As clashes rage in southern Tripoli between the forces of eastern military commander Khalifa Hifter and the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) made up of various militias, Amazighs in Zuwara fear their border area and town. are not attacked at any time.
“We just tried to escape. I thought it was the last day of my life, ”civil society activist Fadi Dhan from Zuwara told Al-Monitor by telephone, describing Hifter’s forces attacking the inactive. Abd Al-Samad military base on April 13, when eight rockets launched by a warplane at 6:45 a.m. injured two people. It was the first attack in the western border area of Zuwara since Hifter’s Libyan National Army (LNA) launched an offensive on the Libyan capital Tripoli on April 4, sparking at least 254 deaths, more than 1,228 injured and move nearly 32,000 people.
The mostly Amazigh residents of Zuwara feel their region could be attacked again at any time. “Me and five other friends, all civilians, were at the military base in [Abd Al-Samad] volunteering. We usually do day and night shifts there to alert the military operations room if someone comes to attack us, ”Dhan continued. As a civil society activist, Dhan also takes photos and videos for the Zuwara Media Center, who has been active since the 2011 revolution against ousted leader Muammar Gaddafi to independently document local events and support peace and democracy.
Zuwara is a strategic area for three reasons. This is the site of the Mellitah Oil and Gas Plant, operated jointly by the Italian ENI and the state oil company NOC, which supplies Italy with gas through the Greenstream pipeline. It is a border area between Tunisia and Libya, important for travelers, trade and smuggling activities. Then there is the city’s port and airport, which locals fear Hifter’s army may take before it’s even done with Tripoli.
The Amazighs, which means “free people” or “free men”, are also called Berbers. They are indigenous to North Africa and represent 10% of the Libyan population. During the reign of Gaddafi, the Amazighs were expressly prohibited to practice their historical customs, to celebrate cultural festivals or to give their children non-Arab names.
“I was in Tripoli when the attack started,” said Halab, who declined to share his full name. The Zuwara resident who works and travels regularly between Tripoli, Zuwara and Tunisia told Al-Monitor: “The city center of the capital was quiet, but it was difficult to find a taxi and people were careful while clashes erupted in the south. But when I had to travel from Tripoli to Zuwara, I was really worried. I feel that as an Amazigh, I am a target.
The coastal towns of Sabratha and Surman, between Tripoli and Zuwara, are home to militias allied with the LNA such as the al-Wadi battalion, which is engaged in human trafficking. The Hifter-support Madkhalist Salafists are hostile to the Amazighs Ibadism tradition, a branch of Islam marginalized under the Gaddafi regime.
In 2017, the Amazigh Supreme Council, who fights for the rights of Amazighs, denounced a fatwa issued by the religious branch of the Eastern government qualifying Ibadi Muslims as “khawarij”, or deviant, and “infidels without dignity”. The council examined the fatwa of incitement to genocide of the Amazighs in Libya. “The people of Zuwara are afraid of genocide if this war continues,” Halab concluded.
Founded by Saudi preacher Rabee al-Madkhali, the Madkhalists were greeted in the 1990s by Gaddafi for their support for an authoritarian regime and in 2011 for their opposition to the revolution, telling Libyan citizens to stay at home. In 2012, Madkhalist activists Sufi shrines demolished in Zliten and Tripoli using bulldozers, explosives and hammers. Some Madkhalists are members of RADA, the Tripoli Special Operations Military Police Unit, and appear to be against the current offensive, although the Madkhalists in Libya have generally supported Hifter.
The Tunisian government previously supported the government in Tobruk, but with the GNA in Tripoli and the border controlled by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, Tunisia has taken a neutral stance. Supporting Hifter directly or closing the border would be suicide for Libya’s neighbors. Tunisia is also home to the country’s international diplomacy and must therefore support a ceasefire.
Younes Nanis, independent researcher and political analyst and former member of the Zuwara military operations room, told Al-Monitor: ‘The message is clear: what we call in English the Libyan National Army in Arabic is literally Forces’ – and with the Arabic term, we, as Amazigh, are automatically excluded. We were not included in the preparations and behind-the-scenes negotiations for a political deal before the Ghadames National Conference, a meeting scheduled for the organization of elections and a peace process in Libya which was to take place in Ghadames from April 14 to 16. But because of Hifter’s offensive, that didn’t happen.
He continued: “With the GNA of Sarraj, the Amazighs are not taken into account, but at least they are not threatened. With the ANL, which is mainly made up of pro-Gaddafi components during the 2011 war seeking revenge on Western cities, and the Madkhalists, we are directly threatened.
Residents of Zuwara and other western cities demonstrated in the streets against the Tripoli war, calling for a united Libya. They also protested on April 18 against the return of a military regime, carrying both Amazigh and Libyan flags and chanting: “We will not return to chains”.
“We don’t like any kind of war, Arabs or Amazighs. We all want to stay alive and rebuild our country. We reject the murder, ”Dhan said. “When [the LNA forces] to say that the terrorists are in Zuwara, they are lying – just an excuse to take our geographically strategic city. We want a political resolution and a transition of the conflict. But if Hifter takes Tripoli, I’m afraid there will be no more free Zuwara and “free men”.