Libya revolution filters slowly to desert towns

September 18, 2011 - 11:00 AM
Mideast Libya Desert Revolution

An abandoned check point on the road between Garyat and Shwayrif, 400 kms south of Tripoli in the south desert of Libya, Thursday, Sept. 15, 2011. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

SCHWERIF, Libya (AP) — The tumultuous change of power in far-off Tripoli was for weeks little more than a rumor in this small sun-baked town deep in Libya's desert, its news brought in by travelers down the long, desolate ribbon of highway that links Schwerif to the outside world.

Finally last week, a group of fighters following Libya's new rulers drove through. They negotiated with local elders to lower the green flags of Moammar Gadhafi's regime. Then they headed off for battle further south, leaving a contingent of local supporters out-gunned and out-numbered by Schwerif's largely pro-Gadhafi residents.

On a recent afternoon, rockets screeched wildly overhead, thudding into the dirt randomly around the town of 3,200 after regime loyalists set fire to an ammunition dump to keep it out of the revolutionaries' hands. Like other terrified residents, Ali Abdullah, now head of the local revolutionary council, hid in his home with the cooking-off munitions whizzing by outside.

He has had no contact with the new leadership in Tripoli and, with electricity and telephones out, isn't even sure how to reach them.

"We understand the idea of the revolution, so we're trying to carry it out here by ourselves," he said.

Libya's revolution is only slowly filtering down into the remote towns that dot the bleak stretches of the Sahara Desert making up most of the country. When it does arrive, its presence is often theoretical, cut off from Tripoli's National Transitional Council, the closest thing Libya has to a government, and tied up in long-standing local conflicts. In one town, the revolution simply meant a flip in control between a pro-Gadhafi tribe and a rival tribe.

Libya's civil war was centered on the Mediterranean coast, starting in February in the seaside eastern city of Benghazi and culminating Aug. 21 when rebel forces stormed into the capital Tripoli, ending Gadhafi's rule. Except for fighting in the western Nafusa mountains bordering the plain, all other major battles took place in the coastal strip where the majority of Libya's 6 million people live.

The new leaders are focusing their efforts to build a new government there. But to extend their control over all of Libya and its oil riches, they must integrate the long-neglected desert communities along the roads connecting Libya to West and Central Africa.

Reporters from The Associated Press drove south from the Nafusa mountains and along the way found towns still trying to figure out the meaning of what has happened in their country.

As isolated as the towns are, they constitute Libya's "near" hinterland. Another 200 miles south, across naked stretches of rocky wasteland lies Sabha, a major Gadhafi stronghold, and beyond that even more remote desert dotted with towns still dominated by old regime supporters. Unconfirmed rumors in the desert towns talk ethnic Tuareg warriors or mercenaries from Darfur holed up and ready to fight for Gadhafi. Many also believe Gadhafi and top aides are hiding in the deepest south.

One of the first towns driving south from the Nafusa mountains is Mizda, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of Tripoli.

The revolution has split the town in half.

For decades, the Mashashia tribe was on top, close to Gadhafi's regime and rewarded with government jobs and projects. Gadhafi remains popular on the east side of town where they live.

When one resident, Mokhtar Ibrahim, was asked how "the revolution" had affected the town, he first assumed the reference was to the 1969 military coup that brought Gadhafi to power.

"The new revolution has not reached us here yet," he said, rattling off things Gadhafi had given the town: a new mosque, a hospital, two sports clubs.

"We had no problems on any side," he said. "Life was secure and there weren't many weapons. Now — poof!"

In mid-August, local rebels stormed the nearby army base for weapons and seized control of the town. Most were from the town's other main tribe, Guntrar. Now in their half of the city, the new tri-color revolution flags fly over most homes. They have formed a local council and sent a delegate north to seek support from the NTC.

A deal between tribal elders has kept the sides from fighting, but tensions remain. Mashashia complain they are prevented from leaving town by Guntrar checkpoints.

The Guntrar say they are maintaining security.

"Those who still support Gadhafi in their hearts, they're not a problem," said Ali Omran, 20, who manned a checkpoint outside town. "But if someone puts up a green flag, our elders will go see theirs and tell them to take it down."

Rocky plateaus with scattered shrubs and occasional thorny trees line the road south from there, running 70 miles (110 kilometers) to the truck-stop town of Abu al-Ghirib, where three nameless shops stand along the highway. The town has no rebel checkpoints and no flags in support of Gadhafi or the rebels.

For most of the war, shopkeeper Khalifa al-Magrahi, 26, said he watched Gadhafi's army trucks driving north. On Sept. 9, he saw the first rebels coming south. The local tribe remained neutral, there was no fighting nearby, and he never closed his shop.

The main effect he felt was a leap in prices: Gas rocketed from about four cents per gallon to $10 per gallon.

"I have yet to see anything good from this revolution," he said. "There is still fighting, Libyans killing Libyans. Maybe in the future we'll see some benefit."

The next town — Gariyat, 20 miles (30 kilometers) down the highway — turned solidly against Gadhafi. The 8,000 camel herders and oil workers who live in the largely treeless town of scattered blocky brown houses had long felt neglected by the regime.

"For 42 years, we saw no real development," said Muftah Abdullah, head of council set up by the local revolutionaries.

After the uprising broke out in February, he and a few dozen residents stormed the nearby military base with old hunting rifles. Three of them were killed, and the local rebels fled to the Nafusa mountain town of Zintan for military training.

By the time they returned on Aug. 25, the army had withdrawn. They raised the revolution's flag and declared the town liberated.

But Abdullah has heard nothing from Tripoli. His fighters search for regime supporters, but their biggest recent discovery was 100 Somali workers fleeing Sabha, trying to get to the capital. His men housed them in town and have been feeding them for a week.

"We're scared they're going to go off and die in the desert," Abdullah said.

From there south, the empty landscape flattens out, broken only by the road and the occasional row of electrical pylons, some with no wires on them. Scattered camels browse rare shrubs, and carcasses lie here and there on the roadside.

Finally, one reaches Schwerif, bordered on one side by rocky plateaus and on the other by towering dunes. The town has had no electricity or cell phone coverage for two weeks, giving residents only vague notions of what has happened elsewhere.

While technically "liberated," the local revolutionaries' grip is tenuous. A few hundred fighters from the north pulled in on Sept. 11, but most continued south for Sabha. Still, their arrival terrified many local residents, who fled for the desert ranches where they raise camels and goats.

Now the "revolution" here amounts to about 80 local supporters.

"The revolutionaries here are a small portion of the city," acknowledged Abu-Bakir Hussein, head of their military council. "Many still believe Gadhafi will return and rule the country again."