Citizens International

Snapshot From Bani Walid, Libya

posted November 2, 2012 by Countercurrents


Libya is full of turmoil, and is far from tranquility. Brutality and lawlessness is the order of the day there. The following news report from Bani Walid by AFP [1] depicts a picture, which is only a part:

Mohammed Saad and his family came home to a dead goat in their street, a rocket shell in the front yard and a burnt-out house, victims of score-settling that has rocked the Libyan town of Bani Walid.

They were among hundreds of families who returned on Wednesday to one of the final bastions of supporters of late Moamer Kadhafi, who fought on the losing side in last year’s war to unseat him.

The town had been besieged and then attacked as authorities sought to arrest those who captured and tortured Omran Shaaban, a 22-year-old former rebel credited with Kadhafi’s capture.

Shaaban spent weeks as a hostage before his release, and later died of his injuries, stoking tensions between his hometown of Misrata and Bani Walid, which galvanized the authorities to act.

“What does burning down homes have to do with searching for criminals of the former regime?” asked Saad, a father of five, after appraising the damage and concluding there was no alternative but to pitch a tent in the garden.

His nine-year-old son Amer let out a squeal of delight on discovering that his school satchel and books had survived the fire.

That was followed by a harrowing cry of “God, O, God,” seconds laters as he spotted the bullet-riddled television.
The military operation ended a week ago when hundreds of fighters with different degrees of loyalty to the chief of staff, including armed groups from Misrata, seized the town and declared it “liberated.”

“We heard on the radio that it was finally safe to return so we came to take a look,” said Rahana Abdel Qadar, 85, inching along in a column of more than 300 vehicles headed towards a checkpoint manned by interior ministry forces.

The streets of the hilltop oasis overlooking olive and date groves were mostly empty in the morning, with only a handful of police and army cars patrolling a very small perimeter in the centre, an AFP journalist said.

A residential block near the university was on fire, and thick soot coated the walls of several homes in Gweida, a neighbourhood reputed to hold sympathizers of the former regime.

Fire had consumed an apartment complex that was used to house people from Tawargha, who took shelter in Bani Walid after rebels from Misrata burned the town in a “reprisal” at the end of the 2011 war.

Many shop fronts were shattered and the vegetable market had burned down.

Public buildings — including schools, banks and even a small museum — were also in tatters, with windows blasted open, walls peppered with gunfire and some sections gutted by fire.

Armed young men openly roamed the streets and barged into houses and apartments that already had their doors and windows broken open, apparently conducting house-to-house searches.

AFP counted at least three separate instances of theft by gunmen.

Ashur Shawis, a commander at the last checkpoint before entering the town from the west, acknowledged that “there is looting underway by people both inside and outside Bani Walid but we don’t have the means to stop them.”

Newly stationed police officers questioned by AFP described the situation as safe, even though several former rebel groups paraded around with heavy weapons.

An old man visited the station in the hope of finding his missing son, but detective Ali Loti said most people came to complain of theft.

“Helping the state is one thing but looting is another,” declared Adel Mohammed, a police officer from Tripoli, blaming armed groups from Misrata and “false revolutionaries” for the destruction.

A handful of foreign nurses who left during the worst of the fighting also returned on Wednesday to find the hospital’s medical instruments and high-tech diagnostic machines destroyed and their personal lockers ransacked.

The stench of death still lingered in the now empty mortuary.

The few people who had remained at home despite a lack of electricty and telephone services said the entrance of ex-rebels into Bani Walid was chaotic and that a lack of clear leadership had given way to revenge attacks and looting.

“All kinds of people exploited the situation,” said a medical official who stayed put during the offensive on Bani Walid, which was seen by many as a shelter for former regime loyalists and criminals.

The authorities are keen to boost the nascent army and traditional police force but often rely for law enforcement on a patchwork of militias made up of former rebels with fickle loyalties and varying degrees of discipline.

The medic blamed the damage on retreating Bani Walid fighters, incoming forces loosely linked to the state — including militias from Misrata — and common criminals.

Residents say ex-rebel groups entered even before getting the green-light.

In the field, the chain of command in Libya tends to be vague and fluid, as it was during the 2011 war.

Graffiti expressing loyalty to Kadhafi in the town has been painted over and replaced with the names of armed units from Misrata, the western town of Zawiyah and Souk al-Jumaa, a neighbourhood in Tripoli.

A few walls carry the name of Shaaban, whose death was the symbolic trigger for the offensive against Bani Walid.

Torkiya al-Kasi, who found the furniture in her children’s room shattered to pieces, has no doubt about the identity of the guilty parties: “The people who did this are apostates, not Muslims.”

A Reuters report [2] said:

Hours after taking control of Bani Walid, a former stronghold of Muammar Gaddafi, Libyan militias from the rival city of Misrata fired ferociously at its empty public buildings.

Fighters yelling “Allahu akbar (God is greatest) and “Today Bani Walid is finished” sought to make their mark with gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades on a town they say still provides a refuge to many of the overthrown Libyan leader’s followers.

The chaotic, vengeful scenes demonstrated the weakness of the new government’s authority over former rebel militias which owe it allegiance but essentially do what they like.

A sign on a bank building that bore the Gaddafi-era name for Libya, “The Great Arab Socialist People’s Republic”, was scarred with bullet holes. The central streets were empty except for the fighters who filled them with their violent celebration.
“The Gaddafi fighters are out of Bani Walid, they have gone,” said Ali Mahmoud, a Misrata fighter in a pickup truck at a central Bani Walid roundabout, patriotic music blaring.

“Some people here still wanted Gaddafi, we have to show them that he is finished.”

After days of shelling that sent thousands of families fleeing from the hilltop town in scenes reminiscent of last year’s war, militias aligned with the defense ministry, a grouping known as Libya Shield, seized Bani Walid.

The UN had called for restraint as militias gathered menacingly around Bani Walid, whose residents had baulked at turning over the wanted men to unruly armed groups, while Libya’s justice system remains in disarray.

“There are some wanted people in Bani Walid, and we do want to hand them over but they also have rights,” said Murad Mohammed, a student and Warfala tribe member living in Benghazi.
“So do you expect us to give them to militias who do not have legitimacy?”

Many people in Bani Walid belong to the powerful Warfala tribe, which was mostly loyal to Gaddafi.

The town and its now-displaced inhabitants, long isolated from the rest of Libya, fear retribution and wonder what fate awaits them in the post-Gaddafi era.

A disquieting example is offered by Sirte, whose residents feel neglected by Libya’s new rulers, saying they are paying the price for being the last bastion of Gaddafi.

Days later, Sirte residents were blaming vindictive rebels for some of the destruction visited on their city.

While the government has set up committees to tackle security, services and the return of refugees to Bani Walid, militia commanders say they will stay to keep the town “secure”.
“Such groups have a background and a certain vision of what Libya should be and it doesn’t always necessarily match that of the elected officials at the (ruling) General National Congress,” said Claudia Gazzini of the International Crisis Group.

Bani Walid’s predicament underlines the challenge Libya’s new rulers face in reconciling groups with long-running grievances and embracing those who chose not to back the revolt – whether out of fear, or because they supported Gaddafi, or because they were benefiting in some way from his rule.

With 70,000 people, Bani Walid, some 170 km (105 miles) south of Tripoli, was one of the last towns to surrender to rebels last year. Gaddafi’s now-captured son Saif al-Islam staged a last stand there before fleeing into the Sahara.

In January, the town grabbed headlines when fighters threw Tripoli’s men out of the city, installing its own local council.
In July, fighters from Misrata threatened to attack it after two journalists from their city were detained.

While Misrata fighters have complained at what they call Bani Walid’s continued defiance and its alleged harboring of former Gaddafi loyalists, townsfolk there say they have been unfairly tarred with the “pro-Gaddafi” brush.

Rights groups have voiced concern over the conditions of some detention centers run by militias, especially in Misrata.

Some have said this month’s assault amounted to revenge by Misrata, whose fighters have been quick to retaliate, sometimes brutally, against towns that have been seen as loyalist. Many of the militias attacking Bani Walid were from Misrata.

Army officials said they had freed several detainees in Bani Walid and captured some fighters who used to belong to a brigade commanded by Gaddafi’s son Khamis.
Human rights groups have urged the authorities to make clear that looting, beatings and destruction will be prosecuted.

“The government and forces under its command should protect residents in Bani Walid and reject acts of revenge,” said Fred Abrahams, special adviser at Human Rights Watch.

Residents fleeing Bani Walid spoke of no water or power and little food and medicine in the town. There were unconfirmed reports of militiamen entering suburbs with bulldozers.

As in Sirte, many in Bani Walid may feel resentment, believing they have been the victims of collective punishment.

“Where is the international community?” Bani Walid tribal elder Mohammed al-Shetawi said by phone after leaving the town.

“Where is the United Nations and the European Union and the other people in the world, why have they forgotten us?”

Benghazi congress member Saleh Gaouda said the priority of the authorities was to give Bani Walid residents the security to be able to return to their homes.


[1] the report was carried by France24, “Libya town wracked by political score-settling”, Nov. 1, 2012,

[2] “Capture of Libyan town smacks of revenge, not reconciliation”,

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