Jadu, Libya – Almost all Libyans know Shokri Agmar. In 2011, they saw him daily on television, in a program broadcast from Qatar. The 33-year-old lawyer is the host of Libya’s very first Amazigh-language program.
“I had mixed feelings,” Agmar told Al Jazeera from a cafe in downtown Tripoli. “On the one hand, my people were fighting against Gaddafi in the mountains; on the other hand, it was a unique chance to boost the morale of a long oppressed people like us, the Amazighs.
Also known as Berbers, the Amazighs are inhabitants of North Africa, with a population stretching from the Atlantic coast of Morocco to the west bank of the Nile in Egypt. The arrival of Arabs in the region in the 7th century marked the beginning of a slow but gradual process of Arabization, which intensified under the reign of Muammar Gaddafi (1969-2011).
Unofficial estimates place the number of Amazighs in Libya at around 600,000, or around 10 percent of the total population. But today, they say they feel increasingly targeted amid growing political upheaval in the country.
Former TV presenter Shokri Agmar in his hometown of Jadu [Ricardo G Vilanova/Al Jazeera]
Agmar lives between Tripoli and Jadu, his native village in the Nafusa mountain range. There is less than 200 km between the two cities, but for a journey that should take less than two hours, it takes two days due to the ongoing conflict.
Libya is in a state of political turmoil which has pushed the country into civil war; there are two separate governments and parliaments – one based in Tripoli and the other in Tobruk, 1,000 km east of the capital. The latter, set up after the June elections in which only 10 percent of the census population participated, has international recognition.
To get to Nafusa, Agmar must drive west along the coast, cross Tunisia and return to Libya through the border post further south, which leads directly to the mountains. This is the only way to dodge the Libyan battlefield, where several militias are grouped into two paramilitary alliances; Dawn of Libya, led by the Misrata brigades controlling Tripoli, and Dignity, commanded by Khalifa Haftar, a former army general based in Tobruk.
Libyan Amazighs are seemingly caught in the crossfire, and with still unanswered demands focusing on language recognition as well as the right to decide on the country’s name, flag and anthem.
However, a movement for an autonomous Amazigh region in Libya is also taking shape.
“Beyond language and culture, we must also respond to political demands,” Mazigh Buzakhar, co-founder of Tira for Amazigh Research and Studies, told Al Jazeera from the organization’s headquarters in Tripoli.
Buzakhar is one of the authors of a draft constitution for the Nafusa region. The limits of the region in question are already stated in its article 1: “an area between the coast of Zwara, the mountains of Nafusa and the oasis of Ghadames”.
“Neither Tripoli nor Tobruk will support such a project, because both sides of the conflict are against human rights,” said the political activist, adding that whoever wins the war “will fight us after”.
Younes al-Tabaui, member of the Libyan Tebu community and Minister of Culture in the Tripoli government, admitted that minorities in Libya “are in a very delicate position” but dismissed the possibility of an Arab-Amazigh ethnic conflict in short term.
“The main problem of the Amazighs is that they have not yet taken the initiative; they have yet to make a clear statement regarding the current political divide, ”Tabaui told Al Jazeera.
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En route to the Tunisian border, Agmar must pass through Zwara, an Amazigh stronghold that has been the target of several airstrikes in recent weeks. Local militia commanders told Al Jazeera their forces were in a “self-defense position”.
Fathi Ben Khalifa, a native of Zwara and an executive member of the Amazigh World Congress – an umbrella organization of the Amazigh people of North Africa – said he feared that the ongoing war would “ultimately lead to a campaign of genocide” against him. Amazigh people.
We are pushed to one side because Zintan and the rest of our enemies are siding with Tobruk. However, we all know that we will eventually protect ourselves from the Dawn of Libya militia.
Agmar has to queue for hours at the Tunisian border post 60 km west of Zwara. After spending the night in Tataouine in south-eastern Tunisia, the young lawyer heads for the Dehiba-Wazzin border post, where Tunisian officials question Jadu’s position in the war. Today, Tunisia only operates flights to Libya via Tobruk, an unequivocal sign of support for General Haftar’s forces.
The main road through the Nafusa Plateau appears empty as the price of fuel has dropped from three dinars ($ 1.82) per 20 liters to 40 dinars ($ 33.32). The situation is reminiscent of the 2011 war, when fuel, food and all kinds of supplies arrived via Tunisia.
“I still run my business using what I had in storage,” Atheel Ayub, owner of the only open restaurant in Kabao town, told Al Jazeera. “Before, I brought three full trucks from Tripoli but not today. They took them away from me at the six checkpoints down the valley.
Agmar’s hometown of Jadu is less than 100 km further east. Fathi Haslok, chairman of the Jadu council and executive member of the Libyan Amazigh Supreme Council – a body that includes representatives from the country’s seven main Berber cities – received Al Jazeera at his office in the municipality building.
“We live in the west of the country, so we are administratively linked to Tripoli, but that does not mean that we side with them,” Haslok said.
Not far from Haslok’s office is the headquarters of one of Jadu’s local militias. With 150 fighters under his command, Arif al-Haris speaks of “a state of maximum alert”. The neighboring village is Zintan, an Arab enclave in the Nafusa mountains.
“We are pushed to one side because Zintan and the rest of our enemies are siding with Tobruk. However, we all know that we will eventually protect ourselves from Libya’s dawn militia, ”Haris told Al Jazeera.
In a television program broadcast from Zintan last week, Colonel Idris Mady, Zintan’s force chief, urged his Amazigh neighbors to lay down their arms “or suffer the consequences”.
Agmar is not welcome in Zintan, so he cannot drive further east. It makes a detour to the right, towards one of these ancient Berber villages perched on top of a cliff. The views are surreal, but the echoes of artillery coming from Wotya – a place deep in the valley that has seen heavy fighting in recent weeks – make it hard to forget the war.
“Who could imagine such a mess three years after Gaddafi’s death? laments Agmar. He admits he has not yet decided whether he will stay in Jadu, return to Tripoli, or possibly leave the country again.