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Vengeance in Libya

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Ammar El-Darwish/AP Images
Seif Qaddafi after his capture by rebel fighters, Zintan, Libya, November 19, 2011

On November 20, the day after the capture of Seif Qaddafi, the second son and former heir apparent of Muammar Qaddafi, I set out from Tripoli for Libya’s Nafusa Mountains, to meet some of the former rebels who had tracked him down. I left the seaside capital just after dawn, followed the coastal road west, then turned inland. There were many signs of the recent civil war on the arid plain: craters formed by the impact of 122-millimeter Grad rockets, destroyed communications towers, crumpled armored vehicles struck by NATO bombs. Unexploded ordnance lay everywhere. My driver-translator, Wagde Bargig, said that “children have been killed playing” in the fields we passed.

Bargig comes from the town of Nalut in the Nafusa Mountains, the home of the Amazigh, or Berbers, a non-Arab tribe that was long oppressed by Muammar Qaddafi. Employed as a dental technician until the uprising began in late February, he had one week of weapons instruction from defecting government officers, then joined the fight against the dictatorship. “We chased out the army and the police, burned down government buildings, put up roadblocks, evacuated the women and children to Tunisia, and then held the town,” he told me. “Qaddafi’s forces bombarded us with Grad rockets, and many people were killed, but they couldn’t enter Nalut.” Afterward many Berbers, including Bargig, had taken part in the western offensive, fighting alongside Arab rebels from the Zintan Brigade—the rebel group from the town of Zintan that had just captured Seif Qaddafi—in a display of interethnic unity.

Now that the war was over, he told me, solidarity had begun to break up. One point of disagreement among the ex-fighters was how to deal with their prisoners, who number about seven thousand, according to a United Nations report published in November. Some former rebels were turning over captured soldiers to the National Transitional Council in Tripoli; others were jealously guarding them—or freeing them unilaterally, as the Berbers had. “In Nalut,” Bargig told me, “they released all three hundred soldiers, at Eid.” There had been a general amnesty but it had been unpopular: “People said, ‘They were shelling us, killing us, and you let them go back to their families.’” The inconsistent approaches typified the disorganization and fragmentation that plague postwar Libya. “Nobody’s in control,” he said.

The disagreement extended to the fate of Seif Qaddafi. He had become the object of a tug-of-war between the weak transitional government, which wanted him delivered at once to Tripoli, and the powerful Zintan Brigade, which refused to hand him over until a system of justice was in place. We ran into a group of Zintan fighters at a checkpoint just below the mountains: bearded, heavily armed, and wearing an assortment of green camouflage fatigues and desert khakis, the gunmen erupted in enthusiastic chatter when they learned that Bargig was from Nalut. “Now that they have captured Seif, they will become stronger,” Bargig told me. “They will bargain hard for political advantage.” Beyond the checkpoint we began to drive up the stark, sandstone Nafusa Mountains, which the Berbers call Adrar n Infusen but Qaddafi had renamed Jebel Arabiya, part of a systematic effort to stamp out Berber identity. On top of the ridge, we came to Zintan, a town of 16,000. Seif Qaddafi was being held in a secret location here. Bargig drove past boxy concrete houses scattered over a windswept plateau, looking for signs of unusual activity.

We drove through the gate of a teachers’ college, which the Zintan Brigade had commandeered as its headquarters. (Defectors from Qaddafi’s army had set up a separate base across town, continuing the divide between professional soldiers and civilian fighters.) Members of the rebel command pulled up in Land Cruisers and other sport-utility vehicles, most of them taken over from Qaddafi’s forces, for a meeting in a faculty lounge. There I met one of the key members of the team that had captured Seif: Ahmed Amer, a white-bearded, burly marine biologist in his sixties, wearing a green bomber jacket over camouflage fatigues and a brown turban wrapped many times around his head.

The scientist-turned-rebel described how his team had intercepted Seif Qaddafi’s two-car convoy in a dry streambed, and had forced the six passengers to lie on the ground. “I had my foot on his chest,” he told me in English. “He told us his name was Abdul Salam, and he was a camel keeper…. I thought there was something familiar about his voice. And then my commander said, ‘The man who is under your foot is the devil.’” Seif had asked his captors to identify themselves. “I said, ‘We are the rats’ [the late dictator’s epithet for the rebels], and he said, ‘Then please kill me now.’”

Amer displayed irritation when I asked him about the photo of Seif that had been taken shortly after his capture, showing him with three heavily bandaged fingers. Many Libyans believe that the Zintan Brigade had chopped off the digits in revenge for Seif’s warnings to the rebels during the war, in which he pointed his fingers while accusing them. But Amer denied that Seif had been mistreated; he cited a post-capture interview during which Seif insisted that his fingers had been injured in a NATO bombing. As we left the college and headed back down the mountain, Bargig told me that he was sure that Amer was lying. “That must have been the smartest bomb in the world,” he said.

Libya’s civil war ended officially on October 23, with the fall of the pro-Qaddafi stronghold of Sirte, the capture and very brutal execution of Qaddafi, and the end of the NATO bombing campaign. The overthrow of the world’s longest-ruling dictator seemed to show a remarkable common purpose in a country long riven by tribal rivalries—which were expertly manipulated by Qaddafi during his forty-two-year rule. But since the rebels’ victory and Qaddafi’s bloody end, that sense of unity has begun to unravel, threatening Libya’s transformation into a stable democracy. In early November, rival militias, most of them deriving from particular tribes, withdrew their pledge to disarm, declaring that they would preserve their autonomy and shape political decisions as “guardians of the revolution.” Days before I got to the country in mid-November, fighting west of Tripoli between members of two tribes—the Warshefana and the Zawiye—left at least a dozen people dead. And ambitious former rebel commanders have tried to assert control over all of Libya’s armed groups—only to be ignored and disparaged by rival militias.

Meanwhile, Libya’s inchoate government—a mix of Qaddafi-era officials and returned exiles who lack any experience at governance—has all but surrendered its authority to the men with guns. The head of the National Transitional Council, Mahmoud Jibril, who had been on Qaddafi’s economic development board, resigned on October 23. Among other complaints, he said that nations such as Qatar, which gave the resistance strong support, were having excessive influence. In late November the new Prime Minister Abdel Rahim al-Keeb, a mild-mannered electrical engineer and Qaddafi critic who spent most of his career in the United States, named former rebel leaders to the top two positions in the cabinet. (The new cabinet will govern until an election for a new national assembly takes place in mid-2012.)

Osama al-Juwali, commander of the Zintan Brigade, was appointed the minister of defense—a reward, according to many observers, for his militia’s capture of Seif Qaddafi, which had been announced just two days earlier. Many Libyans I spoke to believe that Juwali delayed announcing the capture to guarantee himself maximum leverage in negotiations with Prime Minister al-Keeb. The new minister of the interior, Fawzi Abdelal—the leader of the Misrata Brigade—will share with his Zintan rival the responsibility for merging armed factions from around the country into a national army and police force, which may prove difficult. According to an army spokesman, on December 10 fighters from the Zintan Brigade fired on a convoy carrying Libyan Army Chief of Staff Khalifa Hifter near Tripoli airport, which is controlled by the brigade, and some Zintan fighters have called into question the legitimacy of the army. “Al-Keeb himself has absolutely no idea how he will deal with these armed men,” I was told by Mahmoud Shammam, a former Libyan oppositionist in exile who returned last spring and served as information minister in the transitional government.

Libyans I talked to feared that their country is destined to fragment into individual fiefdoms ruled by feuding armed factions, with a weak national government. Forty years of erratic dictatorship have left the country without working civil institutions, and nine months of war severely damaged its roads and water supplies and other infrastructure. “We don’t have a police station, we don’t have a judicial system. We inherited nothing,” Shammam said. Still, he believes that Libya has the greatest potential of all the recently liberated Arab countries for post-dictatorship prosperity and democracy. It has a small and relatively well-educated population, hundreds of miles of coastline, and vast reserves of oil. But the potential for violence, he said, was as great as that for democratic transition. “We are [going through] the French Revolution,” Shammam told me. “But we aren’t chopping off people’s heads—at least for now.”

Libya’s continuing chaos becomes apparent from the moment one begins making plans to enter the country. In early November I was told on the phone by Tripoli’s director of the foreign press that I needed only a laissez-passer that could be picked up at the border. Then I was informed that Libya’s immigration department had become involved, and required a visa stamp in my passport that I could procure only at the handful of functioning Libyan embassies. The press chief then told me to bypass the embassies and travel to Libya’s border crossing with Tunisia, where he would arrange for a laissez-passer to be waiting. It wasn’t there. After I sat for three hours in a flyblown shack that passed for a border post, my translator, Wagde Bargig—who had driven to the border to help—suggested simply walking into Libya when the officials weren’t paying attention. At his signal, I strode nervously down the road, smiling at ragtag militiamen at the last border checkpoint. Nobody asked to examine my passport. Then I climbed into Bargig’s car and we sped down the coastal highway toward Tripoli.

We drove through the area that had been the site of the tribal fighting in early November. An eyewitness, a friend of Bargig’s, told me that battles with heavy weapons had erupted after the pro-Qaddafi Warshefana tribe erected roadblocks on the coastal highway leading to Tripoli; the rival Zawiye tribe regarded the obstacles as a provocation, and removed them by force. “The fighting was worse than when the rebels came down from [the town of] Zawiye,” he told me, referring to the bloody coastal assault on Qaddafi’s forces that preceded the battle for Tripoli in August.

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