“The South is a sleeping volcano… It is resting on a hot plate,” Fathi Al Tebbawi’s words came as a leitmotif in reference to the daily struggle of Libyan South indigenous population of Tebus with illegal immigrants from neighboring countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Fathi, a young man in his twenties and a revoliutionary during the Libyan uprising that toppled former Libyan dictator Mumammar Gaddafi. “The South is the shield protecting Libya from all types of illegal activities from human trafficking to smuggled alcohol, drugs and dangerous weapons from neighboring countries,” he stressed.
Originally from the southeastern city of Kufra- a town that saw bloody tribal clahses between the majority black ethnic group of Tebus to the minority Arab tribe of Zuwaya in February 2012- Fathi is a proud revolutionary turned field officer of the Libyan Army and member of Ahmed Al Sharif Batallion of Kufrah, tasked wih the protection of the six oil fields of the Libyan South. During the clashes, around 50 people died from the Tebus sparking outrage among the community at the silence of Libyan authorities at what they called “the ethnic cleansing of black Tebus by Arab tribes.”
“Did you know that on February 15, 2011 a man set himself on fire in Kufrah sparking a riot in the city before Benghazi rose against Gaddafi setting up the Libyan Revolution?” he told me with a sense of frustration and bitterness about what he kept referring to a “the organized marginalization” of Tebus by the Gaddafi regime and later by the National Transitional Council and the current General National Congress.
The Tebus are black-skinned people who are found in Southern Libya from the city of Kufrah, near the Sudanese border of Libya to the cities of Sebha, Gatroon and Murzuk in southwestern Libya near the Chadian and Nigerien borders with Libya. They are the largest ethnic minority tribes in those cities. Yet, Tebus often complain that they have been marginalized in the past (and continue today) at the expense of the Arab tribes of Zuwaya in Kufrah and Awled Sliman in the city of Sebha. Tebus are also found in neighboring Chad and Niger.
Sebha, the main southwestern city of Libya is a multicultural city with Tebus, Tuaregs and Arab tribes of Awled Sliman, Gedadfa and Megarha living together, despite the outbreak of clashes between the Arab tribes and non-Arab ones since the ousting of Gaddafi.
During the Libyan Revolution, Tebus joined their counterparts in Benghazi, Tripoli, Misrata, Zintan and Zawiya in their fight against Gaddafi forces. “We liberated the South before the rest of Libya. We did not have NATO help us get rid of Gaddafi forces who were attacking us, mercenaries that Gaddafi brought from Chad and also from Darfur of the Arab Mahameed tribe,” Tebbawi said with pride.
Before the revolution, many Tebus were considered as second-class citizens if not less, regretted Fathi. They were deprived of basic rights such as education and citizenship. In fact, many Tebus did not have Libyan citizenship during the Gaddafi regime. Gaddafi used to give citizenship to many Sub-Saharan Africans mainly from Niger and Chad who came to the south of Libya to ensure their loyalty to him and his supicion of Libyans. In December 2007, the Gaddafi government stripped Tebu Libyans of their citizenship, claiming that they were not Libyans, but rather Chadians.
Tebus want to claim their rights to the fruits of the Libyan Revolution. Fathi said many Tebus fought in different battlefronts: Misrata, Ras Lanuf, Zawiya, Brega etc. But Fathi regrets that their fight for the liberation of Libya was quickly forgotten by those in Tripoli, referring to the central seat of the government. “Tripoli monopolizes everything and marginalized the rest of Libya,” Fathi went on. “We were like non-citizens and the Libyan Revolution gave us hope to finally address our rights to be equal to the rest of Libyans,” he stressed.
He nonetheless, rebuffed the idea of Federalism in the South as some have called for the restoration of the Federation of Fezzan, as used to be the case since the access to the throne of King Idriss of Libya.
We traveled to the southwestern area of Libya, some 300 kilometers north of Niger border, we passed different crossing gates along the road. Most of the gates are makeshifts ones, built by Tebus rebels who financed their construction with their own means, according to one of the gates’ guards. In Um Al Aranib crossing gate, which leads to Libya’s border to Niger, some of the guards were as young as 17 and 19. One of them said that he is on vacation from school and is helping in the protection of the area from trafiickers and criminals. Watching over an expanse of Sahara desert land (90% of Libya is desert) is not an easy task and it takes brave and stoic young and old men to control thousands kilometers of border with four neghboring countries of Sudan, Chad, Niger and Algeria. “All that you see here is personal initiatives from Tebu locals. We get no financial support from Libyan government and then they (the government officials) declare on media that Libyan southern border are open to trafficking,” one of them complained.
Ubari is one of the main urban centers of south western Libay with a sizeable Tuareg and Tebu communities, along with Arab tribes and the Ahali, black Libyans of slave descent from Sub-Saharan African countries. With a population of 35,000 people, this oasis town was captured by the anti-Gaddafi forces in September 2011. On 19 November 2011, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi and a few associates were captured and detained about 50 kilometers west of Ubari as they were trying to flee to neighbouring Niger.
Kalmi Ramadan is a pharmacist, an environmental health expert and human rights activist. Married with five children a d originally from the south eastern oasis town of Kufra, Ramadan was forced to leave his hometown six months ago with his family after he received threats and his house was attacked over his strong criticism of the Shield of Libya’s handling of the events in Kufra in February 2012. The fighting continued until late June 2012.
“200 people died and what is painful in all of this, is that most of the victims were children and old people,” he stated.
Ramadan came out on television and accused Shield of Libya (which was from Benghazi as being part of the problem in particular, its commander, Hafedh Agouri in, whose maternal uncles belong to the Zuwayya tribe of Kufra that was involved in the bloody fighting against the Tebus .
Ramadan reiterated Tebu people’s right to the constitutionlization of Tebu language just like Amazigh and Tuareg languages, spoken respectively by Libyan Amazighs and Tuaregs.
“We are guarding the South day and night and we do it with stoicism because this is our land and we will not let it a prey for criminal activities”, resolute Fathi Tebbawi concluded.