The citizens of Bani Walid bitterly fought against the Libyan revolutionaries until the very end. Since then, calm has ruled in the provincial city and one time bastion of Gaddafi supporters. Yet, it is unclear whether the fragile peace will hold. Impressions from a city between rebellion and accommodation by Alfred Hackensberger
Libya has a central government, yet the country is divided into city states with their own electoral and legal systems, their own administrations, and powerful rebel militias, upon which power is based. For the first time, a former bastion of Gaddafi has also achieved its independence. In Bani Walid, public life is regulated in a manner its citizens see fit. The government has yet to officially approve of this state of affairs, yet, as is well known, this makes no difference in Libya.
Bani Walid lies 170 kilometres south-east from Tripoli on a high plateau in the desert. It is a city with around 100,000 inhabitants, widely spread out over the mountain region. In contrast to other Libyan cities, one is immediately struck by the fact that in Bani Walid there are no weapons or military vehicles on the streets. There are no checkpoints, at which militiamen arbitrarily control cars and papers. In Bani Walid, one has the unusual feeling that order and security reign.
This state of affairs remains a distant dream in the rest of Libya. It can be dangerous to be out at night due to roaming bands. It is namely these bands that set up checkpoints and force those stopped to turn over their possessions. In Tripoli, pedestrians are even shot at from balconies.
In self-defence, many Libyans carry a Kalashnikov with them to the café, restaurant, or in the car. And every day, people still go missing. They are held prisoner, beaten, and tortured, as was recently documented in a report by the international organization Human Rights Watch.
The ban on weapons and militias in Bani Walid was a measure decided upon in the assembly hall of the Tahar Club. This is where the Council of Elders regularly meet to represent the interests of the city's inhabitants. The council is made up of 32 representatives from families and clans of the Warfalla, which is the largest tribe in Libya with almost one million members. The Warfalla are spread over the whole country like a patchwork quilt among Libya's other 140 tribes. Only in Bani Walid are the Warfalla the dominant tribe. "Our city is the mother of all Warfalla," explains a young man with a wide smile. "This is where it all began."
The Council of Elders assigned responsibility for security in the city to the local police and the Libyan Army. One would wish for such a decision to be implemented across the whole of Libya. This could end the arbitrary power of many of the country's armed militias.
The National Transitional Council (NTC) has yet to issue any corresponding directives on this issue, but he has not truly attempted to curb the power of the militias, despite their often systematic and gross violations of human rights. Although the old regime has been overthrown, this alone provides no foundation for a functioning central government or a state with a reliable justice system, a national police force, and an army. The direction of developments in Libya remains completely open and uncertain.
The despised "loyalist enclave"
The Bani Walid Council of Elders has not been recognized by the NTC as officially representing the city. It is still regarded as a "Gaddafi city", as an enclave loyal to the old, despised system. Just like Sirte, the native city of the dictator, fighting in Bani Walid lasted until the bitter end.
After the rebels took control of the Libyan capital in late August, fighting continued for another two months in Bani Walid. Yet, resistance in the city was finally broken in favour of the rebels. Only on 17 October did the city fall into the hands of the revolutionary forces. This was also the day on which Seif al-Islam attempted to flee. Gaddafi's son, who was supposed to have inherited his father's political legacy, had been hiding in Bani Walid for a month.
"Yes, he was here with us," says Omar Algasey, a 36-year-old employee at an observation terrace that offers a wonderful panoramic view of the Bani Walid valley and the mountains. Empty bullet shells lie scattered everywhere on the ground. The roof of the nearby city hotel collapsed under a NATO bomb.
"There was some heavy fighting," claims Algasey, and then quickly adds, "Seif Al-Islam was no soldier. He was only a good talker. When it came to fighting, no one took him seriously." He was only offered shelter, because that is what tradition demands, explained the director of the local polytechnic school, a little later. "You are obliged to help whoever knocks on your house door seeking protection," says Mohammed Rassim.
So was it a matter of selflessly adhering to traditional customs and thereby garnering the fury of the entire nation? Hardly. All the graffiti left behind in Bani Walid by the revolutionaries has been painted over. There are a total of only four or five new Libyan flags flying in the entire urban area. "We also have one at the polytechnic," says Rassim and grins. It is more of small pennant than a flag flying above one of the school buildings. "Isn't this flag wonderful, the flag of new freedom?" says the director pointing up with his finger, his face full of unsurpassable, biting irony.
"A scorched earth policy"
Gaddafi's native city of Sirte as well as Tawergha, from where the Libyan Army launched its attack on the besieged city of Misrata, were bombed, burned, and mercilessly plundered by the rebels. This was carried out with the intention of keeping the local population from ever returning. Bani Walid was lucky to escape such a fate. The city's citizens did, however, experience a foretaste of this scorched earth policy.
During the occupation by the rebels, stores were looted, 4000 automobiles were stolen, and 300 houses were plundered and burned down, yet only after their floors were torn out and gardens dug up in the hope of discovering hidden money and jewellery.
The rebels did not move from house to house in Bani Walid. The plundered and destroyed buildings seem to have been specifically chosen. In residential areas, it was always only one or two large estates or villas that belonged to prosperous owners. A list had clearly been drawn up indicating the homes of supposed leadership figures and beneficiaries of the Gaddafi regime.
"Why only my house?" complains Saadi Weinis, close to tears. A fire caused the roof to cave in and the walls now lean crooked upon their foundations. "Why only me?" repeats the 67-year-old man over and over. "My son spent nine years in prison under Gaddafi!"
The history of Bani Walid exemplifies the tragedy of life under a dictatorship. Rebellion or accommodation? Members of the Warfalla tribe chose both of these options. In 1993, officers in the city were the moving force behind a failed putsch attempt against Gaddafi. Four years later, eight military officers were executed for their part in the intrigue.
Others, like Weinis' son, found themselves in prison. After the coup attempt, the Warfalla nevertheless accommodated themselves with the regime and were rewarded for their loyalty with leading positions in the army and within the security services. And not least of all, city entrepreneurs were doing excellent business thanks to government contracts. The Warfalla were finally given everything that was denied to them before 1993.
For this, the rebels took their revenge. After conquering the city, a militia with the name 28th of May Brigade was stationed there as the security force. Its members came from Benghazi, Derna, and Tripoli, but also from Bani Walid.
One of the locals in the brigade was Tarek, or so he calls himself. He fought with the brigade since last June on various fronts in Libya, yet has since distanced himself from his colleagues. "There are a few bad people among them," relates the sturdy young man. "They fired upon buildings, robbed businesses, and continue to imprison supposed Gaddafi loyalists." One really should refer to this practice as kidnapping, he adds, because there are no orders from above, let alone arrest warrants.
The situation escalated in late January. One family demanded that the 28th of May Brigade release their "kidnapped" son, who had since been deported to Misrata. The family, part of an influential sub-clan of the Warfalla, mobilized its members. Seventy men stormed the brigade's barracks. After a battle lasting several hours, the brigade was forced to retreat from the city. Four people died on both sides and a further twelve were wounded. The wrecks of two cars barricading the entrance to the barracks still bear witness to the battle.
"A total embargo"
"There hasn't been a single green Gaddafi flag raised in Bani Walid, as opposed to what has been reported in the media," assured the former militiaman Tarek. "I fought for the revolution and should know." The majority of the city's inhabitants are on the side of the new Libya and only want to live in peace. After the confrontation, Bani Walid was completely cut off from the rest of the world for a week. Telephone and internet connections were cut, there were no deliveries of fuel or food, and no more cash for the banks.
"It was a total embargo," says Mahadi Siedie, the Chairman of the Council of Elders. He sits at the front of the large assembly hall in the Tahar Club. The other tribal elders sit around him against the wall on cushions on the floor. They all wear the traditional "sharda", a white woollen cloak. "And then, suddenly, it was all over. How and why, we don't know." There are still no direct negotiations with the National Transitional Council (NTC). "We only speak with representatives of the army and the police."
The fate of the "kidnapped hostages" remains unresolved. The citizens of Bani Walid demand their release, as long as there was no official arrest warrant. Between 70 and 80 prisoners have been taken to Misrata alone.
"Some of them have been tortured," asserts the Council Chairman, who visited the internment camps as part of a delegation. "And something else we haven't forgotten – we want back all of our stolen property," he adds, while all of the other elders nod in consent. It remains rather doubtful, however, whether these demands will be met. Especially since there is no one to implement them.
The NTC appears to be a powerless institution when it concerns the militias. The Libyan government has no control over the more than 250 brigades in Misrata. At best, the council can negotiate with the local administration and hope for a compromise. The government has been in similar situations with respect to the cities of Benghazi and Sintan.
The NTC could be seen as more of a petitioner than an equal partner in negotiations. It is far from being an institution that can impose binding decisions. This does not offer hopeful prospects for a country that wants to develop democratically. For all intents and purposes, it remains dependent on the good will of armed groups.
At the moment, peace prevails in Bani Walid, the city of Gaddafi loyalists. "That is, of course, unless the militias return," says Tarek, the former rebel fighter.
© Qantara.de 2012
Translated from the German by John Bergeron
Editors: Arian Fariborz, Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de