Last September a young regime fighter named Faouzi was posted near a replica castle overlooking the entrance to his hometown of Bani Walid when it suddenly crumpled in a cloud of dust.
“It was NATO,” he says. “You couldn’t see the rockets, of course – only hear them.”
Eight months earlier, he had been protesting in the street against Muammar Qaddafi. But within weeks, he was fighting for Qaddafi’s regime.
His journey illustrates the complex loyalties in play during Libya’s civil war, and the challenge of reconciliation between those who backed revolution and those who stood against it. Today both sides express feelings of betrayal.
A coalition of parties that won Libya's first post-Qaddafi elections last month has called on Libyans to unite, and many in the country support that message. But many also distrust those who backed Qaddafi during last year's civil war. If divisions persist, they could undermine or even reverse progress made toward building a stable democracy.
Bani Walid is often seen as a hotbed of loyalist sentiment. While that may exist, residents say tribal loyalty and a sense of persecution have motivated them the most.
“People there are proud,” says Mustafa Fetouri, a Brussels-based Libyan academic who is from Bani Walid. “Trying to break it by force only made them more reluctant to support the revolution.”
A history of defying control
The town, situated about 75 miles southeast of Tripoli, is small, but as the ancestral home of the large Warfalla tribe, it is important. Two centuries ago, the English traveler George Lyon found modest houses hugging a wadi, or seasonal river, and impoverished inhabitants.
“They were once a brave daring set of men, who defied the government of Tripoli,” he wrote, describing Warfalla support for the Ottoman pasha’s son against his father.
In 1993, Warfalla officers in the Libyan army attempted to stage a coup against Qaddafi. Several were executed. Today locals in Bani Walid voice bitterness toward fellow Libyans they say abandoned them.
When revolt erupted in February 2011, Bani Walid’s response was mixed. Faouzi joined an anti-Qaddafi protest that was assailed by regime supporters.
“I was on one side and my brother on the other,” says Faouzi. “And we threw stones.”
But days later, while visiting Tripoli, he says he saw police arresting people with bags of pills as Qaddafi accused rebels of taking drugs. He quickly joined a militia led by Qaddafi’s son, Saadi.
Outside Benghazi, he was shocked to see the column of regime forces hit by an airstrike. It was enough to convince him to quit the militia on the spot and return home.
In Bani Walid, a local rebel militia brawled with locals in May 2011, killing several before leaving town, says Meftah Jabarra, a law professor and member of a committee of elders and prominent citizens in Bani Walid.
After Qaddafi’s regime collapsed in last August, rebel militias encircled Bani Walid and NATO pummeled it with air strikes amid reports that the ousted leader's son, Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, was hiding there.
As Mr. Jabarra sees it, “NATO opened the door for the revolutionaries rather than sticking to their mandate and protecting civilians.”
At least once, he says, civilians were killed. Five members of the Jfara family died when bombs destroyed their two houses in August 2011. NATO said strikes in Bani Walid that day targeted command centers and an ammunition store.
Once again, Faouzi took up arms – this time, he says, simply to defend his home.
“I used a Kalashnikov, RPG’s, a 14.5 mm machine-gun – anything,” he says. “I don’t know if I actually hit anyone.”
A problematic reputation
The city fell in October 2011. Many houses were looted by rebel militiamen, says Jabarra, while the home-grown rebel May 28 Brigade showed a talent for bullying.
Last January their detention of local man Mohamed Shlebta for reasons that remain unclear sparked a shoot-out, Jabarra says. Several people were killed and the May 28 Brigade was run out of town. Media initially portrayed the incident as a pro-Qaddafi revolt, reinforcing Bani Walid’s loyalist image.
That image already had roots, says Mr. Fetouri, the academic. Qaddafi brought many Warfalla into the security services in efforts to win the tribe’s support. Today, that reputation has made Bani Walid a target, says Jabarra.
Over 400 residents, including his brother, Mabrouk, have been detained by militias around the country, he says. Human Rights Watch said in a July report that militias hold around 5,000 detainees in ad-hoc jails.
“Everyone wanted change. But I wanted it through dialogue,” says Ahmed Abusalah, 26, who spent the war working at a café. “Reforms from Qaddafi would have been better than the weapons and militias we have today.”
Relations with interim authorities appear shaky at best, with Tripoli’s influence over Bani Walid limited. After two journalists from Misurata were detained last month in Bani Walid, men from the town of Jadu – not the government – mediated their release.
The replica castle, built by Qaddafi as a vacation home, is now a heap of broken concrete decorated with graffiti. Some is pro-Qaddafi, some not. Otherwise, signs of allegiance are scarce in Bani Walid.
Both Qaddafi’s green flag and Libya’s new flag appear absent. So do references to Sept. 1, the day in 1969 when Qaddafi seized power, and Feb. 17, the day the revolt against Qaddafi began in 2011.
Instead, on a wall beside a checkpoint on the road from Tripoli, "Our date is 93” is painted – a reference to the time when people in Bali Walid say they stood alone.