Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Rebels Reach Out to Sahara Tuaregs

Libyan fighters speak to a member of the National Transitional Council (NTC) in a room in Muammar Gaddafi's villa just outside Obari November 3, 2011. Reuters correspondent Oliver Holmes was one of the first foreign journalists to visit the Sahara desert town of Obari in southern Libya since the fall of Gaddafi and he reports on his experience in Witness. Picture taken November 3, 2011.

A night on Muammar Gaddafi’s bed: ‘I slept like a self-assured dictator’

Nov 8, 2011 – 9:08 AM ET | Last Updated: Nov 8, 2011 11:22 AM ET

The following story is the result of a reporting trip by Reuters correspondent Oliver Holmes to the Sahara desert town of Obari in southern Libya. Holmes, one of the first foreign journalists to visit the area since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, has been reporting from the Middle East for the past three years, notably in Yemen, Syria and Lebanon.
By Oliver Holmes

GADDAFI’S VILLA JUST OUTSIDE OBARI, Libya – While I lay in silence, my eyes adjusted to the darkness and I could hear the fighters talking excitedly next door — I felt like a child who had been put to bed early.

Muammar Gaddafi’s room was large, but not enormous and his monstrous bed took up the majority of the room. Two tacky chandeliers hung from the ceiling.

Earlier that day, I had called a friend who used to be one of Gaddafi’s Colonels in the Libyan Air force before fleeing Tripoli with his children in February. He was now back, carrying members of the country’s provisional government around the country. “I’m flying to the Sahara in thirty minutes,” he said. “Come along.”

Gangs of pro-Gaddafi forces and armed mercenaries are believed to be roaming the country’s south and journalists had warned me of a kidnapping risk — a westerner always works as a nice bargaining chip — but flying down to avoid the seven-hour ride in open desert cut the danger considerably.

This trip, I found out on the flight down, was so members of the northern-based National Transitional Council (NTC) could reach out to the Tuareg tribal nomads who roam the desert and many of whom backed Gaddafi during the revolt which ousted the eccentric and brutal dictator.

Having landed, and after a hair-raising drive over cracked desert roads, we arrived at a walled compound which had been covered in NTC flags and revolutionary graffiti. Two pickup trucks with heavy machine guns stood at the metal gate, which was opened as we pulled up.

The sprinklers were on and lush green grass contrasted with the arid plains outside. Fighters loyal to the NTC in army fatigues mooched along the gravel paths and darker skinned Tuareg men, dressed in fantastic flowing robes and head scarves, sat chatting in some of the straw huts — each with its own air conditioning unit.

“This was Gaddafi’s desert retreat,” a fighter told me. “Now we are using it to reconcile with the tribes down here.”

The main building was two stories. Large rooms filled with sofas and empty cabinets were full of men running around talking about how to rebuild the country from the ground up.

What was shocking about the villa was that it was clearly rarely used. Gaddafi probably built it to stay on the off chance he might visit the nearby oil fields, I thought.

Nearby Obari, a town of about 40,000, is impoverished and the streets are full of rubbish.

One Tuareg man told me he used to play in the fields that were here before the villa was built in 1990. “A few days ago was the first time I’ve been in,” he said. I was glad that he was now clearly relaxing on the fake leather sofas.

I walked into the Gaddafi’s dining room. Here could I see sets of crockery and glassware. “My mum would love a set of Gaddafi’s tea cups,” I thought.

But while debating the ethics of looting Gaddafi’s house, I realized that the compound was still completely intact. Some things may had been stolen but many pocketable items were still in their place. I had read about, and seen, trashed government buildings and looted houses but here they clearly took a different approach.

In the kitchen, a northern fighter and a Tuareg man chatted over the sink, sleeves pulled up, while washing dishes.

As the debate stretched into the night, a towering Tuareg man came over to ask if I and my security advisor were tired. He walked us to Gaddafi’s room and I collapsed on the couch, profusely thanking him for lodging us in the best room.

Hospitality aside, the Tuareg were suspicious of the room. Some believed it to be cursed and dark magic could carry those who slept there “away.”

I slept like a self-assured dictator.

Tense reconciliation begins with Libya's Saharan tribes

By Oliver Holmes

OBARI, Libya | Wed Nov 9, 2011 5:14am EST

Nov 9 (Reuters) - "Let us all speak frankly, the Tuareg were with Gaddafi," the revolutionary fighter spat across the table.

Ali Aghali, a Tuareg tribesman, calmly pulled his hands out from under his turquoise robe and placed them on the table. He made sure that the fighter had finished speaking.

"We are not Gaddafi supporters. Everyone was with Gaddafi before the war, we have left him," he said smiling with his eyes, his mouth covered by a pastel yellow head scarf.

The fighter, from the northwestern Libyan town of Zintan, interrupted: "They were."

Meeting in a compound that used to be Muammar Gaddafi's private retreat outside the desert town of Obari, Zintan fighters and a civil and military delegation from the capital of Tripoli are here to make sure the revolution has fully arrived.

Tensions are running high. Many Tuareg nomad tribes, who roam the southern Sahara desert spanning the borders of Libya and its neighbours, backed Gaddafi late into the war.

The Arab fighters of Zintan, on the other hand, pride themselves on the speed at which they turned on Gaddafi. Zintan brigades came here to fight loyalists of the late Libyan leader in June and some have stayed behind, saying they intend to disarm the Tuareg, mediate disputes and reconcile the region with the interim government in the north, the National Transitional Council (NTC).

Many look upon the nomads with suspicion.

"I've been sent from the Ministry of Defence to sort it out here," said one commander, accusing the Tuareg of fighting for Gaddafi and raping women in the northern cities of Misrata and Zawiya, where bloody battles raged during the civil war.

"I will fix it. We are from Zintan and we are real revolutionaries. We need to stay in control here," he added.


The NTC faces the huge task of reconciling groups all over the country now that Gaddafi is gone after 42 years, and has sent delegations to sensitive areas around the country.

In towns around Libya, locals say people have been killed in raids by former rebel brigades seeking revenge against men they believed had fought on Gaddafi's side. There are fears of regional violence, especially in the previous Gaddafi stronghold towns of Sirte, Bani Walid and Sabha, only 200 km (125 miles) from Obari.

This region was one of the last bastions of Gaddafi in Libya and was only fully taken over by forces loyal to the NTC a month after he was toppled.

Many Tuareg backed Gaddafi because he supported their rebellion against the governments of Mali and Niger -- where there are large populations of Tuareg -- in the 1970s and later allowed more than 100,000 to settle in southern Libya.

The tribes are important to regional security because the Tuareg have huge influence in the vast, empty desert expanses which are often exploited by drug traffickers and Islamist militants as a safe haven for their operations.

Porous borders, discontent and availability of arms make this region one of the potential hot spots to present an armed challenge to the interim government.


The Tuareg say they are the victims of bad press, named as Gaddafi mercenaries because he used black Africans to fight in the north and accused of giving shelter to Gaddafi's family and his loyalists, a claim that many in the north uphold, including the prime minister of the interim government.

"There are still a lot of Gaddafi supporters in the desert, most are black people who speak Arabic. They thought if Gaddafi fell they would become slaves again. Life was very difficult before Gaddafi for them," said Aghali, who has come to meet the Zintani fighters and discuss what will happen next.

"But most Tuareg are not supporters of Gaddafi, we saw a lot of planes bringing mercenaries from African countries to fight in the north (during the war)," he said.

Aghali spent most of his life living just outside Gaddafi's walled villa and as a child used to play in the fields on which the compound was built in 1990.

He went into the actual compound for the first time only a few days ago, and now he sits drinking tea at the dining room table, surrounded by Gaddafi's expensive glassware.

"Most Gaddafi supporters (here) are staying in their houses and a lot try to join the revolution. Now, slowly, life will become good," he said.

The Tuareg tribesmen are a blur of flowing robes in Gaddafi's living room as they discuss their qualms with the country's new rulers.

Although the region does have second and third generation Zintani inhabitants, many of the fighters came during the war and act like an occupying force -- armed to the hilt and patrolling the streets in convoys.

A Tuareg man was recently shot dead by a Zintani, but few are willing to speak of details and mediations are held behind closed doors -- tribal feuds can spiral into further violence, they say.

"One man was walking in the street and revolutionaries shot him," said Ahmed Matu, a Tuareg mediator from Obari, a town of around 400,000 people filled with impoverished migrants, many of them Tuareg from Mali, Niger and Chad.

Outside, the sprinklers had been turned back on and Matu sits in a room full of chandeliers. Most of the cabinets are empty -- the villa was clearly rarely used but is now covered in revolutionary graffiti and guarded by fighters in pickup trucks.


At a college in central Obari, the NTC Tripoli delegation has come to hold a "town hall" style meeting with around 200 Tuareg elders and some of the Zintani fighters.

"I should care about Libya, not only my village or myself," a representative of the NTC said over a microphone.

"A doctor from Obari is the same as a doctor from Tripoli or Benghazi," he added, to the crowd's cheers.

Both the Zintanis and the Tuareg want to give the impression that progress is being made and laugh and joke together, but the mood becomes tense at times.

Tuareg were given the chance to express their grievances.

One man said that he had cars stolen and another demanded that imprisoned Tuareg who fought for Gaddafi in Zintan would be released.

An NTC military commander said the prisoners would be released after the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha this week, but from the depths of a crowd of Zintanis one fighter shouted out, "They have blood on their hands. The Tuareg signed an agreement with Gaddafi."

The room erupted with shouting as the Tuareg tried to refute the claim, desperate to appear to be cooperating. The Tuareg fear reprisals and during the meeting tribesmen try to portray themselves as victims too.

"We got nothing from Gaddafi," one elder cried to roars of applause. In towns around Libya, locals say people had been killed in raids by former rebel brigades seeking revenge against men they believed had fought on Gaddafi's side.


Members of the NTC Tripoli delegation make some progress but still leave feeling battered and exhausted.

"We'll have to come back," said a member of the military delegation.

"First we need to solve the personal dispute then we need to put the people here on the right course. We need to get all the guns. We need to open the schools. Because you know the revolution came later here. Some of the southern villagers do not even know that there was a revolution," he sighed.

Mossa Elkony, a Tuareg representative to the NTC, says the war has left "psychological wounds that demand a focus on reconciliation."

"I hope that Tuareg can restore confidence that has been lost. Unfortunately, they have been involved in this war," he said, just before boarding a military transport aircraft back to the capital.

"This makes haters against the Tuareg. We are afraid of a spark. We need to get rid of it at the beginning because it could become a roaring fire."

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