By Umar Khan
After the Wershafana and Zawiya clashes last year, Libyans are now hesitant about believing stories about green flags and Qaddafi loyalists that seem to emerge every time a clash takes place.
When the recent fighting broke out between Zuara and the neighboring towns of Al-Jmail and Rigdaleen, initial reports suggested that the fight had begun when 25 Zuara fighters were kidnapped by hundreds of loyalists with green flags during official deployment near the Tunisian border. These reports, however, came from Zuara – the only accessible town at the time — and there was no statement from the other two towns involved which made it impossible to learn exactly what happened.
The best way to learn what actually happened and what triggered the clashes that resulted in 20 deaths and over 250 injured was to go and meet with the involved parties. Thus I met Khalifa, head of the reconciliation committee for Rigdaleen, who was in Sabratha for a meeting with the other parties. All were seeking to reach a settlement and avoid further bloodshed. He said: “We are trying to put an end to all this bloodshed. We are all brothers and neighbors at the end of the day. We have to learn to live in peace and harmony.”
As the main route to Al-Jmail was said to be unsafe, a friend and I took a longer route from the centre of Ajilat. Everything seemed normal in Ajilat. There was considerable traffic on the road and a good number of traffic police were present. However, things began to change as we neared Al-Jmail. There was less traffic and hardly anybody was on the road.
There were a few checkpoints in the city, set up by the national army. It was present in large numbers. The hospital was relatively quiet as most of the casualties had been transferred to the bigger and better equipped hospitals of eastern towns such as Sabratha and Zawiya, and the capital Tripoli. The deputy Health Minister, Dr Adel Abushoffa, who was visiting the hospital to assure it of the ministry’s full support, said: “Many patients were airlifted from Zuara on Wednesday and by Friday, some patients from Al-Jmail and Rigdaleen will be sent by air ambulance.”
The military council of Al-Jmail was full of fighters with guns by their sides and “Takbirs” (the phrase “Allahu-Akbar”) played in the background. The head of the council, named Bashir, said that a group of people from Al-Jmail and Rigdaleen had attacked between eight and ten armed cars near the border of Tunisia. He said that many people had been robbed in the area and that complaints were regularly received from the people. Once captured, the “robbers” were brought to Al-Jmail and treated as guests. “I slept in the same room with them, gave them good food to eat and brought them cigarettes. We didn’t put them in jail but kept them in our houses to make sure they felt comfortable.”
According to Bashir, he contacted Zuara’s military council about the men.
When asked about the motive for the attack, he said: “We have been experiencing this for seven months. Ras Jedir, the border crossing is controlled by the people from Zuara and when they see cars from Al-Jmail or Rigdaleen, they make them wait for hours for no reason and mistreat them. They will attack the farms around the cities and beat people living there and take them away only to release them a few days later.”
When asked if the ceasefire would hold, he said: “We stopped firing at the first ceasefire call by the government, but they – Zuara – kept firing for another hour. We didn’t respond and the firing stopped. The National Army is here and in complete control of the situation. We are brothers and neighbors and we have to live together but because of some criminal people, misunderstandings are bound to happen. It’s regrettable that so many lives have been lost.”
The road to Rigdaleen was empty, with hardly any civilian cars. Checkpoints were few and manned by national army personnel. There were signs of fighting further inside the city where the presence of local fighters increased. The area that the Zuara fighters entered on Wednesday afternoon was totally empty with burned shops, garages and houses. There was heavy damage to the houses because of the use of mortar rounds.
The main road to Zuara, the front-line, was blocked with containers and guarded by local fighters with heavy weapons. The deputy commander, Riyad, said: “Weapons are loaded as we don’t want the Wednesday scenario to be repeated. We trust the national army completely and we are in defensive positions. The national army units are located only a few kilometers north, towards Zuara.”
The local Rigdaleen council offices, located in the center of the city, was bustling with people as a delegation from Ajilat that had brought emergency aid was inside meeting with the council members.
The story told by Nouri, a member of the local council, was almost the same as that by the head of the Al-Jmail military council. However, Nouri added that they had contacted the Ministry of Interior to inform them of the men’s capture and that they had also contacted the Ministry of Justice to make sure the Zuara men were prosecuted for their crimes. “They were in ministry cars but there were no national flags on them, only the Amazigh flag. After we captured them, we planned to send them to the Ministry of Justice but then the delegations from nearby towns started to come in.”
The delegations were from the towns of Rujban, Nalut and Sabratha. “The prisoners were released without weapons and cars because they had no connection with any state institution which was confirmed to us by the Ministry of Interior. As soon as they reached Zuara, they started shooting at us.” He also said that the attack was not the only problem the people of Al-Jmail had with Zuara, “In the past seven months, they have come into our area and shot dead our animals, destroyed our farms and kidnapped our people.”
A delegation from Rigdaleen met with the head of the Tripoli Military Council two months before the clash in order to explain the situation. Khaleefa, head of the reconciliation committee, was part of the delegation and they received assurances that the government would handle the matter.
One of the officers from the national army who joined the February 17 Revolution, said: “I took part in many battles including Bani Waleed. I’m still serving in the national army. How can they call me a Qaddafi loyalist? Most fighting here has nothing to do with Qaddafi anymore. The number of people who used to support Qaddafi is falling sharply. Zuara can’t find a better way of getting attention from the government and settling their personal grudges against us.”
The road to Zuara was relatively calm and normal as there was much traffic with many civilian cars on the road. Unlike in Al-Jmail and Rigdaleen, the national army was not present in the city. Life was going on normally with most cafes, restaurants and shops open and children playing outside.
Some of the residents were getting ready for the Asr prayer and also for the funerals of those killed in the recent clashes. When asked about what they thought of the recent clashes, one resident said: “After 42 years of tyranny, such incidents are expected. This is what happens when young boys get guns. Disarmament will stop all this.”
A second man disagreed with his friend and said: “It is all because of the people of Al-Jmail and Rigdaleen. They still support Qaddafi and kill our men.”
No one was at the Zuwara local council offices not at its military council. The guards took us to the nearest boy scout center where some of the military commanders were present. “Some 25 cars attacked our fighters and kidnapped them while they were in the desert doing their jobs. They were 23 in almost ten cars,” said Shokri Thur. He is one of the deputies to Abu Shenouga, the head of the military council, who was attending an important security meeting in a town ten kilometres west of Zuara. Shokri said that he had no doubts that the people who attacked the fighters were loyalists. “Some of the fighters saw green flags and signs supporting Qaddafi on the cars attacking them.”
When asked about the burned houses in Rigdaleen on Wednesday, he said: “We were shelling them and it was random.” But when further asked about the buildings that allegedly were set on fire, he answered, “I was there. Nobody burned any building. We were being fired upon from the buildings and we were returning fire.”
Shokri also said that after the arrival of the national army there was a ceasefire and he had not seen any violations. “The reconciliation process is going on. A delegation from Al-Jmail and Rigdaleen will come to us with their demands and we will tell them our demands. We want the weapons and cars back. We want to search the area for heavy weapons and want them to hand over the wanted people.”
There were three convoys of armed vehicles from the Interior Ministry forces going to Zuara to take control. The convoys included police. However, when passing through Al-Jmail, a convoy was seen that included General Salim, leader of the military police. The general was travelling with Mukhtar Al-Akhdar, the leader of the Zintan brigade currently in control of Tripoli International Airport.
They got out of the car and briefly explained the situation. General Salim praised the role Al-Akhdar had played, saying that “it is because of him that the revolutionaries of all these cities have agreed to hand over control to the national army. These are the people who have made us, Libyans, proud.”
Al-Akhdar said that it was important to strengthen national institutions and also that the revolutionaries of all areas were cooperating with the national army and would ultimately hand over control to it.
General Salim also added that the situation was under control and that life would return to normal in few days.
Umar Khan can be found at twitter.com/umarnkhan