Libya's forgotten western front
Tom Dale/Alexander Niakaris.
Arriving at the Wazin crossing, the only gateway to Libya’s western mountains from Tunisia, it seems a ramshackle affair, more like a service station than the fulcrum in the battle for Libya’s West. Families, spilling out of cars with bundles of snatched belongings, queue to get out. A smaller number of young Libyan men, including many returning from abroad, queue to get in. A few kneel to pray in the direction of Mecca. It’s the same direction the shells come from.
We pull up at the Tunisian side. Immediately, the ground shakes to an explosion 100 metres in front of us: a plume of desert dust appears in the air. In the next half an hour, five more Grad rockets land on the area around the crossing. Nader, who used to teach in Wales but now volunteers at the border, explains that Gaddafi’s troops shell the crossing daily, and have made several attempts to recapture it.
Outside observers of this conflict might have heard of Misrata, but not Zintan; and Benghazi, but not Nalut. Yet the western fighters here, who are pushing North East along the plateau toward the capital Tripoli, protected on left and right by the high mountain walls, are by far the closest fighters to the capital.
Libyans living in the mountains overwhelmingly do not consider themselves to be Arabs: they are Amazigh, or Berber, speakers of their own language, and conscious of their own distinct culture. The Amazigh have always been repressed under Gaddafi: their script was banned, their poets and their singers were imprisoned, and their community leaders were harassed. They have always carried an oppositional spirit and came under further oppression following an assassination attempt on Gaddafi in 1984, in which a select few covertly snuck into Gaddafi’s compound, in a refuse truck, in an attempt to assassinate him.
Guarding a mountain pass, a tough middle-aged man insists on speaking to us in the Amazigh language. But he is keen to emphasize that he does not see the interests of the Amazigh as opposed to those of other Libyans. ‘We did not do anything before now, because we did not want them to say that we are extremists, that we think we are different from other Libyans. But now we have risen together, and we will stay together, like the fingers of one hand.’
At 6 am the next morning (17 June), rebels launched an attack on the plain to the north of Nalut city, piling into pick-up trucks and driving down the mountain in a pincer movement, chanting to Allah in the dawn light. Rapidly, they took the poorly defended village of Tkuit. The Tkuit crossroads have a vital strategic placement: they control access to the positions through which Gaddafi can attempt to shell, and retake the Wazin crossing. ‘The crossing is extremely important,’ says Mohammed, a volunteer at the civilian food distribution point, whom we speak to later. ‘It is where we get everything we need for life; food, petrol... everything.’ The offensive was an attempt by the rebels to secure their rear before continuing their advance on Tripoli. However, not everything went to plan.
At the hospital, around 11 am, beds were already filling up with injuries, when a severely burned man was brought in. His truck had been hit by a missile, killing several others instantly. Their remains were brought in later under a blanket that only one person dared lift. His fellow fighter was shaken. ‘NATO told us that they had struck, but I swear they hadn’t. They’ve got everything down there: anti-aircraft guns and anti-tank cannons. And what do we have? Just small arms.’ He broke down, sobbing against a hospital wall, as British-Libyan doctors attend to the survivors. By evening, the rebels had been pushed back from the village, but the battle continued.
The next day (18 June), at the barracks of the Tripoli Brigade (made up of rebels who have fled the capital), volunteers were being selected to join the front line. A commander goes between the volunteers, talking quietly to each one. Only the most ready are chosen, with many volunteers refused, and rifles are handed out. A sergeant gives final instructions, and a few men inadvertently jam their guns in an attempt to follow them.
‘Some of our guys have been surrounded,’ shouts the commander. ‘We need to go and rescue them, we need volunteers.’ A number of volunteers ready themselves to jump into the ubiquitous pick-up trucks, bayonets and rifles at the ready. ‘Where are the keys?’ someone shouts. This is, after all, a people’s army, not a finely honed fighting force. We met fighters who had lived in the UK, as well as Canada and the US. Last year, they were studying, or working, mostly in routine service jobs.
Around 300 rebel fighters based in Nalut fought tooth and nail on the open plain for three days. Overwhelmingly, they fight with rifles, and a few heavier weapons, against much greater firepower. Gaddafi’s troops, dug in by a reservoir on a small hill near Tkuit with their tanks and heavy field weapons, were able to prevent the rebels moving forward.
The following day we visit the local media centre to investigate any news of further deaths after the assault at Tkuit. As we ready our gear, we hear the sound of NATO jets flying overhead. We assume that news of the offensive has reached the allied forces and that an airstrike must be imminent. Upon arriving at the media centre we discover there has been no airstrike, only further shelling on the city by Gaddafi’s forces. We ask our source at the media centre what will happen if NATO doesn’t strike soon. He responds, bleakly: ‘Well, then we will have to commit suicide attacks on their positions if NATO don’t help.’ He emphasizes that that will be the only way the rebels will be able to break the positions of Gaddafi’s forces with the little weaponry that they have.
While a few heavy weapons, including helicopter rocket-pods welded on the back of pick-up trucks, have been acquired or captured by rebels, they are often unarmoured – and consequently vulnerable. In three days of fighting, 21 rebels were killed. The local Military Council claims a far greater number of deaths from the loyalist side.
By Sunday evening, it was clear that retaking Tkuit was impossible, and rebels withdrew on the promise of NATO strikes. We are told by two independent sources, at the border crossing and in the town, that NATO liaison officers are on the ground in or near Nalut; a relatively recent development. One explanation is that NATO is concerned that the rebels cut the oil pipeline to Zawiyah on Monday (20 June) despite requests not to do so. Another is that they have decided to pay more attention to the rebels in the West following a recent spate of victories.
Five days after we arrived, we cross the border again, back the way we came. To our right, black smoke rises from behind the mountain: NATO had bombed Gaddafi positions in Ain Ghazzaia which were shelling the crossing. It turns out that many of Gaddafi’s troops fled.
But the gain is a partial one for the rebels. For the two days after, shells rain even more heavily on Nalut from launchers in the Tkuit area, injuring several civilians and damaging more houses. NATO must know equally well where these launchers are, since the rebels are able to see them from observation points on the mountain, and say that what they see is constantly communicated to NATO. The same rebels can also hear reports of the nine civilians killed in a house in Tripoli.
When asked why they think NATO makes such choices, their answer is simple: ‘I don’t know.’ For its part, NATO emphasizes the impact the strikes are having on the morale of Gaddafi and his staff, rather than assisting the rebels directly.
East and West, the situation in Libya is this: the rebels can win in urban areas, or where the mountains provide cover. But the disparity in weaponry means that they are finding it hard to advance across open ground. Around Nalut, the lines are roughly as they were when we arrived. Zlitan has still not fallen in the East, more than a month after rebels were touting its imminent capture, and Misrata is being shelled once more.
On both sides of the Atlantic, politicians are expressing frustration at the stalemate. Meanwhile, on the Nafusa mountain, the rebels watch, and fight, and wait.
Most names have been elided or changed at the request of interviewees concerned about family members in areas held by Gaddafi. The authors were in the Western mountains between 16 and 21 June 2011. All photos by the authors.