Posts Tagged ‘Long Range Desert Group’
In Libya the Tebu people of Kufra have long been marginalised. For many years, Gaddafi’s people pursued a program of ‘arabiseation’ which effectively meant the persecution of the Tebu as this report by the Human Rights Council makes clear: “Some 4,000 Toubou [Tebu] people are living in the town of Kufra, an oasis city of 44,000 inhabitants some 2,000 kilometres from Tripoli. In the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya [Gaddafi’s Libya], they were treated as foreigners by the authorities. In December 2007, the Libyan Government withdrew citizenship from members of the Toubou group, stating that they were not Libyans but Chadians. Furthermore the local authorities issued decrees barring Toubou from access to education and health care services. The armed movement “Front for the Salvation of the Toubou Libyans” …. opposed these measures. Up to 33 people died in Kufra, during five days of fighting between the official security forces and the Toubou in November 2008. Despite public criticism, the government of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya [continued] to expel Toubou people from their residential areas in Kufra. Since November 2009 dozens of families lost their homes due to forced destruction by bulldozers supervised by state security forces.”
The hostility between the black Tebu people and the white al Zawiya tribe has long been endemic in Kufra and has escalated into open warfare since the heavy hand of the Gaddafi regime was lifted after the 2011 civil war. Here are some notes which may help to understand the long running enmity between the ethnic Tebu people and the Zawiya tribe in Kufra. (A note here about transliteration and the Zawiya tribe. The tribal name may appear in a number of spellings. Rosita Forbes, who is quoted below, used Souais. Nowadays Libyans often use the name Sway as the Zawiya are known thus locally. Also the Tebu are often honoured with a number of spelling variations, such as Toubu and other near approximations)
The Tebu people of Kufra, Sebha and Muzuq are part of a wider ethnic group called the Teda, desert warriors living in the eastern and central Sahara and, effectively, a black people without nationality. The majority of them can be found in the Tibesti Mountains on the Libyan-Chad border. Their harsh environment, extreme poverty, and remote location make them a very tough people. They have often clashed with the neighbouring tribes and with the Tuareg and, like the gypsies in Great Britain, are despised by the dominant communities who see them as petty thieves and liars.
Traditionally, the Teda controlled the caravan trade routes that passed through their territory. They were widely known in the past for plundering and salve trading. Their language is Tebu and their basic social unit is the nuclear family, organized into clans. They live by a combination of pastoralism, farming, subsistence smuggling and date cultivation.
The Zawiya is a ‘client tribe’ which owes allegiance to the aristocratic Magharba tribe with which it shares a border in the north. This client relationship goes back into antiquity and the Zawiya ignore it at best and resent it at worst. Desert traders and nomadic pastoralists the Zawiya conquered Kufra in 1840 subduing the indigenous Tebu, the non-Arab pan- Saharan ethic group which, at some time in the distant past, maintained a notable presence there. The remnants of their dwellings and forts are still visible. Some suggest that Kufra was the ancient centre of the whole Teda people and even in the late 18th and early 19th centuries they had been in contact with the oases of Egypt and Cyrenaica. The literature is full of stories of their ability to travel between widely dispersed water sources on their special breed of camel and of their lawlessness and sometimes harsh treatment of slaves.
Since 1840 or thereabouts the Zawiya tribe has owned most of the date palm groves of the Kufra oases, employing the Tebu as labourers and extending its trading route into the last African Sultanate to fall to western imperialism, the Wadai, now part of Chad. It is said that Kufra under Zawiya rule was the most noted centre of brigandage in the Sahara. Plus ça change – plus c’est la même chose.
The Zawiya leadership promised the Grand Senussi, Mohamed Ben Ali as-Senussi, a liberal donation of dates and water if he would establish a religious community in Kufra. This he did and the Senussi order eventually moved its headquarters to Kufra from whence it exercised its moral and temporal suasion and commercial competence over the hitherto predatory Zawiya, establishing a profitable trans-Saharan trade in slaves and arms.
Unlike other trans-Saharan routes the Senussi control over the Wadai to Benghazi road via Kufra reduced the costs to slave merchants who were not, therefore, obliged to pay tolls even though their caravans passed through a number of tribal territories. However, the Senussi theocracy and the slave trade through Kufra were under threat from the French who were advancing their empire towards Chad and from the Italians who had commenced to colonise north eastern shore of Libya. Thus the slavers were losing access to the Mediterranean ports in the north and the supply of slaves from the south.
It was in 1910 that the Italians launched their colonial occupation of Libya and gradually extended their dominance over the country. In the east they met resistance from the Libyan tribes on whose most profitable land they had established Italian agricultural settlements and whose migratory life they restricted and disrupted. The logistical problems posed by the huge distance and lack of fodder and water between the Italian bases on the Mediterranean coast meant that the Senussi theocracy based in Kufra was for many years beyond their reach. What is more the Italians became embroiled in World War I and had little time or resources with which to mount an attack on Kufra, protected as it was by distance and an arc of impassable sand seas. In 1920 they adopted the pragmatic policy of appointing the future King of Libya, Mohamed Idris es Senussi, Emir of Cyrenaica with his capital at Kufra. .
In the early years of the 20th Century there were a number of blank areas on the maps of the Libyan Desert. For some time stories circulating about three lost or ‘forbidden’ oases, Kufra, Jebel ‘Uwainat and Zazura, had been circulating amongst geographers. Even the Royal Geographical Society published a paper about Zazura, which turned out to be a mythical place.
In 1921/22 a remarkable expedition to the hitherto closed oasis of Kufra was made by two colourful travellers. One was the Oxford educated Egyptian civil servant and explorer Hassanien Bey and the other an intrepid adventuress, travel writer and novelist, Rosita Forbes. By virtue of Hassanien Bey’s considerable influence with the Emir, Idris es Senussi, they acquired permission to visit the Senussi lodge and mausoleum in Kufra and overcame opposition amongst the Zawiya tribesman to visit the villages in the vicinity. Rosita Forbes managed to conceal a camera about her person with which she managed to take some unique photographs. (In doing this the she was risking her life. Even in 1960s I would not have dared to use my camera freely in much of Libya). The pair found evidence of a continuing, though by now clandestine, slave trade. The odd couple’s considerable journey by camel to the forbidden oasis is described in Forbes’ book ‘The Secret of the Sahara, Kufra’. At one point in their return journey they were under the impression that a band of Tebu was stalking them with malign intent. This may have been why Forbes described the Tebu as ‘the Berber aborigines of Libya. They wear only sheep skins and eat a mixture of powdered dates and locusts’. Some of her photographs appeared in ‘The Illustrated London News’ dated 21st May 1921. One of the photographs is of ruined stone dwellings which, she asserted, were built at some time in antiquity by the Tebu. Forbes estimated that ‘the population of Kufara and Buseima is about 3,000 Zouais (Zawiya) and 100 to 150 Tebu. In addition to these there are a large number of Negroid slaves from Wadai and Darfur’.
On 28th December 1930 the Italian colonial power in Libya was sufficiently strengthened and equipped to launch an attack on the Emir’s Sothern oasis stronghold of Kufra. For the first time the Italians used self contained motorised columns supported by aircraft which traversed the Libyan Desert to project overwhelming power across huge waterless distances and over hitherto impregnable sand seas. The Italian mechanised attack, supported by aerial bombardment and strafing, was quick to reduce Zawiya resistance in Kufra and forced the Senussi family to flee to Siwa in Egypt.
Those inhabitants who made a living on the land watered by Kufra’s springs remained behind but the proud Arabs of the Zawiya tribe decided to escape. They had no time to make long preparations or to feed their camels up for a journey over waterless and fodder-less terrain to the South East. Even so, a party estimated to have been five hundred strong including women and children set out in that direction for the Jebel ‘Uwainat, known as ‘the mountain of springs’, on the border of Libya with Egypt and the Sudan.
For some time there had been no rain at ‘Uwainat and whilst there was still water in the main spring, Ain Dua, the vegetation had withered away and the ill prepared camels could find no sustenance. Some groups elected to move on but many succumbed to starvation and perished. Around four hundred Zawiya eventually reached the Dakhla oasis in Egypt having covered more than 400 miles between water sources over arid desert, a feat with few parallels in non mechanised desert travel.
With time the Zawiya returned to Kufra and their numbers grew substantially as did those of the Tebu. During the early years of World War II Kufra became the base of the British Long Range Desert Group which perfected the use of mechanised transport in the Libyan Desert and the wider Sahara.
After the Italian defeat by the British 8th Army, Libya was administered by British and French Military governments until 1952 when it received its independence and the sometime Emir of Cyrenaica, Idris es Senussi, became its king. Oil was found to be abundant below the desert homeland of the Zawiya. The need for imported labour grew and workers from the Sudan and Chad flocked into Libya via the old slave trading routes, but now in motorised transport. Kufra became a hub for migrants. The number of ‘travel agents and vehicle repair shops’ proliferated. Competition for control of the people trafficking and smuggling business grew between the Zawiya and the Tebu.
The water which supplies the Kufra oasis is from the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System, the world’s largest fossil water aquifer which underlies North Western Sudan, North Eastern Chad, Much of Egypt and some of the South of Libya. One of the notable public works projects funded by revenue from Libya’s oil was to tap the aquifer and pipe fossil water to Benghazi and Tripoli. A centre point irrigation scheme, extracting the fossil water through artisan wells, was also set up near Kufra with the intention of developing a flourishing agriculture, hampered, however, by its remoteness and consequent cost of bringing the fresh produce to market.
Independence came to Libya in 1953 which then became ‘The United Kingdom of Libya’ with the sometime Emir of Cyrenaica, Idris es Senussi as its monarch. The search for oil quickened until the country became a major oil producer. The great wealth which followed attracted numerous economic migrants for sub-Saharan Africa. Many Tebu migrated into Libya from their homeland in the Tibesti Mountains. The Tebu population in Kufra grew apace as did tension between Tebu and Zawiya.
King Idris, always a reluctant monarch, abdicated in 1969 and Muammar Gaddafi mounted a pre-emptive coup whilst the old King’s favoured successors were still abed. His rule, which lasted until 2011, was erratic and autocratic. He stirred up enmity between the Zawiya and the Tebu by means of a classic disinformation ploy. He implied that the Tebu were brought into Kufra by the much hated Italians.
Gaddafi’s grandiose ambitions were directed towards Africa and in particular Chad. Between 1968 and 1987 Gaddafi launched a number of military incursions into Chad and for a while maintained a military occupation of Chadian territory. One of the results was a further increase of Tebu in Kufra. Gaddafi’s forces were roundly defeated in the so called Toyota Wars and left Chad in 1987. One of the cruel outcomes of Gaddafi’s occupation of northern Chad was the large numbers of land mines his forces left behind in the Tebu homelands. They interrupted migratory patterns and made swaths of the country uninhabitable. There followed a further increase in the Tebu population in Kufra. In addition, the uneasy relationship between the Zawiya and the Tebu was exacerbated during Gaddafi’s war with Chad. Since the majority of the Tebu live in Chad those who established in Kufra were perceived to be 5th Columnists
In 2011 the uprising against Gaddafi commenced. France, the UK and the Arab League became involved and matters fared badly for Gaddafi who was forced to employ mercenaries. Many of them were recruited in Chad. Since the Tebu homeland is mainly in the Tibesti mountain region of northern Chad it was an easy propagandist ploy to label all Tebu as mercenaries.
In 2011 the Tebu formed an armed militia called the Desert Shield Brigade and joined the anti-Gaddafi forces. The Zawiya appear to he been divided in loyalty. The Gaddafi regime was toppled and the proliferation of arms from the looting of Gaddafi’s considerable arms dumps has resulted in the breakdown of law and order.
There are now two rival governments in Libya which are in bitter and often armed opposition to each other. Neither has the will nor the wherewithal to control the remote south and consequently old enmities are now pursued with deadly consequences. These reports in the Libya Herald illustrate the point:
Dated 27 July 2015: ‘Despite reports of a ceasefire agreed yesterday in Kufra between Zawia and Tebu fighters, with a promise to hand over prisoners, there has again been heavy fighting in the town today, for the third day in succession. Continued intermittent clashes between the two communities re-erupted into full-scale violence on Friday since when at least 14 people have been killed two dozen wounded.
“Nine Zwai members and five Tebu people have been killed and the number of casualties is over 25, from both communities” Salah Al-Sanussi, a Tebu elder living in Kufra, told the Libya Herald today.
“Mortar and heavy artillery fire is being exchanged and there is absolutely no safe police left,” he said.
Most of the current fighting is around the Tebu district of Gadarfai, which separates the two Zwai areas of Bu-Shoug and Al-Harah, as well as at the Al-Khadrah roundabout in the south of the town.
Tebu fighters are also reported to have fired mortars at the Kufra airport, located at Zwai area of the town, forcing its closure.
A week ago, when five people, including two Bangladeshi workers, were killed in a Zwai-Tebu shootout, the town’s National Security Directorate spokesman warned of rising tension between the two communities. Lieutenant Mohammed Khalil said that the main streets of the town were closed because of sniper activities by both sides and that the Directorate did not have the power to put a stop to the clashes.
Zwai and Tebu elders and other local leaders were trying their best to contain the situation, he said, but it was deteriorating fast………..31 July 2015: Communal clashes in the south-eastern oasis of Kufra have now continued for just over a week, with the government and the Libyan National Army (LNA) still unable to control the conflict.
Tebu-Zwai tit-for-tat killings over the last month once again exploded into bloody armed clashes between the two tribes on Friday last week. In the past couple of days, some 15 people are said to have been killed.’
This is an unfinished story with an unpredictable outcome. The troubles in Kufra are far from over. Both the Tebu and Zawiya are in competition for the lucrative people trafficking, drug and arms smuggling trade centred on Kufra. There are also rumours of foreign interference, particularly from the Sudan. I believe that Ansar Sharia, the Salafist-Jihadist group which has been listed by the USA as a terrorist organisation, has a foothold in Kufra where it seems to control the road to Jalo, and thus of most of the northbound traffic.
Around 17% of Libya’s oil reserves lies in the Zawiya homeland as do the source wells for the Great Man Made River carrying water from the Nubian Sub-Saharan Aquifer to the coastal cities. The Zawiya have sometimes threatened to cut off both of these vital resources.
For more contemporary background this paper is worth reading:
10th September 2105
NOTE – HASSANIEN BEY AND ROSITA FORBES
The achievements of Hassanien Bey who was accompanied by Rosita Forbes on the epic journey to Kufra in 1922 (mentioned above) were overshadowed by Forbes who rushed into print with her book ‘The Secret of the Sahara: Kufra’. Hassanien Bey made a further and more extensive expedition into the Libya Desert. An article about his travels, with photographs of Kufra, Zawiya sheiks and a Tebu woman, appeared in the National Geographic Magazine in September 1924 and may be accessed here.
Update 23rd September 2015
Reports from Kufra on 20th September 2015 suggest that some30 have recently been killed and dozens wounded in fresh fighting and that the town council is threatening to seek foreign help in the absence of support from ether the Tripoli or Beda governments.