By Houda Mzioudet.
Ghat, 9 February 2013:
The border town of Ghat, deep in Just south-west of the country is part of the historic province of Fezzan. Just outside the town lies the Algerian border and not far beyond it, the town of Djanet which once, before the European colonists arrived and started carving up Africa between them, was also in Fezzan.
Famous for its annual international festival of the Sahara Desert and its traditions that take place in December each year, Ghat becomes a hub for Saharan tourism drawing Libyans and Algerians as well as other nationalities to see a wide variety of the traditions and folklore of Sahara desert life.
The town is mainly inhabited by Tuareg tribes but there are also Hausas who are mainly found in northern Nigeria and southeastern Niger. At its heart lies the Old Town, with its houses made of mud and clay. The winding narrow alleys with their ocre yellow buildings lead up to the Fort of Ghat, standing majestically on the hilltop with the Libyan independence flag flying up in the blue sky.
Behind the picturesque site is a rather more grim image of a town that was a stronghold of the Qaddafi regime for over four decades. “He ruled the country with an iron fist and Ghat in particular, given its geographical isolation and being a border town with Algeria. This made it almost impossible for any voice of dissent against the regime to be heard,” explained Werfalla Abdelqader Kooray, a 42-year old Ghat human rights activist who actively participated in the 17 February uprising. He now works in Ghat General Hospital.
Trying to engage in meaningful contact with locals in Ghat, particularly anyone who is a civil society activist, was not easy. There was noticeable resistance from one such Ghat activist, working in the culture sector, who agreed to be interviewed only after asking his superior’s permission. Speaking to local residents about post-Qaddafi Libya continued to be difficult until a local teacher directed us to Werfalla. He at least agreed to speak openly about the town since the fall of Qaddafi.
Werfalla lives in Berket, west of the town centre. Its houses, many falling down, are made of clay and mud and surrounded by palm trees. Outside his house there is a square, renamed Momen Toua Square, in tribute to a Ghat local, Momen Toua, who was shot by the Qaddafi forces in the town in August 2011, around the time the city of Tripoli was liberated.
Yusuf Adam, a Tebu from Obari, 315 kilomtres to the north east, explained that Ghat still remains loyal to Qaddafi although people will not show it for fear of retribution. “There was this video on Facebook that showed some Ghat locals taking down the green flag of Qaddafi, kissing it and putting it in a box and putting up the independence flag instead,” he spoke with a hint of sarcasm at the symbolism of such an act. Ghat was the last town in Libya to have recognised the Libyan Revolution, he added.
“I remember that this was the town that never suffered any shortage of food or supplies as did the rest of Libya during the events because they had Algeria next door, supplying them with whatever they needed,” he explained.
The Ghat-Qaddafi connection is real enough. No place in Libya has had more officials disbarred by the Integrity Commision because of links to the former regime. Its two Congress members have been banned as have the local council leader, the council’s secretary, its financial controller, the commander of the border guards, the head of the security directorate and the head of the sanitation department.
Even so, this isolated town deep in the south west tries to keep its secrets from the outside world about the Libyan uprising of 2011 and also tries to keep up with post-Qaddafi Libya.
Werfalla’s rather pessimistic view is that most people in Ghat have almost no political culture and that they were indoctrinated by the Qaddafi regime for the last four decades. This, he says, explains the widespread lack of opposition to the regime during the Libyan revolution.