By Umar Khan.
Tripoli, 24 June 2013:
Almost two years after it fell to the revolutionaries, Bani Walid, one of the last strongholds of Qaddafi regime and central city of the million-strong Warfalla Tribe remains in a sensitive state. It has seen several bloody conflicts since October 2011 but the most serious was the security operation to ‘reinstate the writ of government’ in October last year. It was sanctioned by the General National Congress (GNC) primarily to apprehend the people wanted in connection with the killing of Omran Shaaban, the Misratan revolutionary credited with first discovering Muammar Qaddafi in October 2011 in a drainage pipe in Sirte.
The city that once had a reputation for running the affairs of the whole country, found itself seen, after the liberation as the final stronghold of the Qaddafi regime
Even after since the fall of Bani Walid, many continued to believe the city was still loyal to the former regime and harboured wanted people. Several armed clashes following its fall didn’t help quell this belief. During all this time, religious and community leaders were trying to promote reconciliation. They failed because of the heavy loss of lives from both sides, and killing of Shaaban proved to be the final blow to all the peace efforts.
The resentment in the city continues today, as the people believe there have been systematic efforts to humiliate them. True or not, it did not help when the Misratan brigades taking part in the final offensive put up pictures in the main square of Ramdan Swehli (a revolutionary from the city who fought against the Italian colonists) and Omran Shaban.
Ali Muhammed (we are not revealing the family and tribe name at his request) still cannot stay in Bani Walid for more than two days, because of taunts and remarks. He supported the revolution from the beginning and after the killing of students on 28 May, he fled to Sirte.
“I went to Sirte with a different name, as my relative there was in a position to offer me security” he said, “I twice escaped death, once from Qaddafi forces that started shooting randomly and the other time when NATO bombed the building I was hiding in. When I returned [to Bani Walid], neighbours and other people had a different attitude towards me. Some started directing remarks at me and eventually I left the city.”
He returned to the city and joined the 28 May brigade but had to flee again when the brigade was kicked out after clashes that left seven dead. Muhammed thinks the clashes were triggered by a feeling of humiliation. “People are used to the thinking that they are great and they are running the affairs of the country. But with the revolution this all changed and people have struggled to grasp the reality and couldn’t see their influence go.”
He added: “The offensive was in no way the answer to the problems. It has deepened the anger of people, be it for the right reason or not. They were sad and after burying their sons, they are just silent but filled with anger,” he says. “I stay in Tripoli because nothing is the same back home. I don’t even know if it is home any more. I only go back for couple of days just to see my family.’
Muhammed is currently with a unit of border guards based in Tripoli. It is a small unit of 40 fighters, that falls directly under the Ministry of Defence. While we were talking in the administrative building, a few fighters walk past us and seem unhappy with him. “They are also from Bani Walid. It’s the same attitude that I face back in the city and the reason I don’t go back often.”
One of the fighters is Naji (he refused to be named in the article), a 25 year-old who had a shop in the city before the revolution. He insists that nothing is wrong in Bani Walid but over a cup of tea starts talking about the unjust treatment of his city at the hands of revolutionaries. “We didn’t like Qaddafi before the revolution but it’s the treatment we got after his death that made many to like him. Earlier clashes were not because of loyalty to the former regime but internal fights. But now things are different. What Misrata did to our brothers is fresh in the memory of all and we will not forget it.”
He adds: “The flags you saw (black mourning flags) say a lot. The majority of the people raised black flags as a sign or mourning. They don’t buy any product made in Misrata. Did you see anything in the shops?” Naji asks me. “No! I didn’t,” I reply.
Sadiq Warfalli, is a friend of Naji. He is originally from Wadi Dinar. He believes that the situation in Bai Walid has already hit the bottom and it will only now improve. “Normality is returning. On the streets it became normal a while back. But als,o deep within the people, it is changing slowly. People are beginning to understand the dynamics now.”
Ask about reconciliation, they all say the same thing that it is way too quick to expect the people to forget all what has happened in the past two years. “It will take time for them to feel at peace with the situation. I just hope it is not too late when it happens,” says Naji.
When I get back to the building from the barracks, Muhammed warns me not to trust everything I was told by Naji and Sadiq. “They supported Qaddafi forces till Bani Walid fell and then joined this unit. They were only allowed [to do so], so that they can move on and not stay stuck in the past but I don’t think it is helping. I just hope they understand the reality and accept the new Libya or they will keep the whole country in chaos, as reconciliation can only be done if both sides are willing to make compromises. “
If people feel so strongly about the situation, what are the chances of another armed clash? Not so much, according to Muhammed, “It’s impossible to resist the majority. I think they have realised that it will only result in the loss of more lives. For the moment, they are silent. Is this because of the lack of power and alternative or because of a genuine desire to move forward? I’d like to believe it is the latter,” he concludes.