“Everyone Says We are Rich. Then Why Do We Feel So Poor?”
Sirte, LIBYA– This observer, with his sandaled feet comfortably dug into the sand of a chilly Mediterranean beach and huddled next to a camp fire with a congenial and bright group of still heavily armed “NATO rebels,” is learning that the past eight months’ experiences for many Libyans who fought with or for NATO were rather different from what the western mainstream media portrayed—and what many of us who spent last summer in the Western Libya Gadhafi stronghold were inclined to believe about them.
Two of my new acquaintances are from the Law Faculty of re-named Benghazi University (following the 1969 Fatah Revolution its name was changed to Garyounis), and six others who fought in most of the battles in Libya between February and October 2011. The meeting was arranged by a rebel commander named “Samal.” I first met Samal quite by chance at the central bus station in Alexandria Egypt, where, as in Cairo, many “NATO rebels” are currently being feted with R & R. His visit to Egypt was Samal’s first break from eight months of rough military duty, he explained. In his other life he is a part time university librarian who plans to return to his studies once the new academic year begins in January. Like most students in Libya, he lost a full academic year as schools were closed due to the Libyan uprising and he wants to catch up with his degree program in computer science.
Samal readily admits that he, like many Libyans, was not as opposed to Muammar Gadhafi personally as to many of those around “the leader” who took advantage of their positions, connections, and immunity and committed serial crimes against the public. Understanding this observer’s interest in this subject, and once back in Misrata, Samal arranged a meeting a few days later with some of his friends at a café on the Mediterranean shores of the Gulf of Sirte. “Abu Nasser’s” is located on the outskirts of the village of Qasr Abu Hadi, where Muammar Gaddhafi was born in a tent and where the youngster was raised until his parents sent him to secondary school for five years down south in Sabha. It was in Sabha where the budding Nasserite revolutionary reportedly relished his history studies, joined a local scout troop, and later the Libyan armed forces.
After a terrific meal of spicy Libyan couscous with big junks of lamb on the bone at “Abu Nasser’s” and as it began to get dark, I noticed Samal gazing toward the northeast horizon deep out into the Gulf of Sirte. As the full moon rose he suggested we make a campfire on the beach and continue our discussion under the stars. Truth be told, Samal could not have proposed anything more perfect for this Oregonian, who as a kid passed many an evening beside beach campfires on the often cold and stormy Oregon coast or on the banks of Kellogg Lake near the Lamb family home on Lake Road, in Milwaukie.
One of the lecturers at the Benghazi College of Law told us that “our leader”, and then he quickly and self-consciously corrected himself and said “the tyrant” used to enjoy camping exactly where Samal had brought us on this beach. He to us that Gadhafi would explain to visitors about “Great Sirte Bay” as he called it, where he liked to swim. Gadhafi would explain to visitors about the Gulf of Sirte’s historic role in defeating the American military during the mid-1980’s when the Libyan air force chased away US aircraft sent by President Reagan to contest Gadhafi’s famous drawing of his red line (Gadhafi called it the “Line of Death”). The Libyan leader’s straight line ran across the mouth of “Great Sirte Bay” at 32 degrees, 30 minutes north between a point near Benghazi and the western headland of the Gulf at Misrata. The red line signaled Libya’s claim to an exclusive 62 nautical miles (115 km) fishing zone (Sirte bay has the world’s largest population of tuna which explains why during Ramadan this year when there was no fresh food at our hotel due to the fighting every Iftar meal to break the fast consisted of a mountain of canned tuna which this observer can no longer even stand the sight of).
At the UN, Libya declared that given its natural configuration, the Gulf of Sirte was in fact Libyan territorial waters as Gadhafi first claimed in 1973. According to Gadhafi, Libya’s historic victory in “Great Sirte Bay” resulted “from the 1984 expulsion of the US military from the area.” The US government rejected what it considered Libya’s illegal appropriation of the high seas, yet decided it was not worth a war and let the matter slide.
Some of my beach party interlocutors had been fighting since late February 2011. Samal and two others fought in six of the key battles including, Brega, Misrata, Zawieh, Tripoli, Bani Walid, and Sirte. I asked the group when the rebels first began to believe that they might defeat their adversaries. Immediately Ahmed replied, “After the third battle of Brega we could tell that the Gadhafi forces did not have their hearts in this fight. By July 20th I would guess.”
Ahmed’s colleagues agreed and one added, “It was like a repeat of when the Israeli forces gave up and lost against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006. Israeli forces clearly did not believe in their mission. Many of these Gadhafi guys did not either. When you are on the battlefield you can sense your enemy’s psychology even when you can’t see him. During the third battle for Brega, we were fighting at close range in residential areas and most of Gadhafi’s forces retreated to Ras Lanuf. Some were still in a few buildings but they were no threat to us.”
Rashid interjected, “After Brega, we knew that sooner or later we would win because we kept asking ourselves, in battle after battle, where is the regular Libyan army? We knew some of them personally but we never saw them. What happened to them, we wondered. Finally we realized that Gadhafi’s authority and his troops had melted. That was made clear on August 23 when we found little resistance as we arrived to Tripoli. Actually we were shocked. His army had abandoned him.”
Samal, added, “Yes but remember, and for sure we admit this, without NATO, we would not have lasted one month. Please don’t think we are in love with NATO, although many Libyans seem to want our country to join NATO and some in NATO and our interim government wants this also. NATO knows that our country could be a perfect AFRICOM base to re-colonize Africa and end progressive projects for African countries. Please do not think we are not aware of what NATO countries want from Libya and our neighbors. They want from Libya and this whole region oil and natural resources, they want military bases on our soil, and they want us to accept Israel. How they plan to achieve all this is by getting Arabs to fight and kill Arabs and Muslims to fight and the Muslims.”
One of the law professors added: “As we saw these past months the US and their allies will try to limit the Western countries role to providing support from the sky with bombs and drones and special units and without sending their regular troops. This is the NATO plan and we saw it clearly in our country and perhaps we will see it again in Syria in a different form.”
Kamal, a medical lab technician added, “Many Gadhafi loyalists in Tripoli and Western Libya who saw civilians killed by NATO bombs do not realize that NATO also killed plenty of us rebels, and civilians in our areas of Eastern Libya. We are not allowed to mention it but NATO made many mistakes. We called them ‘the gang that can’t bomb straight’ and many of our forces, a few hundred I would say, were bombed by NATO. An even higher number of civilians were killed in our areas by NATO. Often we feared NATO more than we feared the Gadhafi fighters. Human rights groups should investigate what happened to us because the NTC will not.”
Under the big full moon hanging above “Great Sirte Bay” and deep into the night, these observers’ hosts shared some candid views on a variety of subjects, some of which were the following:
They predicted that Algeria will be the next regime to face an ‘Arab Spring’ uprising. The rebel fighters reported that some Libyan and foreign Islamists, mainly Saudi-paid Salafists, are leaving Libya for Algeria, where since 1992 the Algerian government has been repressing Islamists. Between 1988 and the late 1990’s, more than 200,000 civilian were killed, 20,000 were disappeared and never heard from again, and scores of thousands were wounded. These figures dwarf the casualty rates in Libya and the Arab Spring countries to date. The coming uprising combined with the expected Algerian government’s reaction may be horrendous.
One of the reasons is that there is great anger at the Bouteflika government over the massive arms Algeria sent to the Gadhafi regime and Algeria’s granting of protection to members of the Gadhafi family and his regime. Algeria continues to have chilly relations with the new Libyan government and there are suspicions regarding its intentions about aiding the growing resistance to the new regime. The NTC may support an uprising in Algeria, according to Samal and his friends.
Samal and his friends discussed their frustration with the fact that the UK, France, US, and other NATO countries are swarming like locusts around Libya and seeking very lucrative contracts to rebuild Misrata, Brega, Sirte, after they and their NATO allies destroyed them. “That’s Haram!” Ahmad insisted. “They destroyed our country and now they want us to pay them to rebuild it. I wish we could rebuild without one NATO country profiting. It’s like that crazy American woman running for President of your country who wants Iraq to pay for the death of US occupation soldiers who were killed. The US must pay the Iraqi families for every one of the more than one million Iraqis the US killed and for all the damage its bombs did to Iraq.”