Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Battle Cries in Libya

Thursday, October 25, 2012

by Ranier Fsadni
Times of Malta

The battle cries in Libya

Were it not a humanitar-ian disaster, one would be tempted to call it a battle of the soundtracks. For, as from last Friday, as the battle for Bani Walid grew harsher and the respective TV stations of Bani Walid and Misurata broadcast ‘no comment’ footage related to the battle, it was the intermittent background music that organised the ambiguous images into two contrasting stories.

Dardaneel is Bani Walid’s TV station, named after the nickname it earned from the Italians – the Dardanelles of Libya – for its stiff anti-colonial resistance in 1923. Its main broadcasts after Friday, when the town began to be shelled heavily from three sides, have been of funerals, of tours of the hospital morgue, with close-ups of dead children and adults with gruesome wounds and of mosques and homes hit by what is claimed to be indiscriminate shelling.

Such broadcasts usually have a running commentary. The father of a small boy testifies besides the mangled corpse how, last Sunday, his son was simply sitting outside the house. Others walk the viewer through the mosque where a group of men were saying their Friday prayers, pointing at the blood-stained carpet or else through a half-wrecked home which, pointedly, is full of stickers of the flag of the (anti-Gaddafi) February 17 revolution. Fighters, walking through positions previously held by fighters from Misurata, point at two abandoned gas masks.

At the mass funerals of dead fighters, the prayer leader, with breaking voice, identifies the dead men with the honour of the Warfalla, Bani Walid’s tribe. Behind him, rough, tough middle-aged men wipe their eyes with their woollen togas. As the coffins are carried away, the youth begin to cry with one voice: “The blood of the martyrs will not be wiped away! With my blood, with my soul, I will redeem you, Warfalla!”

Another cry is that Bani Walid will not be another Tawargha – that is, the town that was devastated by Misurata’s fighters after men from Tawargha had participated in the siege against Misurata last year.

But when the footage falls silent and simply shows small groups of fighters holding a position on the outskirts of Bani Walid or engaged in street fire-fights, the story telling falls to the background music. Sometimes it’s from Gladiator, other times the music is from The Last Of The Mohicans.

In other words, it’s the music that tells a story of heroic resistance to the death against tyranny. It reinforces the claims being made, by Warfalla since the beginning of October, that Bani Walid has become the Gaza of Libya and that Misurata is behaving like Israel. The cries of “The blood of the martyrs...” are vows broadcast from the Palestinian territories, too.

Needless to say, that’s not the story told by Misurata TV. There, one sees discussions of the need to bring Libya under one law – the accusation being that Bani Walid has not yet accepted the rule of the new Libya. There are family photos of fighters from last year’s battles.

There are recorded snippets of the broadcasts of Hamza Touhami, the hated, ridiculed and vulgar pro-Gaddafi broadcaster who, after the fall of Tripoli last year, sought refuge in Bani Walid and is now believed to be abroad. The pro-Gaddafi websites and broadcasts from outside Libya portray Bani Walid as a seat of loyalist resistance, as Misurata does.

So, when the voices die down and the film footage simply shows Misurata fighters entering areas of Bani Walid and taking groups of Warfalli youth prisoners, the music is taken from The Dark Knight Rises. Gotham is being recovered from the rule of criminal Gaddafi loyalists who have found refuge there since the fall of the regime.

I have discussed both sets of images with Libyan friends, some staunchly against Bani Walid, others preparing to defend the city against the intensified assault that began early on Tuesday morning. I have no doubt about the honesty of each them, all the more striking, therefore, that it was like discussing two different planets.

For the Warfalla, the gas masks show the intent of genocide by a Misurata that sees Bani Walid as the greatest challenge to its hegemony over the new Libya. Warfalla negotiators have insisted that Muammar Gaddafi is the past, that they only want Warfalla detainees released from Misurata gaols and for whom they will exchange Misurati prisoners.

For Misuratis and others, the gas masks were planted by pro-Gaddafi brigades and mercenaries, still ensconced in Bani Walid, where posters of the old dictator, they say, may still be found in shops and offices. Bani Walid cannot remain a law unto its own.

Sifting between the rival claims is impossible here. But there is space for two quick observations.

First, the conflict shows signs of spilling beyond Bani Walid. Sections of the Maqarha tribe, the largest of the south, and a small number of fighters from elsewhere, have joined Bani Walid (though not all Warfalla, spread around Libya, have joined in the fight).

Second, you are reading this when the siege is already over. On Tuesday morning, the bombardment intensified considerably. Some had already expected the souk to fall by yesterday.

What remains is a humanitarian crisis that ought to command the West’s attention.

There are hundreds of wounded in an under-resourced hospital, with not enough electrical power to be able to keep the dead in refrigeration.

We rightly helped look after Misurata’s wounded last year. Should we ignore the wounded of this year’s fighting?

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