Reporting from Libya's 'Berber Capital': Reactions to Qaddafi's Death

ZWARA, Libya — Here in the “Berber capital” of Libya, celebratory gunfire has rung out for hours as news of Muammar Qaddafi’s death [AP report] quickly spread. Members of the Zwara thuwar, or revolutionary fighters, have been firing everything from assault rifles to truck-mounted 14.5-mm antiaircraft guns to huge 105-mm rockets, as locals drove, cycled, and roller bladed through the town center decked out in revolutionary T-shirts and caps, shouting “Allahu Akbar!” and making the revolutionary “V-for-victory” sign.

The death of Qaddafi holds a special meaning here, where the ancient Amazigh culture and Tamazight language has been suppressed for years. Zwara (also spelled Zuwarah) has been rising occasionally against Qaddafi for decades longer than most of the country, and many men from here have been arrested, tortured, and sometimes hung over the years for agitating for open use of their distinctive, 3,000-year-old language. So along with the usual revolutionary tricolor T-shirts of the Libyan independence flag, Zwara’s people also wear clothing with the pan-national Amazigh flag colors of blue, green, and yellow and wave the flag from their houses and cars.

Zwara rose in revolt against Qaddafi most recently on February 20th, and its men have fought across Libya for the revolution. The Zwara thuwar were fighting in Ben Walid until yesterday, when they returned hundreds of kilometers to a smaller version of today’s celebration. Locals hope that the death of Qaddafi will also mean an end to ongoing attacks from neighboring Arab towns of Jumayl and Rig Dalin, where many of the people continue to support Qaddafi.

The damage done by 42 years of Qaddafi’s dictatorship is measured in countless ways across Libya. The physical and human costs are sometimes blatant and sometimes subtle. In Benghazi, for example, locals talk of Qaddafi’s neglect of Libya’s second city, the run-down infrastructure, the public poverty of an oil state. Here, in a much smaller, out-of-the-way town, many of the streets are still sand and those that are paved were only done a few years ago, when Saadi Qaddafi happened to be living here temporarily.

The human costs appear not only in the numbers of people imprisoned or killed but in the blighted lives. There is Younis, age 49, who was trained as a doctor but never practiced because he fell afoul of the regime and, as he told me, “spent most of my time reading and studying.” There is also an ancient language on the verge of extinction. Yesterday, hundreds of local women held a meeting commemorating the sacrifices of their fighters, together with a charity bazaar. But all the speeches were in Arabic, although no one here speaks Arabic within the community, because, as one woman, Naima, told me, “We do not know how to write our language so we cannot write our speeches in Amazigh.”

Locals hope that Qaddafi’s death will bring an end to the time of war and a return to a new and better peacetime life. They hope that the schools will be able to reopen—this was planned for early September, but ongoing attacks from Rig Dalin and Jumayl have kept most men in the militia and the citizens on edge. While shops are open—and thriving—the town still feels like a war zone. Now, perhaps, Zwara can turn its attention to the future.

“All these people supporting Qaddafi will disappear and we will start thinking about government,” predicts Zwara commander Senussi Mahrez, a lieutenant general in Qaddafi’s army who defected to the rebels in June and lead the hometown revolutionaries to recapture their town on August 23rd. There is a lot to do, ranging from disarming the revolutionaries and returning control to the police, to beginning the teaching of the written Tamazight language for the first time in decades.

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