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.
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Under Qaddafi, speaking Tamazight in class was strictly forbidden, although it was allowed on the playground. Writing Tamazight, however, was considered a serious offence.Skip to next paragraph
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“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.
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.”