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The Fight for Zwara——and Liberty

Ann Marlowe

Zwara, Libya —We’ve arrived in Zwara, which is about 70 miles from Tripoli and 35 miles from the Tunisian border. It’s impossible to get out in any direction, though one could get out to sea, if one fancied a long boat trip.

Qaddafi forces are converging slightly south of here in the towns of Jumayl, Rigdalin, and Zultan. There are estimates of already 1,000 troops—and wild rumors that a Qaddafi family member might be protected by these troops abound. Tomorrow might be the biggest battle yet when the revolutionaries are expected to clash with the Qaddafi loyalists.

I helped call in my first NATO strike yesterday. We were being shelled. A commander I was driving with asked me whether I had NATO’s number—NATO, here, is always being referred to in the third person masculine.

I tried to explain that NATO isn’t usually very keen on journalists calling in these sorts of things, but that I could connect the commander here with the interior minister of the TNC, the deputy commander of the 17th of February brigade.

Located 750 miles away in Benghazi, the interior minister was rather shocked to find out that there was heavy fighting going on here. And he promised to call NATO and get them to do something, which they did yesterday evening at 7 o’clock, with two or three planes, in what appears to have been a quick, pinpoint strike right before iftar (Ramadan break-fast), presumably meant only to destroy weapons and not Qaddafi loyalists themselves.

Zwara has a kind of attractive, Italian-like 1930s-style city center and an 1980s-90s-style outlying district that has the usual mixture of ambition and neglect, including a huge hotel owned by Qaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam Qaddafi.

And the distinctive feature is it is nearly 100 percent Berber. You might call it the Berber capital. The Amazigh language spoken by the Berbers was forbidden by Qaddafi, which led to the town becoming, over time, a bastion of anti-Qaddafi sentiment. It was, therefore, quite neglected.

The former Libyan general I’ve been traveling with tells me that his house was on a sand street until four years ago. If this were southern Italy, it would be a $2 million home. But here, it only recently got electric lights. In fact, the only reason for paved roads and electricity, I’m told, is that one of Qaddafi’s sons lived here for a short while, and Sofia Qaddafi, Muammar’s second wife and mother of several of his children, came to visit. She was horrified.

Zwara illustrates the highly personalized nature of Qaddafi’s rule. The Qaddafis treated the country like a personal fiefdom. Very often, development of cities had only to do with whether the family had a personal stake in the city. This resulted in huge vanity projects placed only where a Qaddafi family member decided to put them.

Many Zwara notables believe the reason they are being attacked now from Jumayl, Rigdalin, and Zultan is because of ethnic hatred. There are long standing tensions between those Arab towns and this Berber one.

The Qaddafi forces include a substantial number of professional soldiers, but they also include what are called volunteers, who are locals, usually unemployed youth, that Qaddafi began recruiting after the 17th of February as shock troops. These volunteers, who are not subject to any professional army discipline, are known for attacking civilians. They are behaving more like insurgents than the “rebels.” The rebels, at least, are mostly wearing some sort of uniform and marking their vehicles.

Two days ago in Melitta, I was accompanying Zwara fighters when they cleared the highway between Zabratha and Zwara. A gray passenger sedan came toward us in an area known to have many Qaddafi fighters. The force I was with, which included several hundred men with heavy weapons, forced the sedanto stop. They searched it and found Qaddafi’s “rebels” with at least twenty brand new assault rifles, still in their wrapping.

The Zwara troops entered their hometown around 6 p.m. two days ago to public rejoicing and many cries of “Allahu Akbar!” Yet less than nine hours later, a civilian was killed on his roof by shelling from Qaddafi’s forces. And yesterday, the town was mobilized for war. Commanders from the Zwara, Sabratha, and Zintan brigades made the local scouts’ building their impromptu headquarters. The local equivalent of boy scouts (called something else, but with the same logo) prepared meals for the fighters throughout the day. The mosques broadcast prayers and continuous shouts of “Allahu Akbar!” for most of the morning and afternoon.

Two local men, from a population of about 50,000, were killed in the fighting. The revolutionary forces were, as usual, poorly organized. Some who had accompanied the general were used to fighting together and had trained for two months in the mountains. But others were literally picking up their weapons for the first time yesterday.

There is no chain of command among the revolutionaries. Every man feels he has the right to speak directly to his commander. This means that each brigade commander must speak with about 100 men to give orders, often receiving unwarranted—and unwanted—feed back from the fighters. It’s a miracle that more of the revolutionaries have not been killed.

The city was quiet all day today, after the NATO airstrike. Meanwhile, civilian representatives from the towns of Jumayl, Rigdalin, and Zultan met with leaders from Zwara to discuss peace terms. The Zwara men feel that the others are negotiating sincerely, and believe them when they say they have little or no control over many of the Qaddafi fighters based in their area.

Most of the population of Jumayl, Rigdalin, and Zultan historically supported Qaddafi and disliked the people of Zwara. However, even they seem to recognize that the game is nearing an end. The problem, they say, is that the Qaddafi brigades and volunteers are not in their control and want to keep fighting, with some thinking that Qaddafi will make a comeback (as unlikely as that might sound).

And dozens of Zwara men complain that their enemy is fighting for nothing, bitterly resenting the lives that are being lost here while the rest of Libya considers itself free.

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