebels, in their enthusiasm, had overextended themselves.

“It was an open area and it would have taken a lot of men to hold on to it,” said the chief of Jadu’s military council, Habil Dohi. “We can’t hold on to Bir Ghanem at a time when we are simultaneously fighting on 5 fronts around the mountains.”

In fact, it may be before the rebels are ready for the final push to Tripoli, the chief admitted. There is a rumor on the mountain that the men here are being trained to secretly infiltrate back into their native cities for a coordinated uprising.

The plan, which is allegedly code-named ‘Tripoli Five,’ is based on the wisdom, gained in places like Misuratah, that men will fight harder if they are defending their own homes and families.

Most of the men have come to the mountains via Tunisia, but some have come directly from Tripoli. “Coming here is a problem, especially for young men,” said Iman, a young doctor who came from Tripoli 15 days earlier to help out at the hospital at Yafran on the eastern frontline. “The regime is afraid that the young men will join the rebellion so they are routinely arrested at the checkpoints.”

The fact that more and more young men are succeeding in reaching the mountains from Tripoli anyway might point to a weakening of the regime. “Until a month ago it would have been impossible to make the trip,” said Iman. “I took a desert road but even there we ran into army checkpoints. But the men at these checkpoints are frustrated. They’ve run out of food and they feel like they’ve been left at their own mercy. It’s starting to fall apart,” said Iman.

Meanwhile, a sense of normality has returned to parts of the Nafusah Mountains, allowing for a gradual return of the civilian population.

“We are encouraging families to come back because it is summer now and the refugee camps in Tunisia have become unbearably hot,” said chief Dohi.

In some places, like Yafran, that idea seems insane. During a recent visit, men could be seen cleaning the streets and painting the curbs to prepare for the returnees.

But the frontline is mere miles away and the town is within reach of Qaddafi’s Grad missiles. Only a handful of families have returned.

Nalut, the first mountain town from the Tunisian border, is a ghost town. An attempt by Nalut’s rebels to dislodge the Qaddafi troops shelling the town went horribly wrong, killing 15 rebels with almost no ground gained.

The only town with a sizable civilian population is Jadu, right in the middle of the mountain range. Here, the rebels were more successful. One night, local fighters went down the mountain with their engines cut and their lights dimmed. They surprised the Qaddafi soldiers and managed to push them back far enough to put the town out of Grad missile range.

As a result, Jadu, a pretty town set among olive and fruit trees, has become a surreal haven of peace on a mountain range still surrounded by government troops on all sides. A total ban on guns inside the city added to the peaceful atmosphere.

On a recent Friday, hundreds of kids demonstrated here in a show of solidarity with rebels elsewhere in Libya.

Berber pride

But for every sign proclaiming the unity of the Libyan people, there was another demanding the recognition of Tamazight as an official language of the new Libya. And the flags of the old kingdom of Libya, which has been adopted as the flag of the rebels, flew side by side with the flag of the World Amazigh Congress, an organization representing Berbers in Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Libya.

The mountains are in the middle of a renaissance of Amazigh culture, which Qaddafi did his best to repress. Qaddafi liked to say there was no such thing as a Berber people in Libya; they were an invention of the European colonialists. Everybody here remembers Qaddafi’ statement from 1985 when he said, "If your mother transmits you this language, she nourishes you with the milk of the colonialist, she feeds you their poison."

As a result, there are no reliable figures about the number of Amazigh in Libya, although it is generally assumed that they constitute 5% of the general population. That would put their number at around 300,000. Their growing pride and assertiveness is a reminder of the tribal and cultural divisions that could plague a transition after Qaddafi's one man rule is replaced.

On the mountain, their ancestral land, they are no longer the majority. That is partly because some Berbers abandoned their language and culture when they converted to Islam centuries ago, and partly because of Qaddafi’s policy of Arabisation.

Loyal Arab tribes from the desert were sent to live on the mountain in order to change the demographics. When the uprising started those tribes sided with the government troops. The villages of the Mesheshiya, a tribe known to be fiercely loyal to Qaddafi, are now deserted.

Although their fight against Qaddafi’s regime is far from over, the Amazigh have wasted not time in setting the historic record straight.

Old histories, new histories

In the old center of Jadu, what used to be Qaddafi’s revolutionary museum now hosts a small exhibit dedicated to Suleiman al-Barouni, a Berber freedom fighter who fought against the Italian colonial occupiers alongside his contemporary Omar Mukhtar, who is revered by the rebels in Benghazi.

Next to the museum, Libya’s first school of Tamazight was open for business.

Children there were decorating the walls with portraits of al-Barouni and with letters from Tifinagh, the Berber alphabet.

“Most people here still speak Tamazight fluently, but many have forgotten how to write it,” said the school’s teacher, 15-year old Mira Dugha, who learned Tifinagh by herself using the internet.

Under Qaddafi, speaking Tamazight in class was strictly forbidden, although it was allowed on the playground. Writing Tamazight, however, was considered a serious offence.

“It’s not like they would send the kids to prison,” said Dugha, “but if you were caught with Berber writing your father might be taken for a ride by the security services. And education ministry inspectors would ask the Arab students if their teacher had ever spoken Amazigh in class.”

It could also get a lot worse.

Forbidden language

Sipping coffee at a café outside the school was 61-year-old Yusuf Ali Hafiani.

In April 1980, Hafiani and around 40 others were arrested after they had gone to Algeria to meet with other Amazigh activists.

“It wasn’t an armed group or anything. It was a cultural organization. We returned to the mountain with books and cassette tapes of Amazigh music. That’s what got us into trouble,” said Hafiani.

Hafiani was sentenced to death by a revolutionary court. The charge was Amazigh activism. He spent eight years in prison until he and other political prisoners were given amnesty in 1988 in what Hafiani says was an attempt on Qaddafi’s part to gain public support after Libya’s unpopular war in Chad.

In 2000, a group of Libyan Amazigh musicians was sent to prison for three months after they released a cassette tape with Amazigh music. More recently Bunduq -- Che to his friends -- was forbidden to travel to an Amazigh music festival in Tangiers in Morocco, and warned not to sing in Tamazight ever again.

Whether the Libyan Berbers will be able to freely enjoy their language and culture in more than just Jadu will depend on several things. First, Qaddafi’s regime will have to be defeated. Second, the Amazigh will have to convince the rebel council in Benghazi of the legitimacy of their demands.

Benghazi has recently taken a keen interest in the Nafusah Mountains. A delegation of politicians from the east came to Jadu several weeks ago, bearing, among other thing, 500,000 dinars (around $400,000 )in aid to local families. A sign that east and west can work together would go a long way to reassuring foreign policy makers that there won't be a civil war in Libya after its current civil war.

There is military coordination between the rebels here and in Benghazi, although chief Dohi says: “We do not take orders from Benghazi; we merely keep them informed.”

A draft constitution for post-Qaddafi Libya that was recently adopted by the council in Benghazi states that Arabic is the official language of Libya, adding that minority languages will be respected.

For the Amazigh, that’s not enough.

“We have sent people to Benghazi to make this point clear,” said Hafiani. “The recognition of Tamazight as an official language is non-negotiable for us.”

But he is confident. “Some people are saying, ‘Enough already with the Amazigh stuff; we are all Libyans now.’ But they are a minority. Most people in Benghazi are sympathetic to our struggle.”

Ironically, Qaddafi’s ultimate legacy may be that he has brought the Arab and Amazigh people in Libya closer together.

“Before I hated all the Arabs,” said Bunduq Assim Bunduq. “In Zuwara, it’s not like in the mountains: we were surrounded on all sides by Arabs. When I would speak Tamazight with my friends in the street, someone would invariably come up and say, ‘Respect yourself and speak Arabic like everybody else.’ Now, for the first time, I feel like I love all Libyans. It is the greatest gift that Qaddafi could give us.”

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