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Armed Conflicts

LIBYA: Where Resistance to Gaddafi Runs High

NALUT, Libya, Aug 9 2011 (IPS) - Recent victories in Libya’s western mountains have led to a brief reprieve from violence and local fighters and civilians are slowly trying to piece their lives back together.

Children at work in Zintan in Libya's western mountains. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS.

Children at work in Zintan in Libya’s western mountains. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS.

“We achieved a dramatic success last week after taking over Kut. Gaddafi’s GRAD rockets cannot reach us now,” Tarik Saleh, a Nalut resident, told IPS.

Nalut is a village in the Nafusa mountain range east of the Tunisian border. Control over the strategic border crossing and the region’s geology have played key roles in the rebels resistance against Muammar Gaddafi. Nalut has been shelled almost on a daily basis since the uprising against Gaddafi’s regime began on Feb. 17.

Rebels also overran Gaddafi’s position in the neighbouring village of Ghezaia last week. But victory in the village of Wazzin came too late – today Wazzin is a ghost town where there are hardly any buildings which have not been damaged.

Wazzin’s former inhabitants were Berbers – as are the majority of people in the Nafusa mountains. Berbers have lived together with the Arabs for centuries here but, surprisingly enough, they have hardly mixed together. Over the twenty villages that dot this mountain range, only one hosts families from both communities.

“Rehibat is the only mixed village in Nafusa. We have had to live apart for centuries in order to keep our language – Tamazight – alive,” Abdul Hamid, a local Berber told IPS.

But Arabs in Nafusa share a different viewpoint. “Berbers look down on us and often say that we are “newcomers” in Libya. Nonetheless, we do have closer ties with other local Berber families than with certain Arab clans,” Mohammed Aith Geryani, also a Rehibat resident, explained to IPS.

The tiny mountain village of Rehibat is well known for some infrastructure recently set up nearby. Today, Rehibat serves as the Nafusa mountains only ‘airport’ thanks to a mile-long stretch of road which acts as a landing strip for supply planes allegedly coming in from Benghazi. There is much controversy over whether supplies are coming from French air drops or Libya’s rebel capital further east. So far, IPS has come across poorly armed fighters and local civilians who say that a few planes land regularly on Rehibat’s runway.

Street Cleaning Gangs

Following the road east from Rehibat we arrive at Zintan, the Nafusa region’s main Arab town which proudly claims to be “the first Libyan town to rise up against Gaddafi”. Zintan’s rebel chief commander, Osama Jweli, is very happy about the improved security situation in his hometown recently. “Gaddafi’s troops never set foot on Zintan, and ever since we pushed the soldiers further east than Walish no rockets have hit us here,” Jweli told IPS.

After three months spent at the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR)-run Remada refugee camp in Tunisia, Saleh has just arrived back in Libya to spend Ramadan in his native Zintan.

“I had been told that security had improved dramatically in Zintan so I came to check it by myself two weeks ago,” Saleh said. “Debris is still all over the place but, luckily enough, our house has not been touched by rockets or by looters.”

Zintan definitely looked better than expected, partly thanks to the many volunteers that have taken to the streets in the last few weeks. Most of them are children, determined to get rid of every nasty reminder of the ongoing war – including the blackened walls, which are disappearing under coats of white paint.

The cleaning of the city is probably the best way to keep the children busy until they go back to school in September. But whether they will attend classes at their former school in Zintan, or inside a refugee camp tent, is still a mystery that plagues everybody here.

Mokhtar Ihmad Ali taught at the local school until he picked up a Kalashnikov last February and joined the rebels. This 35-year-old Arab can’t wait to resume his classes but his spirits are not as high as a few months back. “After Ben Ali and Mubarak left we all thought Gaddafi would follow suit. Then the war started and Ramadan was our next ‘deadline’ to oust the tyrant. Now we are all assuming that the war might actually take much longer than expected,” Ali told IPS.

Fear and Hope

In the easternmost part of the mountain range, the village of Yefren paid a much heavier toll than many others for openly defying the regime last February. Not even the local hospital was spared looting by Gaddafi’s soldiers and volleys of GRAD rockets fired from further down the valley. The streets still look deserted but power has been restored recently and life seems to be slowly getting back on track.

Not far from Yefren, a group of women offers the few remaining kids in the area a sense of normality amid the disaster. They gather three times a week at a makeshift school where the children are instructed in their mother tongue – a language strictly forbidden during Gaddafi’s 41-year rule.

“We are 11 teachers and we cater for 46 kids between 4-16 years old. Four of us teach them the Berber language and the other seven gather the kids around handicraft work or games,” 20-year-old Amil told IPS.

But needs other than learning their forefathers’ language seem to be mounting in Yefren.

“We need toys for the kids to help them forget about the war but we also need food and water,” Mahaba Najib, the head of the school told IPS.

The young volunteer has taught her class two new words today: ‘tilele’ and ‘tagraula’ (freedom and revolution). The kids sing Libya’s national anthem boasting both Berber and pre-Gaddafi Libyan flags painted on their cheeks. Immediately afterwards, a recently introduced tune echoes through the corridors of the school: “One, two, three, ‘sukran’ (thank you) Sarkozy!” French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been leading the charge against Gaddafi.

The war may be fought down the desert right now but the key to victory may lie up in these hills.

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