Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Fall of Sabha

Witnessing lengthy battle for Libyan city http://edition.cnn.com/2011/09/27/world/africa/battle-sabha-libya/?hpt=wo_c1
The Fall of Sabha
By Ben Wedeman, CNN
September 27, 2011 --

(CNN) -- We were told to be awake and ready to move at 4 a.m. The National Transitional Council fighters we were with were planning to launch a dawn assault on the Saharan city of Sabha.

All predictions indicated it would be one of the bloodiest battles yet. NTC officials said loyalist forces would use weaponry they hadn't used before. They didn't go into detail but it sounded ominous. Western intelligence sources told CNN the fighters in Sabha still loyal to Libya's ousted leader, Moammar Gadhafi, had heavy artillery and would likely use it.

Sabha was frequently described as loyalist and pro-Gadhafi.

The night before the assault there was an edgy, giddy atmosphere on the air base where we were camped along with the force that had traveled more than 600 kilometers from Tripoli.

The fighters were shooting more ordinance than usual into the air, and they flocked to our campsite behind the officer's club, eager to chat, and even more eager to use our satellite telephones.

One after another, they shyly asked if they could make a call. Each one had a special reason for calling -- reassuring parents, a brother getting married, a sick baby daughter, an angry girlfriend.

Many talked about their expectations for the coming day. It would be a bloodbath. It would be easy.

"Maybe I'll die tomorrow, I'm ready for it," declared Mohamed, a toothy young man from Sabha who had spent several years in Manchester, England, where he had picked up the local accent.

"But if I don't die, you are all welcome to stay at my house in Sabha."

Mohamed, like many of the fighters from Sabha, insisted most of the people in his home town sided with the revolution. But there was concern about possible resistance from members of Gadhafi's Gadadfa tribe.

Despite a month of impressive advances by the anti-Gadhafi forces, it's clear not everyone has gone over to the revolution.

That afternoon we had gone into the nearby town of Birak Al-Shati. I had seen scattered green flags flying over some of the houses earlier in the day. Unlike other towns we had been through, few people in Birak Al-Shati waved or flashed the v-for-victory sign. They just glared at us.

As CNN's Cairo camerawoman Mary Rogers was taking pictures of the town, a car drove up to me in the town's main roundabout.

The driver, a young man in his early 20s, shouted to me: "Allah, Moammar, Libya, wa bas" -- (God, Moammar and Libya only) -- the standard slogan of Gadhafi supporters, then began to pull away.

"Wait," I told him. "Talk to me. We've been speaking to pro-revolutionaries (Gadhafi opponents), but not your type."

In the passenger seat sat a boy, maybe 10-years old, who repeated the slogan several times, pumping his fists in the air.

"No camera," the driver told me. "Everyone around here feels the same, but we're afraid to say anything with all these thuwar (revolutionaries) around." He then drove away.

I crossed the street to a cigarette shop where there were about half a dozen people inside.

The shopkeeper, a chunky man in his early 20s wearing a jalabiya, echoed the same sentiments. As did another man, who identified himself as Jamal, a businessman.

"If there were free elections here, and we had a choice between voting for Gadhafi or the new regime in Tripoli, 90% would vote for Gadhafi," he said. "And none of this would have happened if NATO wasn't bombing Libya."

A young fighter with an AK-47 walked into the shop to buy cigarettes. Surprisingly, the discussion over the new Libya carried on.

"We don't want these guys here," he said, pointing to the fighter. "They are going around, breaking into houses, stealing people's possessions. That's what they did to my cousin's house."

"If that's what happened, your cousin deserved it," replied the fighter, who said he was from Tripoli.

By now a fairly large crowd had gathered to listen and take part in the conversation. Suddenly a man pushed through the crowd and grabbed Jamal by the shoulder.

"Get out of here and stop talking like that!" he shouted, clearly angry, pushing Jamal out of the shop. "Are you an idiot?"

It was getting tense, so I stepped out of the shop.

"Don't worry," the shopkeeper told me. "It's his brother. He just doesn't want trouble."

As I stepped to the side of the road, anther car drove up, this time with three occupants wearing baseball caps emblazoned with the pro-Gadhafi Libyan flag. When I peered into the car, I saw that the driver had a bottle of clear brown liquid in his lap. In the back seat a teenager with a machine gun in his lap was rolling a joint.

"We are the revolutionaries of Birak Al-Shati," the driver said, a big grin on his face.

"What's that?" I asked him, pointing to the bottle.

"Whiskey!" he proudly declared. "You want some?"

I declined. I knew we had a big day ahead of us.

Although we had been told to be awake and ready to go at 4 a.m., I woke up two hours later. Having spent much of the last seven months in Libya, I knew these guys were not strong on punctuality. We ended up leaving the base around 10 a.m. behind the ambulances, and met the main body of fighters heading to Sabha.
An hour later, after an uneventful drive though the desert, we arrived on the outskirts of Sabha. I could see some smoke on the horizon, but could hear no gunfire. Small clumps of people by the side of the road were cheering and waving. Driving further into the city, the crowds grew larger. There was gunfire but it was all in the air, the ubiquitous celebratory gunfire.

Up above, a man tore down the green flag from the city's main water tower and sent it fluttering to the ground.

We were the only journalists in Sabha. Wherever we stopped cheering crowds mobbed us. Most asked if we were with Al-Jazeera.

The huge, bloody battle for Sabha wasn't to be. No one was disappointed.
"We are now in Sabha and we were not expecting this," one of the doctors shouted. "This is the best moment of my life."

There was fighting, of course, in the Sabha neighborhood of Manshiya. We watched as cars and ambulances rushed to the emergency ward in the city's main hospital. It was pandemonium. The medical team we had traveled with arrived at the hospital just minutes before the first casualties began to arrive.

Along with the wounded, came the dead, more than 10 in the two hours we were at the hospital. Suddenly the bravado of the young fighters was gone when they drove up with the bodies of their dead comrades.

They cried like children in one another's arms. Others just sat on the curb and wept quietly as their friends tried to console them. For many it was their first real encounter with combat. Others vowed to carry on the fight and avenge their friends.

By contrast, the loyalist dead were received without fanfare. A pickup drove up to the main entrance to the hospital with two bodies covered with a light blue cloth splayed in the back. On the side of the pickup truck the fighters were smug with satisfaction.

"We killed the rats," one told me, pointing his gun toward the bodies at his feet.
That night we slept next to a NATO-bombed VIP guesthouse at the airport, which had become the main base for the hundreds of NTC fighters who had taken part in the conquest of Sabha.

The next morning we ventured out into the city. Mid-morning, and there were few people out on the streets, and still plenty of green flags. In front of the administration building at Sabha University, a still intact portrait of Gadhafi featuring the odd slogan, "High you are above every ceiling, proud you are above every height."

Within minutes, a group of gunmen showed up, backing their pickup up to the poster, which they proceeded to rip apart with a knife.

We then went to Al-Gurda, a tight neighborhood composed of families from all over Libya. People look after their neighbors, keep an eye out for strangers, and never, as residents told us, dabbled in the dangerous business of politics.
The streets are dusty, the asphalt crumbling. The roads in this corner of Sabha were paved once, in the 1980s and never since, they told me.

We sat down with the neighborhood men, each one cradling his machine gun. They explained that the last straw was when armed strangers -- they called mercenaries -- arrived on their street.

"We shot one, he died right over there," one of the men told me, pointing to the corner. He then showed me the video of the dying man he had shot on his cell phone.

Dentist Abdel Majid Tijani said he had learned to use a gun in school.
Gadhafi "forced us to train on this," he said, patting his AK-47 assault rifle. "He intended to change us to fighters to fight for his dreams in Africa and in other places. But God decided the reverse. He forced us to train on this thing to fight him."

Afterwards, we went to the nearby home of Khadija Tahir, a strong-willed English teacher at Sabha University. I asked her why Sabha, despite its reputation for being a Gadhafi stronghold, had fallen to the opposition in less than 24 hours.
People "realized that this man is not right. So many people came 180 degrees from being pro-Gadhafi to protesting Gadhafi," she told me. "The other reason is that people got fed up -- lack of electricity, lack of water. So they wanted to get out of this situation. I am one of them."

There are still a few parts of Sabha where the "thuwar," the revolutionaries, are hesitant to tread.

But most parts of Sabha were like Al-Gurda. They'd simply had enough.


Sabha - Libya's transitional government delivered 20 million dinars ($16m) Tuesday to this remote southern city beset by fighters loyal to Muammar Gaddafi, hoping to bolster support for revolutionary forces. On the other side, Gaddafi’s son was seen in a video for the first time since Tripoli fell, trying to rally the remnants of his father's regime.

Journalists accompanied the oil and finance minister, Ali al-Tarhouni, and the cash on the first flight to touch down in the desert city of Sabha since a Nato enforced no-fly zone order in March. The 20 boxes of 20-dinar notes, each weighing 78kg, were delivered to the Sabha central bank.

Revolutionary forces have gained control of much of the area but still face heavy resistance.

"The forces inside these areas are not opposed to joining us but they do not want to disarm," said Ahmed Bashir, spokesperson for Libya's National Transitional Council in Sabha. "They have the weapons and no manpower. We have the manpower and lighter weapons."

More than a month after sweeping into Tripoli and ending Gaddafi’s nearly 42-year rule, the fugitive leader's supporters are still putting up a fierce fight on three fronts: in Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte, the town of Bani Walid southeast of the capital and in pockets in the country's vast desert south, including Sabha. Most of the recent fighting has occurred in Bani Walid and the Mediterranean coastal city of Sirte.

Gaddafi’s whereabouts are unknown, although he has exhorted his supporters to fight on several times in audio messages. His son, Saif al-Islam, also was shown in an amateur video recording on Tuesday on the Syrian-based Al-Rai TV, which has become the former regime's mouthpiece.

The video shows Saif cheering and waving with a machine gun in his hand. While he has sported a beard in past appearances, Tuesday's video showed him shaven and wearing a camouflage jacket.

He pumps his fist in the air and addresses a crowd, but there was no audio.

Crimes against humanity

The TV station reported the video was taken September 20 in one of the besieged towns, but did not say which one. Many have speculated that Saif al-Islam is still hiding in Bani Walid.

It appears to be his first appearance since August 23, three days after revolutionary forces entered Tripoli. There had been reports of his capture at the time, but he turned up in front of cheering supporters in the capital.

Saif al-Islam was long the voice of reform in the authoritarian regime, but he threw his support behind his father after the uprising began in mid-February and became a civil war.

Like his father, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi has been charged by the International Criminal Court with crimes against humanity for the regime's bloody efforts to repress the uprising.

In Sabha, revolutionaries are based in the city's largest neighbourhood, al-Gurtha. They have set up a national council office and checkpoints on roads leading to areas where Gaddafi loyalists refuse to hand over their weapons. Residents are able to cross checkpoints into Gaddafi loyalist-held areas, but only if they have family inside, and even then they risk being accused of being Gaddafi supporters.

Bashir said the area has no Gaddafi brigades, but there are worries that armed Gaddafi loyalists may ambush revolutionary forces from the desert.

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