By Diana Eltahawy, Libya researcher at Amnesty International
In normal times, Dhehiba is a quiet, small town in southern Tunisia, three kilometres away from the country’s border with Libya. Today, times here are anything but normal.
This area is experiencing a growing influx of Libyans fleeing from their homes in the Nafousa Mountain area of western Libya because of the actions being taken there by Colonel M’uammar Gaddafi’s forces.
The actual number of those fleeing is difficult to establish as most people do not cross at the official border post but instead travel by desert back roads to try and avoid the checkpoints set up by the Libyan leader’s forces. Some do then come to the border post on the Tunisian side to have their passports stamped but others continue on directly to find refuge in Tunisia’s cities.
Many are hosted by Tunisian families or else rent homes in Dhehiba or other southern cities such as Tataouine, Zarzis, Medenine and Jerba. Families who don’t have that option or wish to draw international attention to their plight stay in camps that have been established for the new arrivals in Dhehiba and Remada, some 40 kilometres to the north.
We visited the largest camp in Dhehiba, where there were 1,207 people – mainly women and children – finding refugee there, with a further 90 people hosted at the Dhehiba Youth House, minutes away.
The families we met had come from all over the Nafousa Mountain area, from places such as Nalout, Ifrin, Zentan, Kikla and Jadu. Since late February, these communities have declared their allegiance to the Libyan opposition based in Benghazi, in the east, and consequently they have been under constant siege by Colonel al-Gaddafi’s troops, who are based at the foot of the mountainous area. Residents have been surviving on their existing food stocks, augmented by produce, medicines and petrol smuggled into them through desert pathways from Tunisia.
People at the camp told us that they decided to flee their homes after Colonel al-Gaddafi’s forces intensified their shelling of the area in early April, though many had been already displaced from their homes in the Nafousa Mountain area and had been moving from one town to try and escape the attacks and fighting. Women whom we interviewed had been especially fearful at the prospect of their towns and villages being invaded by forces loyal to Colonel al-Gaddafi because, they said, they had heard about threats of rape and abduction.
Families told Amnesty International that many local residents had disappeared and are believed to be held by Colonel al-Gaddafi’s forces. Victims particularly included people who had ventured outside the opposition strongholds in a search for petrol or basic necessities, both unavailable in the cities under siege. Since, there has been no news of the fate or whereabouts of many of them; others, however, have been shown on Libyan state television “confessing” to having been pressured to act against Libya’s “best interests”.
We met the relatives of several such victims of enforced disappearance but in all cases they insisted that we do not publicize their names for fear that this will place them in greater jeopardy and also put at risk other family members still in the Nafousa Mountain area.
One man said his elder brother, a 37-year-old father from Nalout, had not been seen since early March when he set out by car with another relative and a friend to travel from Nalout to Tigi, further south, to get spare parts for his vehicle. His family, understandably, became very worried when they did not return and started calling him continuously on his mobile phone. Eventually, he was able to pick up their call and replied hastily, saying: “ I am going to Tripoli, take care of the kids.” Since then his phone has been switched off. His family believe that he is being detained in Ain Zara Prison in Tripoli, but they have had no news or conformation of this from the Libyan authorities. His distraught brother showed us a video recording of the missing man waving the opposition flag during peaceful protests in Nalout, just days before his enforced disappearance.
In another case, a man in his fifties was driving from Ifrin to Gherian, a town under the control of al-Gaddafi forces, on 26 March in order to seek petrol when he was stopped at a military checkpoint. As he approached it, he called his wife on his mobile phone to tell her, but it was then quickly disconnected. His wife and five children have had no word from him or news of his whereabouts in the three weeks since then. Prior to his disappearance, he had been active in obtaining and distributing basic goods and supplies to families in Ifrin.
People who had fled from Zintan told similar stories. Relatives tolpd us of the case of a 37-year-old married man who was stopped by al-Gaddafi forces at a checkpoint in Gherian while driving home from Tripoli on 21 February. Since then, they have not been able to trace his whereabouts or find out why or in what conditions he is being held.
Amnesty International has documented numerous cases of enforced disappearances that occurred across Libya in the build-up to the planned protests on 17 February. These have only intensified during the current, ongoing unrest and conflict. The pattern is reminiscent of the 1990s, when Colonel al-Gaddafi’s government was responsible for widespread disappearances of people seen as critics or opponents of his rule or suspected of belonging to Islamist armed groups. The Libyan authorities’ failure either to investigate these past crimes or bring those responsible to justice serves as a powerful, salutary reminder that impunity can only lead to the repetition of such gross human rights violations.
In fact, speaking to families from the Nafousa Mountain, the majority of whom are from the Amazigh minority, it is hard to separate the past from the present. Many told Amnesty International that they took to the streets in February to demand change and an end to repression and discrimination against the Amazigh community in Libya. They described how the Libyan government under Colonel al-Gaddafi has sought, they say, to erase the Amazigh cultural identity and language – for example, by banning them from giving their children Amazigh names, insisting that they use only Arab ones. We can only hope that these families will soon be able to return to their homes in safety and resume their lives in dignity and in a context where their cultural and other rights are fully respected.