by Sharon Lynch and Don Doherty
The violence that erupted last week between Zuara, Al-Jmail, and Rigdaleen is clouded in confusion. . . .[restrict]However, one thing seems certain: the loss of life as well as the injuries could have been prevented had Libya had a fully functioning Ministry of Justice and a fully functioning Ministry of the Interior. The lack of clarity and leadership at the ministerial level also places in question the way forward to resolving the conflict.
It is difficult to piece together exactly what happened between Zuara and Al-Jmail/Rigdaleen over the course of the four-day series of battles. Details reported differ according to which media organization reported and to whom journalists spoke.
Focusing on the initial event that sparked the conflict, there are six dramatically different versions. The only thing that is certain is that a group of men from Zuara were attacked and detained by a group from a neighboring town around 11 pm on Saturday, March 31. Summaries of accounts reported by the Libya Herald, Reuters, the Associated Press, and the Temehu blog on Amazigh culture and political developments follow.
1) According to the Zuara Media Center, as reported in the Libya Herald on April 1, 25 men from Zuara were attacked and captured by forces from Al-Jmail as they were on their way from Nalut to Zuara. The men were Ministry of Interior border guards who had been guarding the border with Tunisia. Five of the men managed to escape and described the Al-Jmail forces as numbering about 1000 and identified them as pro-Qaddafi. At the time the article was written, negotiations between Zuara and Al-Jmail, mediated by a well-respected military figure from Sabratha, were in progress. Ayoob Sufyan from the Zuara Media Center indicated that Zuara had been subject to previous kidnappings and other abuses. The town had gone through proper channels to contact the NTC for assistance, but had received more assurances than assistance. He warned that if the men were not returned by morning, Zuara would take them back by force.
2) Also on April 1, Reuters reported the incident as an accident, quoting an Interior Ministry official as saying, “The origin of the problem was that there was a group from Zuara hunting in the area near Al-Jmail and they shot and killed someone from Al-Jmail by mistake.”
3) On April 2, the Associated Press wrote: “Fighters from Rigdaleen said they took 34 brigade men from the neighboring town of Zuara hostage.” It quoted Rigdaleen spokesman Rami Kanaan who alleged that the town had been subjected to months of abuse by the border guards: “We were fed up with that and so we took action and captured the men.”
4) A few days later on April 5, writing in the Libya Herald, Umar Khan gave an account of the event from the perspective of Mohammed Zargouni from Rigdaleen. Zargouni claimed that on the night of March 31, a clash occurred near Al-Assah, during which one Rigdaleen fighter was killed and another taken prisoner. The Sabratha group returned to Sabratha and asked the Zuaris to guard the border. The Military Council of Rigdaleen was not informed about the change in guards, and when it saw the Zuara border guards, it assumed that Rigdeleen was about to be attacked on two fronts. Rigdaleen rushed the Zuara border guards and captured them. Zargouni acknowledged that the men were beaten, but said once they realized the Zuaris had no intention of attacking Rigdaleen, they released them. Negotiations were held between the councils of Zuara and Al-Jmail, where the border guards had been taken; the negotiations were mediated by neighboring towns.
5) On April 6, the Temehu website, a key source for information regarding Amazigh culture and political movements, updated its April 2 blog entry to include videotaped remarks by Abdulaziz Bousennouga, the head of Zuara’s Military Council and the commander of the kidnapped border guards. According to Bousennouga, the Zuara border guards came across a smuggling point at Zahert Al-Khos, which they closed, and then discovered a second near Al-Assah. After the smuggling operation was shut down, some of the smugglers returned to Al-Jmail, reported the interference by the Zuara border guards and gathered a group of about 1000 civilians from Al-Jmail who attacked the border guards as they returned from Nalut. The commander of the Zuara guard unit described how they were stopped and taken first to Al-Assah’s council’s office where they were surrounded and beaten. They were then taken to Rigdaleen, where they were subjected to more beating, were tortured, and accused of being “traitors” and “NATO agents,” insults commonly applied by Qaddafi forces to the revolutionaries.
When the border guards presented an official NTC document certifying them to be employees of the Ministry of the Interior, the attackers said they did not recognize the authority of the NTC and tore up the document. From Rigdaleen they were then taken to Al-Jmail where men whom they described as Qaddafi loyalists subjected them to further abuse and torture. ?In the Temehu account, 22 border guards were eventually released. As reported by the commander of the border guard unit, the men were freed through efforts made on their behalf by an Al-Jmail group known as “The Protection of Al-Jmail Militia” who rescued them, treated them well, and smuggled them out of Al-Jmail and back to Zuara.
6) On April 7, yet another version of the story was told to Khan, this time from the Al-Jmail perspective. In his April 8 Libya Herald article, Khan tells how Bashir, the head of the Al-Jmail military council told him that a “group of people from Al-Jmail and Rigdaleen had attacked between eight and ten armed cars near the border of Tunisia.” Bashir added that “many people had been robbed in the area” and complaints were regularly received. He claimed that “the ‘robbers’ were brought to Al-Jmail and treated as guests” noting that “[he] slept in the same room with them, gave them good food to eat and brought them cigarettes. We didn’t put them in jail but kept them in our houses to make sure they felt comfortable.”
To summarize, the accounts provided by the Libya Herald, the Associated Press, Reuters and the Temehu site vary widely. The number of border guards reported captured ranged from 21 to 22, to 25, and as high as 34. There are two markedly different reports from Rigdaleen spokespersons regarding why and how the Zuara border guards were captured, and contrasting stories about how they were freed and by whom. The Al-Jmail story presents yet another version of what happened the night the Zuara border guards were attacked — one that interestingly leaves out the torture admitted to by Rigdaleen and the rescue provided by the group from Al-Jmail described by the commander of the Zuara border guards.
The details of what prompted — and who started — the fierce battles that followed the return of the Zuara guardsmen are even murkier. Discovering the truth will require a special investigation, as promised by the NTC when it sent a peace-keeping force to the area four days after the clashes began.
However, one thing seems certain. Both Zuara and Rigdaleen petitioned the NTC and the transitional government for assistance in addressing alleged abuses perpetrated by the other town. Neither, it seems, received results. Zargouni related how he had met Abdul Hakim Belhaj from the Tripoli Military Council after clashes between the two towns several weeks ago and had received assurances that his concerns would be conveyed to authorities in the interim government and NTC chairman Mustafa Abdul Jalil. Were the details of Zargouni’s meeting with Belhaj forwarded to the Interior Ministry or the NTC chairman?
In response to Zuara’s requests earlier this year, a brigade from Misrata spent time in the area, acting as a buffer, but it has since left. One cannot help but wonder if the Rigdaleen grievances reached the Interior Ministry and why no further action was taken by the Interior Ministry to resolve the differences between the towns after the Misrata brigade left the area. The Interior Ministry’s odd statement about the clashes being related to a hunting accident itself gives pause. That fact that it was repeated in subsequent Reuters’ articles about the conflict suggests that the Ministry did not bother to correct the account. To leave it as part of the public record undermines the credibility of the Ministry and leads one to question its commitment to the truth.
In an interview after the imposition of the ceasefire by forces sent from Tripoli, Zuara’s military chief Bousennouga stated: “Wisdom is required to resolve issues, not force.” On April 7, a meeting of tribal elders was convened in Sabratha to discuss the Zuara-Al-Jmail-Rigdaleen conflict and create a mechanism for reconciliation. Zuara, Al-Jmail and Rigdaleen will select spokespersons to represent their concerns and meetings will continue this week. The process was not begun by the Ministry of Justice, but at least it is happening and hopefully will bring justice and peace to the area and possibly introduce a reconciliation model for the rest of Libya.
Bousennaga’s call for wisdom could likewise be well-answered by a properly functioning judiciary. Had Zuara and Rigdaleen access to courts of law where they could have brought their complaints, the violence that took nearly 20 lives and injured about 150 could have been avoided. Deputy Justice Minister Khalifa Ashour met a group of Libyan youth on April 5 and announced that all Libyan courts would be functioning by the end of April. Freelance journalist Khadija Ali, who was part of the meeting, repeated on Twitter the claim by Ashour that the courts were being prepared according to international standards. This is welcome news. While details were not provided defining “international standards”, this hopefully includes addressing the pervasive corruption in the Qaddafi court system and instituting a set of laws to address the complex issues facing the country as it moves from the cronyism of a dictatorship to the rule of law.