LIBYAN TRIBES II – A TALE OF TWO SIEGES – MISURATA AND BANI WALID
The Battle of Misurata between Gaddafi’s forces and the ‘17th February Rebels’ was bloody and brutal and lasted from 18th February to 15th May 2011. It is sometimes known as the Siege of Misurata during which the bombardment of the city with Grad missiles and artillery by the Gaddafi loyalist army left at least 2,000 rebels and civilians dead and 900 injuries resulting in loss of limbs. For much of the time Khamis Gadaffi conducted the siege on behalf of his father. The anti-Gaddafi rebel forces broke the siege with the aid of air and naval assistance from NATO and considerable support from Qatar.
The siege of Bani Walid by militia forces, mainly from Misurata but also including the Libya Shield Brigade, has been underway during October 2012. As I write it appears to be drawing to a close. Bani Walid is the desert stronghold of the Warfella tribe and was the last foothold of Gadaffi loyalists. It capitulated to the anti-Gaddafi forces 17th October 2011. Since that time the Bani Walid leadership has been at odds with the Misuratans who believe that Gaddafists have been given shelter in the town. It was these Gaddafists, they say, who captured and tortured a number of Misuratans, one of whom was Omran Shaban who died of wounds in their custody after a deal had been struck for his release. Omran Shaban was the Misuratan militiaman who found Col Gaddafi hiding from a NATO air strike in a storm drainage pipe in Sirte a year ago. The death of Omran Shaban was the flash point which launched the Misuratan militias on Bani Walid. They were supported by the new Libyan government and some militias from elsewhere. It is likely that 22 people were killed and 200 wounded in the fighting. The refugee problem was, and remains, acute. On 22nd October the International Committee of the Red Cross estimated that 25,000 people had fled the urban area.
News of the siege of Bani Walid reached the wider world and the USA and Russia exchanged diplomatic views in the United Nations Security Council and there are reports to the effect that the United States has blocked a draft statement, proposed by Russia, on the resolution of violence in Bani Walid.
There has been some speculation amongst international observers about the real reason for the Siege of Bani Walid. Many have missed a significant clue. When the Misuratan militiamen entered Bani Walid in October 2012 they fly posted walls with leaflets in memory of the historic Misuratan hero, Ramadan al Shtaiwi. This suggests that long standing enmity between the Misurata and the Warfella tribes is a prime factor.
Muammar Gaddafi’s policy of divide and rule amongst the tribes created a great deal of bottled up enmity. He showered cash and other inducements on the Warfella tribe to purchase its loyalty during the rebellion. The resentment of the Misuatans who were so brutally besieged is a not, therefore, unexpected. A statement made on 30th October by the currant Libyan Defence Minister, Osama Juwaili, to the effect that the head of the Libyan armed forces, General Yousef Mangoush, has no control over Bani Walid and refugees are being prevented from returning adds to the uneasy confusion felt by international observers.
A small excursion into Libya’s history and geography is necessary to understand the background to the siege and the significance of Ramadan Shtaiwi to the Misuratans. The modern road from Misurata to Ajadabia is built around the shores of the Gulf of Sirte which thrusts its way into the desert. If you look at the map, you can see that there are really two Gulfs of Site, the lesser and the greater. The map makes them look like two successive mouthfuls taken out of the north coast of Libya. The arid and remote hinterland of the Gulf of Sirte, the Sirtica, is the homeland of some notable tribes such as the Warfella, the Aulad Bu Saif, the Al Gaddadfa, the Aulad Suleiman and the Al Magharba.
Almost exactly a century ago the Italians decided to seize the Ottoman province of Libya and colonise it themselves. They captured Tripoli with relative ease but found it much harder to quell the Libyan tribes of the interior. One of the great obstacles to their advance was the tribes of the Sirtica. In order to reach this inhospitable place it was, and still is, necessary to pass through Misurata which is at the eastern end of the coastal oasis surrounding Tripoli.
The Italians attempted to take the Sirtica but the tribes, notably the Aulad bu Sief, soundly defeated them. As part of an Italian counter attack in April 1915 Colonel Miani entered the Sirtica from Misurata with a 4,000 strong Italian battle group. He was accompanied by 3,500 Libyans led by Ramadan al Shtaiwi, the wily war lord of Misurata.
Arab resistance to his advance, commanded by the Senussi leader Sayyid Saif al Din, was concentrated in the Sirtica. Sayyid Saif al Din had with him some of the Tripolitanian tribes, notably the Aulad bu Saif. The resident Sirtica tribes were also in arms against the Italians.
Col. Miani had seriously misjudged his so called ally, Ramadan al Shtaiwi and his 3,500 Libyans, who turned against him and helped Safi al Din’s tribal warriors to defeat the Italians at Qasr bu Hadi on 29th April 1915. As a result of this notable defeat, the Italians lost their own rifles and ammunition, plus a reserve of 5,000 rifles and millions of rounds of ammunition, several machine guns, and artillery with plenty of shells, the entire convoy of food supplies and even their bank. The Arab victory at Qasr bu Hadi has passed into Libyan tribal folk lore and is repeated from generation to generation.
The ancient feud between the Bedouin tribes of the Sirtica and the urban and coastal party in Tripoli and Misurata is probably reasserting itself. Ramadan al Shtaiwi emerges into history again. He defeated a group of Bedouin tribes led by the Senussis of Eastern Libya in a battle for power in the Sirtica on the outskirts of Bani Walid early in 1916. In the Siege of Bani Walid we may be witnessing a resurgence of an ancient feud. History has much to tell us but is too often forgotten.