As shells fell around the Amazigh city of Zwara on the evening of April 3, the city’s five tanks thundered back at its Arab neighbors in Rig Dalin. Men, ranging in age from their teens to their sixties, fought and supported the fighters—and updated the Zwara Media Center’s very active Facebook page. Also, they talked incessantly about the meaning of democracy, minority rights, gun control, and other topics usually left to less urgent settings.
Libyans are often having the right kinds of discussions among themselves, but there’s a huge gap between conversation and the actions needed to nudge the nation closer to a functioning democracy.
The roots of the Zwara-Rig Dalin animosity stretch back decades, even centuries. One local activist invoked the Arab invasion that displaced Amazigh from the coast inland. But last year, hatred spilled over into violence as former Libyan prime minister Baghdadi Mahmudi (now jailed in Tunisia), himself from Jumayl, an ally of Rig Dalin, promised the local Arabs Zwara’s fifty miles of coastland if they supported Qaddafi. Armed by Mahmudi, Rig Dalin, Jumayl, and another Arab city, Ajilat, fought fiercely for Qaddafi until the end, raising the green flag defiantly even after Qaddafi’s death on October 20.
The current conflict began when Jumayl fighters kidnapped and tortured 25 Zwara border guards on April 1 and refused to return their cars and weapons, even after releasing the men. It escalated from skirmishes on the outskirts of the two cities on April 2 to Rig Dalin shelling the town of Zwara, to Zwara men burning buildings on the outskirts of Rig Dalin, to mutual lobbing of shells by the evening of the 3. At that point, thirteen Zwara men had been killed and 177 wounded, the largest number ever killed in a single conflict and far more than even died in the revolution itself. (Two more men died from wounds by April 5.) The young fighters didn’t wear the flak jackets and helmets provided to the revolutionaries by foreign countries last summer: several of the deaths were by sniper shots to the heart or head. When I visited one frontline at Abdul Samed Air Defense base on April 2, none of the revolutionaries were wearing protective gear.
On Wednesday night, the government in Tripoli sent troops to enforce a ceasefire. The long term damage from the violence is Zwara’s trust in the fairness of the national government.
“No one here believes in this Libya anymore,” claims Ayoob Sufyan, 24, who works at the Zwara Media Center. “We have been betrayed by this government and the National Transitional Council.”
Sufyan and many of the twenty-something-year-old men clustered in a brightly painted room in the former internal security building were furious at what looked to them like biased treatment by the government and government-owned TV stations. For the last two days, they’d been posting graphic photos of the wounded and dead on their Facebook page on an hourly basis. Yet Libya’s government had done nothing to capture and punish the kidnappers of the Zwara guards. They pointed to the fact that the minister of defense is from Zintan, an Arab town loosely allied with Jumayl.
The upcoming June 23 elections could provide a chance to debate and resolve these issues peacefully. But in late March, the NTC announced that Zwara was too small to be entitled to its own seat in the Assembly. Instead, it would have to share one with Zultan, a pro-Qaddafi town against which the Zwarans were recently fighting.
As Libyan National Army Special Forces moved into a buffer zone between Rig Dalin and Zwara, Zwarans complained of the unfairness of the government’s demand for both sides to disarm. Zwara, after all, had supported the revolution since the beginning, capturing weapons from Qaddafi’s troops.
Wail Moammer invokes the American right to state militias and the right to bear arms. “Texas is the best model. Zwara is like a state,” he argues.
Khaled el Naggiar, 55, an Amazigh activist trained as a pilot in the U.S., rejected the separatist argument, insisting instead on the need for a strong national government. “Texas is a better place than any Arab country. They have laws. They have police. If you shoot someone, you will go to jail. In Libya there is no law now. Libya is like a patient who has had a serious operation and needs to recover.”
Naggiar counseled patience to the younger men – difficult advice in this lively culture at any time, especially after the town’s terrible losses.