Vengeance in Libya

hammer_1-011212_1.jpg
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…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!

Online Subscription

Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.

One-Week Access

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already subscribe to the Online or Print + Online Edition, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.