By: David Kirkpatrick
Until a few weeks ago, the rebellious towns in the Nafusah Mountains were struggling to survive on dwindling supplies of barley, water and gas during a long siege by Col.Muammar el-Qaddafi’s soldiers.
The remnants of Grad rockets on the road between Rogeban and Nalut indicate the level of fighting in the mountainous region.
But after an improbable series of military victories over the past three weeks — with fewer than 100 rebel fighters killed, their military leaders say — residents of a broad area in this mountain region are celebrating virtual secession from Colonel Qaddafi’s Libya. While there have been defeats, and the Grad rockets of Colonel Qaddafi’s forces still menace the outskirts of Nalut near the Tunisian border and Yafran to the east, rebels point hopefully
to the growing stability of the towns under their control as evidence of how tenuous Colonel Qaddafi’s grip may be.
“This is the new Libya,” said Anwar Fekini, a Sorbonne-educated French-Libyan lawyer, rebel organizer and local tribal leader who returned for a weekend trip to his ancestral home to strategize with local allies. “It feels good.”
He delicately accepted an aging Belgian rifle from two gray-haired rebel fighters, just for safekeeping.
The Nafusah Mountains have emerged as a strategically significant front in the battle for Libya, in part because the rebels there are closest to Colonel Qaddafi’s stronghold in the capital, Tripoli, and in part because they have the potential to cut off vital supply lines from the border. And though barely trained and few in number — one rebel leader estimated that there were about 2,000 armed fighters — they have used their knowledge of the terrain and the sympathies of much of the local population to expand their territory as the fighting around Benghazi to the east and Misurata on the central coast has moved toward a stalemate.
The rebels have established firm control of more than a half-dozen towns from the Dhiba border crossing into Tunisia, where rebel guards mingle amiably with their Tunisian counterparts, to the major town of Yafran, a 90-minute drive from Tripoli. Indeed, on a tour from the border to the front beyond Yafran, rebel security seemed extraordinarily light, with hardly any guards at the Dhiba crossing. Teenagers were running checkpoints along the road, and some front-line posts were unmanned.
After months of an exodus, driven by the fighting in the mountains, refugees returning home jam the border crossing in a long line. This weekend, several Tripoli residents arrived to take refuge with their families as well.
In many towns, local authorities say that most of the Qaddafi government employees kept working as the rebels took over, and the same police officers now patrol the streets in fresh new rebel uniforms. Their own makeshift jails house captured soldiers.
At least seven local newspapers — photocopied newsletters — have sprung up to capitalize on the new freedom of the press. In Rogeban, each issue of a new newspaper produced by a history professor includes both a “face of the revolution” feature on a local activist and a short civics lesson introducing concepts that may be useful in discussing Libya’s future, like “confederation” or “federalism.”
Rogeban residents have covered the walls with cartoons mocking Colonel Qaddafi and decorated public spaces with shards of his military’s Grad rockets. A new museum in Yafran celebrates local culture and achievements, with one room devoted to the armaments fired at local communities and another archiving the new newspapers.
There is also a media center in Yafran. The founder said he had received five visitors. “But we’re expecting a lot more,” he said.
Across the border in Tunisia, a small industry has sprung up to furnish baseball hats and T-shirts emblazoned with the tricolor pre-Qaddafi Libyan flag that the rebels have adopted as their own.
Local doctors say they are now better equipped with supplies than they were before the uprising, in part because of the generosity of wealthier Libyans abroad. The rebels have even painted a runway along more than a mile of highway, in the hopes that planes might land with more weapons and supplies. In the latest victory, several members of the Libyan national soccer team defected from Tripoli and entered the Nafusah Mountains on Friday to declare their support for the insurrection.
Residents in the mountains here have long been resentful of the Qaddafi government, in part because perhaps a third are members of the Berber ethnic minority. For decades Colonel Qaddafi denied and suppressed the existence of their culture, language and sect of Islam, and in Berber centers like Jadu, Nalut and Yafran, Berber symbols have been added to the rebel flag.
Signs and graffiti in the characters of the Berber language, Amazigh, have sprouted up everywhere, along with newspapers printed in Amazigh and Arabic. At a rally Friday night in Jadu, demonstrators carried signs calling for national recognition of their language and others, declaring “Libya is one tribe.”
But the key to their success, rebels military leaders say, has been the extraordinarily weak morale of Colonel Qaddafi’s troops.
The turning point came with the rebels’ surprise takeover of the border crossing between Wazen, Libya, and Dhiba, Tunisia, on April 21. Two nights earlier, the rebels sneaked down through the mountains at 1:30 a.m. to attack Colonel Qaddafi’s troops.
After reinforcements arrived the next day, the rebel fighters ultimately numbered about 120, with 16 pickup trucks equipped with artillery captured or taken by defectors from the Libyan Army. The force included dozens of former army officers who had switched sides at the start of the revolt, but the rest of the force was so underequipped that some of the rebels were fighting with 100-year-old rifles their ancestors once used to fight the Italian colonial rulers.
Still, the next morning they managed to turn back a column of pro-Qaddafi reinforcements trying to climb to the crossing from their base in the town of Al Ghezaia, rebel fighters said. After a pitched battle on the second day of the fight, the better-equipped and more numerous pro-Qaddafi border guards abruptly abandoned their post around breakfast time, said rebel fighters and Tunisian officers who watched the retreat. The final fight lasted just 26 minutes, a Tunisian witness said, and no rebels were killed.
“We drank their tea,” said Omar Fekini, 49, a veteran of Libya’s ill-fated war with Chad who helped lead the rebel assault. A group of pro-Qaddafi troops briefly retook the crossing the next week, but less than a day later they, too, retreated before a similarly motley and ill-equipped rebel band, whose leaders could provide no explanation for their own success.
NATO planes played no role in the battle for the border post, although the burned shells of tanks along the road provide evidence of strikes elsewhere.
At a police station here in Rogeban, rebels detained two captured pro-Qaddafi soldiers in a narrow, windowless room furnished only with two bare and ripped foam mattresses. Both had been captured nearly a month ago trying to flee the Qaddafi forces’ checkpoints almost as soon as they heard artillery fire, according to the accounts of both the prisoners and their captors.
They had been wounded in firefights leading to their capture, and both said they had received adequate medical attention, though one still walked with a limp. They said they had enlisted for a 10-day tour of duty after pro-Qaddafi recruiters had told them they would be fighting foreign terrorists and mercenaries, but they offered little explanation for their professed ignorance of the Libyan revolt.
Not all is tranquil. Parts of Nalut, the Berber town closest to the border crossing, still lack electricity and water, and its outskirts come under fire from Grad rockets. Many villages seem largely deserted. Last week, a group of rebels from Nalut tried unsuccessfully to attack a pro-Qaddafi base about 10 miles into the valley below the town, losing several fights. Leaders of other tribes suggested that the Naluti had invited their own defeat by refusing to ask for more help.
The other mountain front is between Yafran and Gharyan, a town of 85,000 that is Colonel Qaddafi’s last major stronghold in the mountains. Rebels at the last checkpoint beyond Yafran say they still come under occasional rocket fire from the pro-Qaddafi forces, but the people of the small town between Yafran and Gharyan have so far refused to join their cause.
Standing at the last checkpoint, Hisham al-Gibali, 33, showed a bullet wound in his leg that he suffered near Yafran a few weeks ago. He said he had left a life in the Netherlands to return to Libya to join the fight, and he contended that the rebels would soon take Gharyan, despite their inferior numbers, because of the strength of their morale.
“We are fighting for truth, and they are not,” he said. “The fighters from Zintan and Jadu will come here, and we will all go together. We are all Libyans. We are not alone.”
Source: New York Times