A week that included the anniversary of Muammar Gaddafi’s death, the anniversary of Libya’s liberation and the start of Eid al Adha was destined to be memorable, and yet the past few days have also been significant for other reasons.
On 1st October government backed militias from Misrata laid siege to the hilltop town of Bani Walid demanding that those responsible for the torture and subsequent death of Omran Shaaban, one of the men credited with capturing Gaddafi a year ago, be handed over to the Libyan authorities to face trial. Bani Walid is seen as a bastion of Gaddafi loyalists and as the stalwarts of 17th February revolution clamoured for justice for one of their fallen heroes, the Ministries of Defence and Interior also threw their support behind the demands.
However, as events in Bani Walid escalated it became apparent that the government in Tripoli was trying unsuccessfully to catch up to events as they unfolded on the ground, and in fact, it was the military command in Misrata calling the shots. Since Gaddafi’s capture and death at the hands of Misrati forces a year ago, the city of Misrata has become a powerful city-state, styling itself as the first line of resistance against anti-revolution forces. Their assault on Bani Walid is ostensibly an attempt to catch those responsible for Omran Shaaban’s death, yet it the militias have also been trying to bring this notorious town under government control for over a year.
Shortly after the revolution ended, Misrati militias forced the entire population of the town of Tawargha out of their homes as collective punishment for participating in the assault on Misrata. These people are still barrred from returning home and many fear that a similar fate may await Bani Walid. Misrata forces are using their mantle as ‘defenders of the revolution’ to settle old scores while the government tries to convince the public that these same forces are doing their bidding in the name of the revolution.
Though Bani Walid is 140km south of Tripoli, those living in Libya’s capital have felt the effects of the conflict there. At first there was wide-spread support for the siege; on the anniversary of Libya’s liberation it seemed apt that those responsible for the death of a revolutionary hero be brought to justice. However, as reports on the nature and scale of the assault on Bani Walid became clear, and as the water supply to Tripoli was cut for 5 days due to power lines damaged in the fighting, support has shifted to a feeling of unease. Many residents of Tripoli doubt claims that Bani Walid is a hotbed of Gaddafi supporters and they question whether the militias have grounds for a full scale attack.
Then, on the anniversary of Gaddafi’s death, rumours rapidly spread that claimed that Khamis Gaddafi, one of Colonel Gaddafi’s sons, had been captured in Bani Walid despite being reported dead back in August 2011. The Gaddafi regime spokesman Musa Ibrahim was also reported as being held in Mitiga airport in Tripoli along with 30 other senior regime figures. Many were skeptical about this information given the timing and the unlikely nature of capturing so many high profile individuals in one fell swoop, but when the government confirmed the rumours the streets of Tripoli went into celebration mode. Cars were beeping, music was playing and guns were being fired late into the night.
The following day, however, the government apologised and said that in fact none of their previous statements were true. Hundreds of people stormed the parliament building as it became clear that the rumours had originated from the military command centre in Misrata. Whether the government was aware that the information was unsubstantiated or not, speculation about why such blatant propaganda was used was rife. Some claim it was an attempt to distract the public from the lack of water or the high price of sheep in the run up to Eid, others speculated that it was a result of general incompetence. The most common explanation is that the forces massing outside Bani Walid sought to justify a full scale assault on the town and what better way than to confirm that the inhabitants had been harbouring wanted men for the last year.
At the time of writing it is reported that 50 people have been killed and hundreds injured in the fighting, and relief workers estimate that 5,000 families have fled Bani Walid across open desert. Reports about who is shooting who, and what is actually going on inside the town are conflicting and following the debacle of Khamis and Musa Ibrahim, many in Libya are unsure what to believe.
A year on from Libya’s liberation many aspects of life have improved. Libyans now have the freedom to say what they think and to question the actions and motives of those in power. Libya is a newly democratic society where everyone is entitled to their opinion and many are exercising this right voraciously. Whether Bani Walid is a strong hold of Gaddafi loyalists or not, support of a long dead dictator does not justify the destruction and displacement of an entire town. The Libyan public need to use their new found voice to stop the militias from hijacking their revolution, and call for peace and reconciliation instead of force and violence.