Archive for June, 2011

I have no idea how I would react if war came to my own city. Perhaps this is because in a place like Sydney, Australia, it is, at least in the current geopolitical situation, almost entirely unimaginable. Given the choice of fleeing or fighting against an oppressive government willing to use force and violence to kill protestors, I’m not sure whether I’d stay and fight or get on a boat to New Zealand.

In recent months, millions of people in Libya, and indeed, in other countries in the region, have been forced to make this difficult choice of whether to stay and fight or flee and seek refuge elsewhere. Despite the possibility of armed conflict never having been so remote as it is in a country like Australia, I suspect that many of these people never really imagined being faced with such a choice. It is all very well to talk tough at times, but when faced with a genuine and potentially lethal threat, when confronted by the awful reality of bullets, bombs and rockets, many people understandably lose their nerve. Just as, by the same token, many people find an inner strength and defiance in the face of abject fear; enough to take up arms and risk everything.

I wonder at times if being an atheist colours my thinking on this matter. This life is all I have and I have no desire to put myself in harm’s way. Yes, I still have ideals and strong beliefs in human rights and human dignity, in freedom and justice, but I don’t see the point of fighting to achieve something I won’t be there to enjoy, unless, of course, by “fighting”, we mean taking some form of democratic action, and not picking up a weapon. I’d fight in the courts, protest on the streets, blog, whine and share information on the internet, but if bombs, rockets and bullets are involved, I cannot honestly say how I would respond. It would be foolish and gung-ho to assume I’d act like a “hero”.

Perhaps if I believed in an afterlife the idea of dying for a cause might seem more palatable, yet even then, there are enough pleasures in this life that I have yet to explore, and, having no offspring, I would leave next to nothing behind. It would seem foolish to put all one’s eggs in one basket. In truth, I don’t think I’m much of a candidate for martyrdom.

With very rare exception, I don’t honestly believe anyone wants to die. Suicide, despite being alarmingly common, effects a very small percentage of the population, and many of those who do commit suicide are shown to have done it as a cry for help; in the hope that people would step in and their life might improve. In conflict zones, there are certainly those who would be martyrs, but only a very small number of actual suicide bombers and fighters. Some fighters become so enraged with their enemy, either through moral offence or personal loss, that they lose their sense of self-preservation and no longer care for their own personal safety, yet again, this accounts for a relatively small proportion of people involved in combat. The vast bulk of soldiers hope to return home, they fight to stay alive, they fight so they can spend time with their loved ones, and, whatever the politics of the situation, whatever the bigger goals, when engaged in a skirmish, they fight to protect themselves and their comrades in arms. And, indeed, many lose their nerve and find they cannot fight; they take cover, or retreat from the onslaught. And, really, who can blame them, faced as they are with lethal force?

I have, over the last few months, developed a deep admiration for the rebel fighters in Libya, and especially for those who have withstood the siege of Misurata, Libya’s third largest city. A not insignificant number of rebel fighters have had some previous military training, through national service or as defecting soldiers, yet the bulk of the fighters are regular citizens who have been willing to risk everything, either through a desire to overthrow Gaddafi, or simply self-preservation.

The conflict came to Misurata in February when protesters in the city, inspired by events in neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia, took to the streets and were arrested by security forces. Larger protests followed the initial arrests, during which security forces fired upon the protesters. These events erupted into an open conflict between pro and anti-Gaddafi forces, and by the 23rd of February, the rebels had driven Gaddafi’s forces from the city.

What followed was a long three months of bitter fighting over the city and its important assets, such as a military airbase and Misurata’s new airport. In early March, Gaddafi’s forces attempted to retake the city, sending in soldiers and tanks, which penetrated as far as the city centre. The people of Misurata had little choice but to use whatever they could to defend themselves against the Libyan Army’s repeated assaults. They were subjected to rocket and mortar attacks, forced to engage in bitter street fighting, shelled by artillery and fired upon by tanks and other armoured vehicles, and shot by snipers arrayed on the top of buildings around the city centre.

The pro-Gaddafi forces, whilst initially making significant gains, were heavily pressed by the rebels in the city, especially once NATO began to conduct airstrikes against Gaddafi’s forces in and around the city. The people of Misurata showed great resolve, not only in taking up arms to defend themselves, but also in finding ingenious ways to prevent tanks from entering the city centre, making roadblocks of containers from the shipping port by filling them with sand. They used a combination of captured and home-made weapons with which to fight. The estimates of dead and wounded vary significantly, but somewhere between 400 and 700 rebels and civilians died during the fighting, with the city’s medical committee stating that almost 4000 had been wounded.

Irrespective of the final figures for this conflict, the simple fact is that none of these deaths or injuries ought to have occurred. Gaddafi’s response to his people’s desire for greater political freedom was to shoot them in the streets. Rather than acknowledging this desire for change and overseeing a process of reform or transition, his response was violent oppression. Once the firing starts, unless the people are so overwhelmed by force as to be cowed, there is little chance of it stopping in a hurry. Events elsewhere in Libya made this nigh impossible, with rebel forces active in the east and in the Nafusa mountain region, the people of Misurata were sustained not only by fear of reprisals should the city be recaptured by Gaddafi, but also out of hope for a desperate victory. It was the imminent assault on Benghazi, and the siege of Misurata primarily, which influenced the United Nations Security Council to vote in favour of military intervention.

The Libyan uprising, or civil war if you will, has had a dreadful impact on the lives of Libyan civilians. Thousands of people, especially young men, have been killed or wounded throughout the course of the conflict. Latest figures suggest a total of roughly 11000 casualties since the fighting began in February. None of these deaths need have occurred, but faced by a government willing to murder its own people in their homes and streets, a government that has long oppressed, surveilled, tortured, raped and brutalised its people, it is hardly surprising that so many people fled or took arms against the government.

The refugee crisis brought about during this conflict is by no means insignificant. As of 14 June, the number of refugees in Egypt stood at 346,113, with a further 543,003 in Tunisia, with another 30,825 in Chad. The conflict has disrupted the entire country and displaced almost a million people, causing immense economic and infrastructural damage, as well as leaving many long-term emotional scars. Whilst the conflict has the potential to continue for some time longer, the momentum seems, slowly but surely, to be with the rebels.

For the people of Misurata, the fight goes on. Despite having driven Gaddafi’s forces out of the city and some distance from its surrounds and the capture of the airport and attached military base, the city has still been subject to rocket and mortar attacks. Their safety is by no means assured, though the least likely scenario would be a return to control by Gaddafi’s forces at this stage. One thing is certain, however, that the people of Misurata have shown extraordinary resourcefulness and courage in the fact of brutality. For that they have my admiration. I hope I never have to endure a military conflict, nor find myself faced with the choice to fight or flee. It must be an awful decision to have to make.

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A recent spate of defections by high-ranking military personnel from the Libyan armed forces might mark the beginning of the final phase of the Libyan uprising. On Monday, at a press conference in Italy, five generals, two colonels and a major announced they were part of a larger cohort numbering up to 120 military officials and soldiers who have recently defected from Gaddafi’s forces.

“What is happening to our people has frightened us,” said one of the officers, General Oun Ali Oun. “There is a lot of killing, genocide … violence against women. No wise, rational person with the minimum of dignity can do what we saw with our eyes and what he (Gaddafi) asked us to do.”

The defections come at a time when, despite questions over the cost and duration of the Nato intervention in Libya, the major players in the enforcement, Britain, France and the US, have vowed to step up the pressure, psychologically, diplomatically and militarily.

In Britain and France in particular, the idea is that more intensive strikes, including the introduction of ground attack Apache helicopters, the use of 2000 pound Paveway III bunker-busting bombs, regular day-time air-raids and, it would appear, covertly deployed military co-ordinators on the ground, will bring about a more swift conclusion to the conflict.

Speaking after a meeting with British PM David Cameron, during his six-day European tour, President Obama stated: “I believe that we have built enough momentum that as long as we sustain the course we’re on, he will step down. Ultimately this is going to be a slow, steady process in which we’re able to wear down the regime forces.”

Liam Fox, the British defence secretary, has said it is now “inevitable” that Gaddafi will go, though no one is willing to offer a deadline or timeframe.

There certainly appears to have been significant progress in destabilising and degrading both the Libyan armed forces and the regime in recent weeks. One officer at the press conference, General Salah Giuma Yahmed, said Gaddafi’s army was becoming weaker day by day, and that it was now reduced to a mere 20 per cent of its original capability.

“Gaddafi’s days are numbered,” said Yahmed.

Such reports are difficult to confirm, but the results on the ground speak for themselves. In the last three weeks, the rebel forces, backed by more targeted and intensive Nato airstrikes, have at last succeeded in lifting the deadly two and a half month siege of Libya’s third-largest city, Misurata. After long and bitter street fighting that saw Gaddafi’s forces, including heavy armour, punch right into the city centre, leaving much of the city wrecked, with hundreds, possibly thousands dead, the rebel victory has greatly boosted morale in their ragtag, yet increasingly well-coordinated forces. In the second week of May, after devastating Nato raids which destroyed heavy armour and ammunition dumps, the rebels captured the strategically important Misurata airport and accompanying air-force base, used by Gaddafi’s forces as a platform from which to shell the city indiscriminately. They have since driven Gaddafi’s troops more than thirty-five kilometres from the city limits, yet the situation at the front line remains fluid, with the Libyan army continuing to shell the western outskirts of the city with artillery, rocket and mortar attacks.

In the mountains, south of Tripoli, in western Libya, the rebel-held towns have been successful in repelling successive waves of attacks by Gaddafi’s forces. Perched upon a high plateau above a wide flat plain, the rebels in the mountains have made full use of their terrain advantage, spotting approaching troops well before their arrival. Outgunned and under-equipped, they have used whatever limited resources they have to knock out Gaddafi’s armour and transport vehicles on approach. In towns like Zintan, subjected to rocket attacks and air-strikes early in the uprising, there is a new sense of optimism that they have seen the worst of the fighting already.

Yet, despite these gains and more than two months of bombing by Nato, the rebels have been unable to advance west of Misrata or west of Brega, some 300 miles to the east and the capital, Tripoli, remains firmly in Gaddafi’s hands.

At the outset of the conflict, many officers privately expressed reluctance to defect, largely for fear of reprisals against their families. It was hoped that intervention would bring rapid capitulation from an army unwilling to fight against its own people, but Gaddafi’s threats, cash bonuses and, no doubt, his much-vaunted charisma, induced many thousands of soldiers to stay loyal. The air campaign, growing diplomatic pressure, the increased recognition of the rebel National Transitional Council (NTC), the revelation of atrocities, and, indeed, Gaddafi’s indictment by the International Criminal Court for war-crimes, alongside his son, Saif and intelligence chief, all appear to have had a cumulative effect on both the morale and capability of the Libyan army.

The latest round of defections occurred during the second visit to Tripoli of South African President Jacob Zuma, whom, it was initially believed, would attempt to negotiate an exit strategy for Gaddafi. Britain has applied considerable pressure on Zuma and the African Union to press Gaddafi to step down, but both Zuma and the AU have focussed instead on ceasefire proposals. Zuma’s aides stated that his visit was primarily about humanitarian concerns.

Another ceasefire proposal was sent to the Spanish government by Libyan prime minister Al-Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi, yet, apart from widespread distrust amongst Nato and EU nations of such proposals, the rebels have unequivocally rejected any suggested ceasefires, wanting to see Gaddafi tried for crimes against humanity.

Meanwhile, in Eastern Libya, Italy has further thrown its weight behind the NTC by offering aid to the tune of 100 million Euros and opening a consulate in Benghazi. They have rejected the suggestion that further support for and legitimatising of the NTC might lead to a partition of the country, offering repeated assurances that this outcome is neither likely nor desirable. Italy’s foreign minister, Franco Frattini, on a visit to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, said on Tuesday that the Gaddafi regime is “finished.”

“He must leave office, he must leave the country,” said Frattini, during a joint news conference with Ali al-Essawi, the foreign affairs representative of the NTC.

Last Friday G8 leaders from Italy, Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Japan, the United States and Russia called for Gaddafi to step down. The loss of Russian support, or even relative neutrality, is a significant diplomatic blow for Gaddafi as the pressure against him mounts. On Monday, UN Human Rights chief Navi Pillay, condemned the actions of the Libyan and Syrian governments against their people.

“The brutality and magnitude of measures taken by the governments in Libya and now Syria have been particularly shocking in their outright disregard for basic human rights,” he said.

In Turkey this week, more than 100 tribal leaders from Libya met with members of the NTC in an attempt to unite the various tribes of Libya against Gaddafi. They called for an end to the violence and the departure of Gaddafi and his sons. Gaddafi has used bribes, persuasion and at times, brutal force against the various tribes of Libya in an attempt to obtain or maintain their loyalty, or at least, compliance, over the last forty odd years of his rule.

Of late, it has been reported that Colonel Gaddafi has been spending his nights moving between hospitals in Tripoli, deeply paranoid and concerned for his safety in the face of Nato bombing raids. Unless an exit strategy is offered, perhaps including immunity from persecution, there seems little hope for him now but to bunker down like an Afghan warlord and try to weather the storm. His demise seems increasingly inevitable, yet exactly when it will come is anyone’s guess.

This article was first published in New Matilda on 01/06/11:


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