The now free Berber people of Libya

Imran Khan is a correspondent with Al Jazeera. 

Imran Khan

Zawarah is yet another battle-ravaged town, one of a number that dot the Libyan landscape.

What makes it different is precisely the thing that meant it saw heavy fighting during the worst days of the revolution.

This town is home to the Berber people, locally known as Amazigh.

Descendants of the indigenous people of this land, they were a particular target for Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

For decades he saw them as threat. The Berbers have a unique language, customs and traditions. Gaddafi didn’t see them as part of his Libya.

When war came to Zawarah, its geographic location meant Gaddafi forces used it as a staging post to resupply and as a base to fight.

Gaddafi’s hatred for the people here meant that his forces were particularly brutal. In they came, looting, torturing and killing until the town was theirs.

The fighting was so tough that the town wasn’t liberated until three days after the fall of Tripoli.

Simply because there were Berber forces as part of the rebel brigades, even after the collapse of the Gaddafi regime his forces fought on.

The wreckage strewn across the entire city stands testament to the ferocity of the fighting.

But the Berbers fought hard alongside the rebels, playing a key part in the battle for Tripoli.

Once their city was free, a new sound was publicly heard across the city. Tamazigh, the language of the Berbers was on the lips of everyone who could speak it.

Signs sprang up proudly displaying the new sense of freedom. “We are Berber, we are Libyan” – just one example of this confidence.

A free Berber radio station began to broadcast. Newspapers rolled off printing presses.

For the Berbers, it was the dawning of a new dawn.

But, as these things do, it came at a cost.

The Berbers lost sons in the fight for freedom. On every wall in what feels like every restaurant their faces look down on the diners. It’s a cost they don’t want forgotten.

You only have to strike up a conversation here to understand that the Berbers have one demand they would like Libya’s new rulers to hear.

“My son died fighting for a free Libya, we all made sacrifices for a free Libya…now it’s time for Libya to recognise us” says one father.

It’s a common refrain here. Gaddafi oppressed these people to such an extent that they had no recognition within the country.

In act of Soviet Stalin era revisionism Gaddafi wiped them from the history books.

Today though, with Gaddafi gone, the Berbers are determined that they be recognised.

Berber leaders are demanding that they be constitutionally recognised, that their rights as a minority be protected and their language be listed as an official Libyan one.

They have a tough battle ahead of them.

Surrounding the town of Zawarah is crescent of villages. According to local legend, Gaddafi convinced the villagers to take over Berber land. When they did, the Berbers were forced to flee the city. Today even after the revolution they say if a Berber tries to go to any of those villages he will be shot at.

Those attitudes are deep rooted within Libyan society. Breaking those will be key to bringing lasting peace and prosperity to the country.

So while the language of the Berbers, the songs and the customs echo through out the streets of Zawarah, Berbers want them to echo as across the country, as part of the new Libya,  a Libya with freedom and justice for all.

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