Book Review: Desert Encounter; Documenting Libya’s Cycles of Violence

“What rebellion? There is no rebellion; there is only a desperate fight for existence on the soil which our fathers possessed long before us.”

62133363_423941841792172_1536561443913072640_nFor many who researcher or read about Libya, the most common lament you’ll hear is the sheer lack of resources about the country. You’d be hard pressed today to find accurate reporting or studies during the nation’s current turbulent transition, while the Gadhafi era is considered a ‘black hole’ in the country’s history due to the regime’s practice of isolating itself from the rest of the world. But it is Libya’s colonial period that offers a peculiar absence of information.

What makes it so strange is the fact that there was much documentation done during the Italian occupation of Libya. Considered one of the most brutal attempts at colonization in the world, Italian authorities of the time had no issue boasting of the bloody tactics used to subdue Libyans, even as they denied it was a genocide. But after the defeat of the fascists and the declaration of Libya’s independence, many archives were allegedly destroyed in Italy.

The most likely explanation is that Italy, conscious of the reparations they would have to make to the country they brutalized, attempted to minimize the extent of the horrors committed by destroying the evidence. The results of these actions continue to play out in Libya today, a country haunted by the legacy of violence but without its memory, leaving it trapped in a vicious circle. We’ll never truly know about the concentration camps, the institutionalized genocide, and the amount of Libyan blood lost.

All that really remain are fragments, such as the ethnographic studies conducted by Italian researchers in an attempt to learn how to divide and control Libyan communities, or the maps created to plot the development of Libyan cities for Italian immigrants. There also remains the memory of our grandparents, blurred over the decades by new waves of violence. Historians such as Ibrahim Ahmed Elmehdewi and Khalifa Tillisi have translated Italian records into English, while newer efforts such as Ali Hussein’s ‘Alagailah: A Camp of Suffering’ attempt to relive that period through storytelling.

But sometimes, if you’re lucky, you’ll stumble across a rare book written by neither Italians nor Libyans, which give an outsiders view to that era of history. Knud Holomboe’s ‘Desert Encounter’ is one of these gems. Written by a Dutch Muslim convert, Holmboe chronicles his road trip through North Africa as he attempts to reach Mecca, and what he found when he crossed Libya.

I found this book almost by accident, looking for documents on Italian concentration camps. My extensive googling led me to this book, almost hidden away in the scant listings on Libya. Right off the bat you can tell it’s going to be interesting; banned in Italy almost immediately after its release in 1931, the author assassinated shortly after its publication in Jordan. While the tone of the book is not overtly political, it can be read as a condemnation of colonialism and the neoliberal policies that underpin it, celebrating instead a more spiritual way of life.

It starts with Holmboe in Morocco, deliberating how to reach Mecca. While he initially plans to cross the Mediterranean by boat, he is convinced by another travel to attempt a road trip by car. He passes through Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, with an Arab boy and American companion, catching only brief glimpses of French occupation, the names of resistance fighters reverently whispered by the occupied populations.

During this time, he shares musings with the roving clans that accommodate them during the nights. Among the ones that struck me was how Holmboe, being a devote Muslim, believes that Islam has become ‘diluted’ in North Africa, with people following superstitions rather than a pure interpretation of the religion. Throughout the book – and while he does occasionally acknowledge the privilege he is afforded for being a white man in a colonized region – these kinds of observations make an otherwise interesting story somewhat uncomfortable.

By the time he reaches the borders of Libya, he begins to encounter problems. The Italian occupiers were very strict when it came to movement through and around Libya, and they make it difficult for him to pass by putting him through layers of menacing bureaucracy. What is interesting here is the division of Libya:

“If you…sign a declaration…it is possible that I may obtain permission for you. There are two Governments, one in Tripoli and one in Cyrenaica. I will also have to obtain permission from Benghazi.”

History repeating itself today? I remembered here all the running around we had to do for my previous workplace to get permissions from the two governments of Benghazi and Tripoli in order to be able to work.

Almost immediately, the signs of cruelty can be seen in the occupation of the country. He meets the ‘Arab population’ – who are almost always referred to as bedouins – dressed in rags, looking haggard and thin, and always gazing silently during Italian festivals or exhibitions. He finds bedouin camps along the way, who share stories of resistance and defeat.

“…we are treated like dogs – worse than dogs; we have surrendered. It was impossible to continue to fight against the Italians…they blocked up our wells with concrete so that the cattle could not drink…now we are starving to death slowly. I think the Italians want to destroy us utterly. We are getting more and more ignorant, more and more poor, more and more like the animals they call us.”

Holmboe was very sympathetic to the Libyan people, and is it possible that there was some embellishment in what he wrote, but even this thought didn’t prevent me from feeling a sense of grief over what I read. Libyans are a proud people, and the complete subjugation under colonialism had not only material consequences but also psychological, not just of trauma but also broken dignity.

I also felt something I didn’t expect; a deep and growing rage, not just at what had happened to my country but in the fact that we don’t remember, that we continue to allow foreign actors like the current Italian government to insidiously involve themselves in our affairs. As Holmboe makes his way East towards Benghazi, he continues to see further cruelties. The tribes in East Libya – referred to as the ‘free bedouins’ – had continued fighting Italian occupation under the leadership of Omar Mukhtar, and were met with even more aggressively punitive measures.

Another interesting historic precedent is the use of foreign troops, repeated again by Gadhafi’s hiring of mercenaries during the 2011 war. Holmboe encountered Eritrean troops brought in by the Italian. When he asked why there were so many, they replied, “Because they are the only troops we can depend on…they are absolutely loyal,” whereas Arab soldiers mostly refused to fight other Arabs. “Here we have to kill almost the whole population before they understand that we are the stronger.”

61551976_624846001260268_6310179875567173632_nAfter a harrowing ordeal of getting lost in the desert near Naufilia, he finally makes his way to Benghazi, where he witnesses the daily hangings of any dissident Libyans. He also encounters “sympathetic” Italian officers, who express their disdain towards the system they work for. “What can you expect from people who don’t speak a word of Arabic, and who live under the strange delusion that civilization if culture?” These characters are put into relief by their counterparts, who don’t spare any derogatory words in their contempt of Libyans, who they see as being unable to ‘develop’ the land and therefore don’t deserve it.

The most difficult part of the trip was the expanse between Marj and Tobruk, an area that the Italians were not able to control, due to the presence of resistance fighters who hid in the caves around the Green Mountain. During this trip, Holmboe was captured by bedouins, who released him after learning that he was a Muslim. He then arrives to Derna where people are arrested and hanged for mere trifles, as the occupation was on edge due to the “rebellion” against them. During this stretch, he is captivated by the Arabs/bedouins he meets and the sufi practices of the people. Much of the book contains his reflections on spirituality, his own personal quest which is what led him to pass through Libya initally.

Eventually, he is arrested and deported, where he makes his way to Egypt to meet with Libya’s exiled king. The book ends on a bitter note, looking cynically at the future of the region. Holmboe never lived to see the king return, unite the country and declare independence from Benghazi in 1954. But his book was an attempt to shed light on what was happening in Libya, and he tried to advocate against Italian occupation during the remainder of his life.

It is estimated that the Italian colonization of Libya ended in the murder of almost one third of the population. Few documents exist today which detail this bloody history. Gadhafi attempted to mold the country in his post-colonial vision,  but greed and madness led him to repeat many of the tactics used by the Italians, a legacy that he once vowed to undo. In Libya, I believe our loss of memory is our undoing, condemning us in the Sisyphean task of rebuilding our country by repeating the same historic events. Foreign occupation, revolutions, wars and constant uncertainty is a cycle that we have to break out of, by first acknowledging it. Desert Encounter is, if nothing else, an excellent and emotional book, and a good place to start.

You can get your copy of Desert Encounter from Dar Fergiani publishers at this link here.

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The City as Barracks: Militarization of Benghazi’s Urban Space

The earliest memory I have of visiting the building site that would become our family home in Benghazi is the road; the long stretch of the Tripoli highway road seemed unending to a 14 year old, and the idea of living on the edge of the city was foreboding. But what caught my attention was the double row of concrete walls framing the road.

I would later learn that we lived near the ‘April 7th’ military camp, later renamed the ‘February 17’ military camp when it was taken over by armed protesters in 2011 and renamed once more after the 2014 civil war. I don’t know what the new name is, everyone in the city still knows is as the Feb 17 camp. Across from it is the Garyounis base, the site of Gadhafi’s historic radio announcement in which he declared a coup d’état against the kingdom.

Benghazi today is the site of numerous military camps. Those constructed under the Gadhafi regime during the time of his military paranoia and weapons stockpiling were placed in the peripheries of the city; Garyounis, Bu’Atni, Venecia. But the city has rapidly grown since then, swallowing the military camps and placing them in the middle of residential districts. The only exception was the Fatheel Bu’mar base near the city center, a re-purposed relic of Italian colonization (which in its time was also in the city’s periphery).

We no longer live at the ‘edge’ of the city, but the features of a once-peripheral neighbourhood are still there, from the military camps to the lack of phone lines. And it was these camps that led to our displacement in the war, along with the displacement of every neighbourhood that had barracks of some sort in them.

After the 2011 revolution/war, the military bases scattered throughout the city became the most strategically important sites, and the plethora of armed groups that emerged from the conflict all grabbed what they could. From then on, the sound of gunfire and explosions from training were ubiquitous in my neighbourhood, marking an era of militarization of the city.

But there weren’t enough military bases to go around, and several public buildings were taken over by armed groups as their headquarters. Where public buildings weren’t available, large tracts of land were purchased or taken by force. The old soap factory in Kuwaifya became the camp for the Libya Shield militia, Gadhafi’s farmland in Hawari turned into the infamous Rafallah S’hati barrack, run by a militia allied to extremist groups. These places did not become passive military camps like the days of Gadhafi but were sites of violence, inflicted terror on the neighbourhoods they were in; those living near Rafallah S’hati would find the decapitated bodies of victims of the militia group, the Libya Shield base was the site of frequent violent confrontations between the militia and protesters who wanted them out of the city.

After the outbreak of the 2014 war, the front lines were drawn around the barracks. Military tactics in the city revolved around capturing bases in order to gain weapons and ammunition, as well as free prisoners. These tactics led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people and paralyzed life in the city. Four years later, the city is “liberated” but the bases remain.

The army’s “Military Investment Authority” is now radically changing the layout of the city. The Juliana beachside has been taken over by force in order to create a new military base. But the land grabbing is not limited to military aspirations alone, as houses and land in affluent neighbourhoods have also been purchased or taken over by force to make way for new developments, such as a mall that is being constructed in the already congested Bel’oun district. Focus is now being cast on the Benghazi bosco, one of the largest parks in the city. With the country still in a period of extreme volatility, now is the best time to establish control over land.

Citizens are trying to fight back, launching campaigns online and invoking Libyan land laws. Surprisingly there is a fear by armed groups of social media backlash, and for now sites like the bosco remains untouched. But demands for the dismantling of military bases continue to be futile. Our neighbourhood representatives – prompted by the incident of a stray bullet breaking through glass into a house – attempted to negotiate with the current management of the Garyounis base to at least reduce the military training that goes on, but with little success.

These bases are extending throughout the city, turning Benghazi into a military town, and similar phenomena is felt in Tripoli, Sirte, Ajdabiya and elsewhere. As long as the conflict between opposing groups in Libya continues, the bases won’t go away, as all parties wait in anticipation of the next war.

Streets and Statues: Political Symbolism in Benghazi

The downtown center of Benghazi and the city’s nearby historic Birka district is connected by a 3.3 km arterial road. This street has gone by several different names in the past, depending on who is power at the time, but for local Benghazi residents, it’s known as Jamal Abdul Nasser St., named after the leader of the Pan-Arab movement that captivated Gadhafi. This passion for Pan-Arabism extended to most of Benghazi’s streets, with the main highway connecting Benghazi to East and West Libya named ‘Arouba’ (Arabism) street, and most members of the Arab League will find a road in Benghazi with their name, from Yemen to Sudan to even the historic Andalus. However, the only name that stuck with the locals was Jamal Street (the highway is known as Tripoli Road).

The naming of streets in Libya is serious political business. During the 2011 revolution, there was conscious willingness to rename all the streets and plazas and pubic buildings from symbols of Gadhafi’s Fateh revolution, with the new names representing the new era of Libya. This occurred throughout the region, with multiple ‘freedom squares’, ‘martyrs plazas’ and ‘revolutionary roads’ appearing across MENA cities. The 2014 civil war, which saw a shifting of political alliances, meant that names had to be changed yet again. The people of Benghazi, who could understandably not keep up with these constant changes, eventually reverted to the pre-revolution names.

Jamal Street retained its name in all this turmoil, despite losing the eponymous statue which marked its Western entrance. One year after the revolution, a group of “officials” ordered the statue to be torn down. News reports claim that the reason was unclear for bringing down the statue, but everyone in Benghazi knew why. After certain political groups co-opted the revolution, they began doing what Gadhafi had done before them; remove all symbols of past power.

The now demolished statue of Jamal Abdul Nasser
Photo credits: http://wander-wege.blogspot.com/2010/08/brief-history-of-benghazi.html

This is a trend that seems to be particular to Benghazi; it is one of the few cities where history is difficult is commemorate spatially. Gadhafi had a field day ordering the removal of any public icon that wasn’t linked to his ideology; the shrine of Omar Mukhtar was destroyed, the ‘souq al-thalam’ in the downtown demolished, the King’s Parliament building razed into a parking lot, the lion statues on the corniche mysteriously vanished overnight. What couldn’t be removed was left to decay. Piece by piece over 42 years, the landmarks of the city were erased, perhaps his own attempt at trying to control a disgruntled city that never really recognized his authority.

And after the revolution, this mindset of erasure was inherited by the winners; the statue of Jamal taken down, the ‘revolutionary bases’ burned to the ground, and new statues put up. Among the very grotesque and aesthetically horrifying symbols was an abstract mini-replica of the Benghazi lighthouse, a strange 10 meter skeletal box (?) with a neon hand and the words ‘God is Great’ written over it, and a particularly hideous clock with the colours of the flag placed on the face of the lighthouse itself, which elicited much rage from the architect community. Among less hideous statues were the fighter jets and tanks placed at various roundabouts, commemorating the Libyan air force and military.

The burned out ‘mathaba thawriya’ (revolutionary base) in central Benghazi

Other symbols were instead appropriated, such as the ‘pipe roundabout’ which was a celebration of the Great Man-Made River project. A grouping of several large, dusty white pipes, they were given a new coat of colourful paint after the revolution, and again re-painted after the war in the shape of book spines. I think the aim here was more about rejuvenating the spirit of Benghazi after a particularly difficult historic period (something difficult to appreciate when you are stuck in the traffic of the roundabout and yelling at the guy who just cut you off).

Because of the lack of any real pedestrian routes in the city aside from the city center, these statues invariably are placed in the city’s numerous roundabouts. Indeed, you’d be hard pressed to find a roundabout in Benghazi that doesn’t have some icon in the center, including in some cases the burned out cars of notable fighters during the war, statues representing rural life such as jars and wells, and of course more fighter jets.

A small model of the Omar Mukhtar shrine during a cultural parade in Benghazi, in which various historic symbols of the city were recreated

These symbols, while failing to actually reflect anything symbolic, instead offer some insight into the various power struggles; of religious ideology, military force, and the confusion that many of the local artists and residents have about what the city truly represents. Benghazi is more than revolutions or wars, and yet we don’t have anything to prove it except faded memories. It is a city that is doomed to repeat its own history because it can’t hold on to it.

The only way to live through the city’s past is through old photographs and memories of the people. It’s an invisible city, one that is superimposed onto the real one but which can only be viewed through the eyes of its residents. That’s where the Italian theater used to be, this is where the Benkato mosque once stood, here’s the building I once took classes. A city that ‘used to be’.

The Lost Humanitarian Principle

WFP Assistance_blog post

A oddly arranged picture from some of the UN’s promotional material which prompt questions: Who are these 90,000 people? Do they actually need the food? Why a picture of an old woman in a traditional cloak who could literally be anyone’s grandma?

I’ve found myself reading quite a lot about Gadhafi’s early days of rule and the vision he had for Libya. Growing up in an anti-Gadhafi household meant that I was never able to see past his brutal regime, but in the wake of Libya’s destruction I have found myself questioning so much of what I used to believe, and that includes a more nuanced and critical view of the Gadhafi era. What I found most notable was his passion for a country that was completely autonomous, one that meaningfully tried to heal from its colonialist legacy. I believe that many Libyans who today long for the days of Gadhafi are most nostalgic about that feeling of true sovereignty and independence away from the meddling of outside actors.

This interference has become the target of a growing wave of anger and discontent from Libyans at the way embassies, development organization and NGOs are conducting work in and about Libya. It is dawning on many citizens that the political stalemate in the country is being prolonged by various nation-states who have competing interests in Libya, as the country has become the site of a proxy war. This can also been seen in the type of programs implemented by international cooperation agencies and where they do (and don’t) work.

It can also be witnessed in the “Twitter diplomacy” of some countries. No one can easily forget the bizarre antics of the American ambassador “Safira Debora” of a few years ago, who posted teenager-style tweets from within high-level diplomatic discussions. And the current Italian ambassador and embassy frequently write very ham-fisted tweets, including how the days of Italian occupation in Libya were a glorious time for the country, ignoring the fact that Libyans were dying in Italian concentration camps during that same period. Indeed it appears that the Italian policy in Libya is to blatantly step all over the nation’s sovereignty.

Recently it has been the work of aid organizations that have enraged Libyans across the country. Pictures of UNICEF distributing light-blue backpacks emblazoned with their logo were circulating last week, with objections coming from all sides. Most people lamented on the depths Libya has reached that we rely on international organizations to give our children backpack. But others still were angry at the prominent size of the logo and the demeaning way in which the photo op was conducted. Among other things, the depiction of beneficiaries as weak and helpless is frowned upon in NGO circles. But in the case of Libya, it is also creating resentment among a nation of proud people towards these agencies and their hand-outs.

Another inflammatory picture by WFP depicted a young boy in what appeared to be a camp, with the caption (I’m paraphrasing here) “We asked why this young boy wears his Eid clothes during food distribution days, and his mother said it was because these are days of celebration!” While one can debate the size of logos and importance of documenting aid distribution, the above example cannot really be justified. To depict a family as being so happy to get food distribution that they dress up for it is not only humiliating and demeaning, it also erroneously portrays food security as an issue in Libya.

I might need to put up some disclaimers here. Firstly, I come from a middle-class family from Benghazi, and the extent of my knowledge is obviously limited when it comes to Libya’s marginalized groups living under the poverty line. I also worked with an international NGO, and we weren’t perfect when it came to our programming and communication either. However, after working with and various groups across the country, I can say that we never encountered food security to be a prominent issue, for several reasons. The first is that local charities, the zakaa system and the CSR office of national companies already covers the basic needs of vulnerable groups. Secondly, basic food items are subsidized in Libya, making it still relatively affordable. But more crucial than all of this is the fact that WFP has been trying to import food assistance to Libya since 2014, and it has usually come in spoiled and unfit for human consumption, and is routinely thrown out. And yet, despite this massive inefficiency in management, Libyans haven’t starved without their assistance.

There is always the constant speculation over what is gained by such depictions in the communication material of these agencies. Libya is definitely suffering from severe problems including infrastructure failure, a weak education and healthcare system, but these are problems caused by a corrupt and mismanaged administration, not lack of money. Instead of addressing these key issues, why deliver bags of food? The unsatisfactory answer is that it’s easier to employ band-aid solutions than to spend years addressing root causes. The easy answer is that the aid industry relies on this system in order to provide jobs for thousands of expat workers. But there may still be a more insidious answer in the realm of conspiracy theories on how a weakened Libya serves certain interests.

In any case, the growing anger is leading to more and more NGOs and agencies being denied a license to work inside the country, and could potentially put their employees at a higher risk. More discretion, and a return to the principles of humanitarianism, are definitely required.

Benghazi’s Liberation is Just the First Step: Post-Conflict Recovery and the Upcoming Challenges

It’s been a day years in the making. Over the sound of fireworks, car horns and people’s jubilant cheers, Benghazi is filled with the chants we’ve waited so long to finally say; Benghazi is liberated, the war is over!

Since the killing of the US ambassador Chris Steven in 2012, to the deteriorating security situation in the years after, up until the declaration of war on May 16, 2014 and subsequent battle on October 15th of that same year, these years have been one of the most destructive and traumatic since the Second World War. Hundreds of people were assassinated or killed in car bombs, terrorizing the city. According to UNHCR, there were at least 105,000 people displaced from their homes in Benghazi in 2015, with hundreds of them forced to find shelter in public schools. Schools and universities were stopped, the health sector collapsed and infrastructure was barely functioning. We lost heroes like Tawfik Bensaud and Salwa Bughaigis as civil society became a primary target, and the city turned into a ghost town.

Today, Benghazi is barely recognizable. Most businesses and public services have reopened or are planning to, most displaced people have returned home, and there is a very strong feeling of safety and security among the inhabitants. While the official declaration of liberation was made on July 5th, 2017, the city has already begun the recovery process. Key institutions were restructured and reactivated, giving East Libya some semblance of a state. But it is also unrecognizable in a less positive way. The liberated districts have been badly hit, with many buildings destroyed or burned. The social fabric has also been damaged, as differing ideologies have created a rift between families, friends and neighbours. More worryingly, there are new ideologies slowly creeping into state institutions, a cause for alarm in a city that just won a war against extremists.

People in Benghazi now are less naive today than they were in 2011 after the announcement of Libya’s “liberation” in 2011. We know that the state is weak, weaker than it’s ever been. We are also acutely aware that the next form of governance will most likely take the form of a quasi-dictatorship, although people are between ambivalent to hostile when it comes to concepts like democracy. The joy on July 5th was not happiness at being “liberated” but rather because the war itself is over, because the hostile groups who terrorized us for years have been defeated. Liberation is the relatively easy first step, but the recovery and reconstruction from the war will be insurmountably harder. The challenges we face today can be divided as:

  1. Physical Reconstruction: Schools, hospitals, administrative buildings, electricity, water, these are just a handful of the biggest urban issues that need to be addressed directly. Benghazi already suffers from bad urban planning, and reconstruction needs to address the existing underlying problems. Along with this, the environmental problems is also crucial, particularly the issue of mines and pollution.
  2. Social Rehabilitation: Post-traumatic stress disorder is on the rise, and everyone has been psychologically affected by the war to some degree. In particular, soldiers on the front line require intensive and long-term psychosocial care to help reintegrate them into society. As Libya barely has the technical expertise or infrastructure to deal with mental health issues, this will be a huge challenge.
  3. System of Governance: I mentioned before the establishment of military rule, although it is purportedly due to the current exceptional crisis situation. While this is understandable, civil society and civic actors must continue to push for the eventual transition into civil rule once again. With the increasing threats coming from groups like the Salafists and tribal actors, this is becoming more imperative.
  4. Corruption: This is probably the biggest challenge we’ll face in the next few years. Corruption has practically become part of our culture, and all eyes are now on the reconstruction plans for the city. Embezzlement and nepotism is expected to permeate this process. While it will be difficult to tackle this problem, having a strong independent media to blow the whistle on corruption, and strong NGOs and legal system to fight it, will be a step in the right direction.
  5. Reconciliation: It is now almost unanimously recognized by Libyans that the steps we took after the revolution (or rather lack of), with regards to reconciliation, was one of the main reasons why the country fell apart. We cannot repeat this mistake, and we can’t build a city or country by excluding and marginalizing anyone, even those we fundamentally disagree with. Benghazi needs to be the city that takes the first steps to reconcile between the different groups engaged in the conflict, and to ensure justice for all.

Of course, this is only a handful of the major challenges we face. There are others, such as inherently weak institutions, the continued collapsing economy, and the brewing hostility between East and West. But we have to start somewhere, and we have to start local. It’s said that Benghazi has always been the city that has influenced all of Libya, and its our responsibility to make sure that this influence is always for the good of the country.