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The Fight for Sabratha

2:26 PM, Aug 16, 2011 • By ANN MARLOWE
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Western Libya—Only about thirty volunteers of the three hundred strong Martyr Wasam Qaliyah Brigade are gathered around former Libyan army general Senussi Mohamed as he outlines the plan for the liberation of the coastal city of Sabratha, about 90 kilometers north from Qaddafi’s forces. Crouched in a pleasant pine grove in Jafara Valley, just north of Zintan, they listen intently. This morning, they struck their camp in Jadu, in the western mountains, to join the Sabratha Brigade and volunteers from other cities in what’s planned as a big operation for this Lilliputian war, where groups of 100 or 200 barely trained volunteers skirmish in the streets of rundown cities.

The Fight for Sabratha, Libya

A Sabratha fighter.

Sabratha is directly ahead, but the men's main objective is moving westward along the coastline to liberate their coastal hometown of Zwara, a busy port of 47,000 inhabitants, all ethnic Amazigh or Berber. About 100 kilometers west of Tripoli, Zwara is the first town of consequence in Libya as one enters from the Tunisian border, another 65 kilometers west.

Zwara is historically hostile to the Libyan dictatorship, which suppressed its distinctive language and culture. The townsfolk rebelled against Qaddafi on February 18th and remained free until March 14th when Qaddafi’s forces invaded the city with 700 men and 13 tanks. The government forces used Grad missiles and other anti-armor and anti-aircraft weapons, but the city’s fighters killed 16 of them and seized 300 weapons. Qaddafi’s forces killed seven locals and in the ensuing months have jailed more than 200, including women. There are allegations of rape as well.

Many of the inhabitants of Zwara fled to Tunisia, but a lot of men of fighting age went to Jadu, about 120 kilometers south in the western mountains, to train to retake their city. The inhabitants of Jadu are also ethnic Amazigh, and for the Amazigh this war is about two types of independence: not only freedom for Libya, but freedom to maintain their distinct ethnic identity. For decades, Qaddafi banned the teaching, broadcast or speaking of Amazigh, an ancient indigenous language written in an alphabet that looks like pictographs, called tefenagh. Children could not officially receive or use Amazigh names. Here, all the men speak in Amazigh.

There’s some talk of sleeping in their own beds in a night or two. All talk of the impending end of the war. It was reported just twelve hours ago that Qaddafi’s police fled into Tunisia. (They were later replaced and Qaddafi regained control of the border.) Two days earlier, revolutionary brigades captured the larger town of Zawiyah, 60 kilometers to the east and 40 kilometers from Tripoli. They also took Gharian, the largest town in the western mountains, an operation in which about 20 men of the Zwara brigade participated. Both were strategically significant actions. Controlling Gharian means cutting off Tripoli's access to Algeria—where Qaddafi is said to get troops and munitions—and controlling Zawiyah cuts off Tripoli's fuel and food supply lines from Tunisia.


This is supposed to be the Zwara fighters' final departure from Jadu, so the trucks, SUVs, and passenger sedans that will carry them down to the coast today are full of their belongings. Few of the fighters have anything resembling a military kit: The cars are full of duffle bags and wheelies, even a juicer.

Perhaps the fighter with the most unusual skill set is the tall, 43-year-old Dr. Tarik Alatoshi, who received a Ph.D. in geographic information systems from a Chinese university. He spent 11 years in China and speaks the language fluently. Since he fled Zwara and came here in May, Alatoshi has served the Zwara brigade as an unofficial mediator between the excitable young men who want to rush to the fight, and the three professional army officers who command the brigade. He explains that the men don’t care if they die, but that it isn’t good for Libya if they do. They refuse his suggestions to use the body armor and helmets provided by foreign countries. “They think the helmets make them look like old men,” he says. More understandably, they hate the extra weight of the body armor, but, as he says, “If they are running, it is only for a few minutes. Mainly we are fighting from cars.”

Almost all of the men wear green camouflage uniform pants, but Alatoshi explains that these are training uniforms sent by Qatar. The more usefully camouflaged tan combat uniforms from Qatar are in short supply, as are uniform tops. Many wear patriotic t-shirts, some with the flag of the Amazigh.

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