Tuaregs in Ghadames. Photo taken in 2006 and published on Flickr by Freddie H.
It is a difficult time for Libya’s minorities, many of whom are suspected by the former rebels of serving as mercenaries for Muammar Gaddafi. Among these minorities are Libya’s Tuaregs, members of a nomadic people who live throughout northwest Africa. More than 500 Tuaregs have fled southern Libya in the past week to find refuge in Algeria. They no longer feel safe in Libya, according to our Observers.
These Tuaregs fled from Ghadames, a city near the country’s border with Tunisia and Algeria, to Debdeb, an Algerian village just 20 kilometres from the border.
Our Observer Bilal is one of the Tuaregs who fled Ghadames for Debdeb.
On August 27, anti-Gaddafi combatants ordered us to leave Ghadames. They threatened us and wrote ‘Death to the Tuaregs!’ on the city’s walls. On Tuesday, they even killed one a Tuareg. [Another one of our Observers on the ground also told us a Tuareg was killed in Ghadames]. They say that, unlike us, they are the true residents of this region, that we have no reason for being here, and they accuse us of being against the revolution. It is true that in the past months some Tuaregs were given arms by Gaddafi, but it was only a small minority.
For now, we’re living in a school, but we’ll soon join family members in other Tuareg villages in southern Algeria. The Algerian authorities are sending a bus to take us there. The residents of Debdeb are very nice to us. They bring us fresh water and food. We’re going to make sure our wives and children are safely settled here in Agleria, then we’ll go back to Ghadames and take up arms. I think there’s going to be a bloody battle.”
The Tuaregs in Ghadames are also paying the price for the actions of other Tuaregs from Niger and Mali, who become mercenaries for the Gaddafi regime. Many of these Tuareg mercenaries have reportedly left Libya, presumably to return to their respective countries, but their reputation for violence has left its mark, fostering tensions between local Tuaregs and former rebels.
Othmane, a Tuareg who has stayed in Ghadames, says that animosity on the part of Arab Libyans was already present long before the revolution.
The clashes in Ghadames are not at all political. It’s an ethnic problem. There have been tensions between our two communities since the 1960s, which worsened in 2006 [between 2006 and 2009, Tuaregs rebelled in Niger and Mali. Tens of thousands of them fled to Libya]. Today, the former rebels are just taking advantage of the fact that they are now armed to terrorize us.”
Members of Libya’s National Transitional Council [NTC] are planning to visit the area to try to calm tensions. A member of the NTC told FRANCE 24 that, while the conflict may be ethnic in origin, this antagonism is also a consequence of Muammar Gaddafi’s policies.
Gaddafi was known for his support of minorities, like the Tuaregs in Algeria or the Polisario Berbers (link) in the Western Sahara region. During the Tuareg rebellions in Niger and Mali, Gaddafi even gave Libyan citizenship to Tuareg refugees. That’s why many Arab Libyans say that these nomads aren’t real Libyans and believe they’re mercenaries.
The residents of Ghadames have lived under particularly dire conditions these past months. The city was under siege by pro-Gaddafi forces for four months, and they had no electricity for six weeks. This has made tensions worse. However the NTC will provide for security for all, no matter their ethnic origin, as long as they accept to put down their arms.”
This post was written with FRANCE 24 journalist Sarra Grira.