By Guest Contributor Simba Russeau
With more than 140 tribes and clans, Libya is considered one of the most tribally fragmented nations in the Arab world. Despite modernization, tribalism remains a prominent force in a country now awash with weaponry.
In the aftermath of Gaddafi’s reign, nearly forty different independent militias that reportedly emerged during the rebellion remain at large.
Raising questions as to whether the National Transitional Council (NTC) has the ability to reign in all the various groups, many of which have competing interests like settling scores from the past.
For Libyans from the far south this daunting picture has already become a reality.
Tawergha – which lies some forty miles south of Misurata along the western coast of the Gulf of Sirte – was home to an estimated population of over 20,000 people. Now it’s become a ghost town.
According to some Libyans, the name Tawergha was given to the towns black population because they had dark-skinned features like the original Tuareg.
The Tuaregs, who inhabit the border area of Libya, Chad, Niger and Algeria, were historically nomads that controlled trans-Saharan trade routes and had a reputation for being robbers.
During the seventies, Gaddafi assembled the Tuaregs and other African recruits into his elite battalion known as the Al Asmar. Ironically, Al Asmar means “The Black” in Arabic.
Under Gaddafi¹s supervision, these militias were oftentimes sent on military expeditions into neighbouring countries and at the onset of the country’s revolt in February of this year many Tuaregs were unleashed on protestors.
As a result, racial hatred fuelled by unconfirmed rumours that African mercenaries had been hired by Gaddafi to squash discontent created another common enemy – dark-skinned Africans.
In the eyes of Misuratans, Tawerghans were the perpetrators of some of the worst human rights abuses during Gaddafi¹s siege on Misurata in March and April.
On August 15, in what human rights groups are calling reprisal attacks, rebels forces going by the name of The Brigade for Purging Slaves, black Skin have reportedly detained and displaced hundreds while other Tawerghans have disappeared without a trace.
“If we go back to Tawergha, we will then be at the mercy of the Misurata rebels,” a woman, who has been living in a makeshift camp with her husband and five children, told UK-based Amnesty International.
“When the rebels entered our town in mid-August and shelled it, we fled just carrying the clothes on our backs. I don’t know what happened to our homes and belongings. Now I am here in this camp, my son is ill and I am too afraid to go to the hospital in town. I don’t know what will happen to us now.”
Also caught up in the crossfire of vengeance are economic migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers from sub-Saharan Africa, many of which have sought refuge in neighbouring Tunisia or Egypt.
For them, Libya was a transit country but for others it had become a place of rebuilding.
“Fearing for their life, my parents who are from Al Fasher City in Darfur fled to Tripoli in 1998. I had never lived outside Libya before the conflict started. My father worked as a cook and my mother was domestic worker. Before fleeing I was in my third year of University pursuing a degree in the medical field,” 20-year old Eiman told Witnessing Life.
“Unfortunately the uprising in Libya took a bloody turn because people no longer respected the law and started raping women, taking hostages and killing people. For two months my family remained trapped in our house. They were accusing and killing all black males caught on the street of being mercenaries, which meant that our mother had to try and gather food but there were many days that we starved.”
In an article published in September, the Wall Street Journal quoted Jibril as saying, “regarding Tawergha, my own viewpoint is that nobody has the right to interfere in this matter except the people of Misurata. This matter
can’t be tackled through theories and textbook examples of national reconciliation like those in South Africa, Ireland and Eastern Europe.”
Calls by human rights groups urging the NTC to protect black Libyans in the newly liberated Libya seems to have fallen on death ears, which could set a precedent of what is to come.