SABRATHA, Libya — Mohamed Mohra graduated from the National Military Academy in 1985 and became an officer in the Libyan Army, a POW in Chad in 1987 during the Chad-Libya war, and, still later, a refugee in the US. In 2011, he returned to fight for Libya’s freedom. But shortly after his admission to the academy in 1983, he got a taste of the environment in the Libyan Army.
“When I was still in high school, I was invited to go to Tripoli to see the National Military Academy. I thought they were preparing a party for us.” Instead, he and the other cadet candidates witnessed the public hanging of some university students who spoke out against Muammar Qaddafi. They were told that if they did anything wrong, this would happen to them.
I was sitting with a half-dozen colonels in different branches of the Libyan military in the headquarters of Sabratha’s mejlis askari, or military council. It’s meeting temporarily in an office building that belonged to Qaddafi henchman Kweily Ahmedy’s local company; the former Sabratha military base was badly damaged in the August 14th battle that freed this city of 50,000. The men at the meeting wore a variety of outfits, with one man in plainclothes and another in green, Qaddafi-era fatigues shorn of insignia of rank. But all nodded appreciatively as Mohra spoke.
Reminiscing about the bad old days, in a mixture of English and Arabic, one man slid his mobile phone across the table. He showed me a black-and-white video from the ’90s that went viral on Libyan Facebook pages. It shows the public killing of an army officer named Abdul Salem Keshayba, who was a relative of Qaddafi from Sirte. His crime was having a beautiful wife. Qaddafi ordered Keshayba to bring his wife to the Tripoli quarters of his own wife, Safia, for a talk. But Safia was actually in Bayda, her hometown, at the time. The unlucky wife was raped by Qaddafi. When Salem found out what had happened, he vowed to kill Qaddafi. Instead, Qaddafi ordered Keshayba’s killing, and he was slain by his own troops. The details were recorded so that Qaddafi could see how diligently they had followed orders.
As the men spoke, it became clear that nearly every procedure used by Western armies to maintain accountability and professionalism had been stood on its head in Qaddafi’s military. For instance, it was forbidden to use e-mail; officers conducted ordinary communication by fax, while important orders were delivered by hand. The troops were paid in cash. Even the National Military Academy became a pawn in Qaddafi’s efforts.
Burly Lieutenant Colonel Abdul Hakim, formerly an instructor at the National Military Academy, explained that the school was moved from Tripoli to Sirte in 1996 so that it would be more convenient for Qaddafi’s tribesmen to attend. A local cousin of Qaddafi, Colonel Nadji Herare, was placed in charge. Men with only a primary school education and men whose physical condition would not ordinarily allow them entrance were admitted if they had the right connections. According to Hakim, there was a well-organized English curriculum but because the students’ degree of preparation varied so widely, it was difficult to teach them. Then, in 2000, Khamis Qaddafi entered the academy—and it was moved back to Tripoli because he preferred to live there.
These Libyan officers, like others I have spoken with in Zwara and Tripoli since this fall, are concerned that the army isn’t getting much attention from the transitional government or from the international community. The academy building in Tripoli is still occupied by revolutionary militia, so classes have not restarted; officer candidates are now being trained in Sudan, Jordan, Qatar, and Turkey. Colonel Bashir al-Madhouny, of Sabratha, a former tank commander who joined the revolutionaries last summer, deplored the notion of sending Libyans to Sudan for training—“they are not a professional army.” But so far, none of the Western powers has stepped up to the plate. In addition, Army wages are now two months in arrears. The problem is a transition to a new direct deposit system, and the men I spoke with were understanding of the delay, but it’s never a good idea to have unpaid troops.
Photo Credit: Al Jazeera English