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Libya’s Amazigh Debate Their Future

3:50 PM, Nov 11, 2011 • By ANN MARLOWE
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Obari, Libya 
"Why are the people in the north getting petroleum when you are living over it and getting nothing?" said Hisham Hamadi. The plump, energetic lawyer was addressing a conference of activists drawn from Libya’s three Amazigh (or Berber) communities—those from the Nafusa mountains, the West Coast city of Zwara, and the Tuareg of the Sahara desert. And it was the Tuareg that the Nafusan Hamadi was appealing to when he spoke of the injustices visited on them here in their de facto capital, Obari. 


This dusty city of 50,000 in the Western Sahara, closer to Mali and Algeria than Tripoli or Benghazi, was nearly the last city in Libya to be liberated by the rebels. Many outsiders, including other Amazigh, charge that Obari supported Qaddafi until the end. Several of the speakers countered that the Tuareg never backed the dictator, but the fact is that the Libyan Army and the two Obari-based paramilitary brigades controlled by Qaddafi's cronies were among the few employment options in this impoverished area. One local Tuareg activist, Abu Bakr Akaty, contended that 138 Tuareg soldiers were killed for refusing orders to fire on civilians. But perhaps as many as 300 Obari men were slain fighting for the old regime, some in Qaddafi’s brutal assault on Misrata and others defending Tripoli from the revolutionaries.

It is telling that all speakers at the conference gave their talks in Arabic; the Amazigh dialects are not mutually intelligible. There are racial and cultural differences as well. The Tuareg, tall, lean, and dark-skinned, don’t appear to be from the same stock as the Amazigh from Zwara and the mountains, with their Mediterranean coloring and more diverse body types. Culturally, the northerners are far more integrated into the modern world, and those at the conference wore Western business suits. Many of the southerners sported traditional floor-length tunics, made in Mali, in a rainbow of colors. Perhaps ten percent covered their faces.

Some of the Saharan activists disavow the idea of national boundaries, pointing out that they are scattered among Algeria, Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and other African countries. But though Amazigh readily display their pan-national flag—often to the chagrin of their Arab neighbors—an Amazigh homeland isn’t geographically feasible. Even in Libya, the two main areas of settlement are separated by almost a thousand kilometers.

Conditions are generally dire in Libya’s south. Qaddafi went to high school 200 kilometers from here in majority-Arab Sebha, a city of 350,000, but if he showered any largesse on the city, it’s hard to find. Sebha is best described as a garbage dump with the basic appurtenances of a city—stores, cafes, hotels, banks. The two-lane road between Sebha and Obari is in rough condition. The better road from Sebha, north to Tripoli, is barely signposted, with no service stations for stretches of over 150 kilometers.

Obari is much cleaner and more attractive than Sebha. But its sparse commercial district resembles Afghanistan more than northern Libya’s decrepit Mediterranean cities. Small boys sell delicious round flatbreads made by their mothers, while withered desert Amazigh women crouch on the sidewalk selling small piles of traditional stick toothbrushes, spices and mysterious powders from further south. A disconsolate crowd of men gathers every morning in front of the only functioning bank, trying to withdraw their direct-deposited salaries (they are limited to taking out 750 dinars or about $600).

The Bangladeshi owner of one of the city’s men’s clothing shops told me that the apparent poverty of the locals is belied by the thriving business in human trafficking. The Tuareg bring African workers from Mali and Niger north in a two-day truck journey through the desert from the Niger border. Some of the traffickers have enough to spend 450 dinars at a throw on traditional clothing at his store, where the basic traditional dress runs 70 dinars or $50. He also insisted that “99 percent of the people” here supported Qaddafi.

The Libyan south doesn’t seem the most likely place for democracy to take root, and one sign of this is the role of women. Very few women are on the street in Sebha or Obari, and even the innocuous women’s charitable organizations thriving in the north are absent here. There are only 22 women in Obari’s 60-person civil society group Taminek (“unity” in Tamazight). Sonia Khamina, 20, said that women “don’t have any rights” in Tuareg culture.

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