Rebels resent Sirte residents, but vow not to take revenge

Rebels and villagers near Sirte talk about their resentment of residents in Muammar Qaddafi's hometown of Sirte, who benefited from better services while areas to the east languished.

Zohra Bensemra/Reuters
A woman holds a wanted poster of Muammar Qaddafi during a demonstration at Martyrs Square in Tripoli.

On the first Friday since Libya’s revolutionaries freed this small village from the control of forces loyal to former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, the mosque is full with village men and rebel fighters who have come from nearby checkpoints.

Over a tinny loudspeaker, the village imam asks God to protect the fighters, and adds a request: “May God defeat Qaddafi and show him what he’s done to us,” he says.

After the sermon is over, men spilling out of the mosque into a dusty square talk about just what it is that Libya’s leader of 42 years did to their village. His policy of favoring certain tribes and areas while neglecting others – like theirs – has left a deep-seated resentment, not only of Qaddafi, but also of those who benefited from him.

“For years here, there was no electricity, no doctors, no water, no gas,” says Sherif Yousif, dressed in a white robe with a white scarf over his head. By contrast, in Qaddafi's hometown of Sirte about 80 miles to the west, things are different.

“There is no comparison” between Sirte, where Qaddafi bestowed favor, and Nawfaliyah, says Mr. Yousif.

That is partially his explanation for why the people of Sirte have not yet laid down their arms, even while it is clear that Qaddafi’s rule is over – those who benefited from him don’t want to lose their privileges. Yet another likely reason for the delay is that residents are afraid of retribution from those who were not showered with favor during Qaddafi’s rule.

Negotiations for Sirte's surrender

If the city of Sirte is to negotiate its surrender, as the transitional leaders hope, the tribes once favored by Qaddafi will not only have to give up their privilege, but will also have to be convinced that they won’t be slaughtered when they do.

Libya’s new transitional leaders extended a deadline for negotiations yesterday until Sept. 10. At the nearest point to Sirte from the east that journalists were allowed to reach, military commanders said that negotiations were ongoing. But no one in Nawfaliyah had first-hand knowledge of the talks and those interviewed gave at times contradictory information about who exactly is doing the negotiations – some said tribal leaders, others rebel commamders – what they are talking about, or whether they're even talking at all.

Abdel Hafidh Ghoga, deputy chairman of the National Transitional Council, said Thursday that the town of Harawa, which is near Sirte, had decided to surrender. But commanders at the front said that it had not yet surrendered, and that though the city might want to, it was not possible yet because rebel forces have not yet reached it.

Rebels vow not to take revenge on Sirte residents

The front line is currently static, with occasional shelling by Qaddafi forces, while everyone plays a waiting game. Fighters at the front said they hoped negotiations would succeed, but they are prepared to take it if not.

One fighter, however, tried to reassure the residents of Sirte that the revolutionaries would treat them graciously if they surrendered.

“For a dictator to stay in power this long, he has to give privileges to people. But we’re willing to forget what he’s done,” says Adel Sanfez. He adds that many people in Sirte believe Qaddafi’s propaganda that if they surrender, the rebels will take revenge on them. He vows they will do no such thing.

“To prove our good will, we’re not attacking Sirte,” he says. “We could take Sirte in two days – but we’re not in a hurry to.”

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