Libya’s southern borders cover over 2000 km with Sudan, Chad, Niger and Algeria stretching from from east to west, with the main oasis-town of Kufra in the southeast and the border town of Ghat near the Algerian town of Jannet in the southwest located in this vast Sahara desert.
The distance often made it hard for Libya to control its borders particularly against infiltration from illegal immigrants coming from neighbouring Niger and Chad and other Sub-Saharan African countries, and also from drug and alcohol trafficking.
For the last four decades the Libyan Sahara Desert has kept its secrets well hidden from Libyans as well as the outside world. In fact, former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi made sure he never revealed its secrets to anyone.
Ironically, he was buried in a secret location in this vast desert of thousands of sand dunes (his burial location is only known to Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, the former president of the Libyan National Transitional Council).
In the last week of January I set off on a journey from the city of Sebha with Fathi Tebbawi and Abdurrahman Taleb, two Tebu young men originally from Kufra, currently residing in the southwestern city of Sebha, the largest Libyan city in the south, and headed towards Al Wigh to take a look into its military base.
In fact, the mere thought of setting foot in the Al Wigh military base before the Libyan Revolution was unthinkable. Al Wigh lies half-way to the Niger-Chad border (about 500 kilometres). After a few hours we arrived at the military outpost, which saw violent confrontations between pro-Gaddafi forces and Libyan rebels during the 2011 revolution.
The Military Base of Al Wigh is now run by Libyan rebels from the Tebu tribes, who, after the liberation of the country from Gaddafi’s rule, joined the Libyan Ministry of Defense as the Batallion of Um Al Aranib Martyrs.
They are tasked with the protection and guarding of southwestern Libya’s border from illegal activities such as drug, alcohol and human trafficking from Sub-Saharan African countries such as Mali, Niger, Chad, Ghana, Nigeria etc.
We arrived to the village of Gatrone in the evening, southeast of Murzuk on the way to the Niger border. Gatrone is a quiet and peaceful town. The non-asphalted roads, the houses in derelict and the heaps of garbage testify to the quasi-absence of any sign of development in this isolated desert border town.
“In Gatrone, it is considered hostile to come with a weapon. Locals have become tired with the war and weapons and are traumatized,” Fathi explained to me.
“I can assure you that the South of Libya is the safest place in Libya and I challenge Yusuf Mangoush, the Head of the Libyan Army, to come here and claim that the South is not guarded and that it is open to criminal activities”, he added vehemently.
The Libyan Sahara Desert stretches over about 90% of the country with cities like Sebha, Ubari, Kufra, Murzuk and Ghat being the largest population concentrations in the south. The cities are mostly surrounded by oases, which made economic activties around the cities flourish exponentially throughout the centuries. The Mountains of Acacus on the way between Ubari and Ghat stand majestically to the trials of time.
The city of Murzuk had particularly flourished during the 16th and 17th centuries with the Transaharan trade from West Africa (also known as the north-south trade across the Sahara).
Idriss Kashira, an assistant to the Murzuk City Council’s president, and a Tebu local of the desert town of 23,000 inhabitants, took pride in his city’s history as being “the crossroad of trade between Sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa and Europe where Arab merchants traded in precious metals such as gold, ivory and also slaves.”
“It was the only urban center of southwestern Libya, long time before the city of Sebha came to exist,” he emphasized to me.
Murzuk society is a melting pot of Arabs, Tuaregs, Tebus and what is commonly referred to as Al Ahali (Arabic for locals), who are black Libyans of slave descent. The latter are the largest community of the city of Murzuk.
Zahra Ali Abderrahman is from the Ahali community. She has been a journalist before the Libyan Revolution and after the revolution, she became an editor-in-chief of the Arabic-language Murzuk Today newspaper.
Back to the Sahara Desert, Fathi drove us back with his 4WD on a desert road for almost an hour from Gatroon to Sebha, a route that he knew well its intricacies very. We arrived at 7:00 p.m. Fathi is among the few Tebu young men who actively participated in the Libyan Revolution, in some battlefronts in Eastern Libya (Brega, Ajdabia and Benghazi). His job now is to protect along with his colleagues the seven oil fields in southwestern Libya.
Fathi admits that Saadi Gaddafi, the son of the deceased Libyan dictator, in Niger still represents a threat to security by hiring mercenaries to sow trouble in the South. It is rumored that he married the Nigerien president’s sister-in-law, another Tebu man from the town of Ubari told me.
Fathi patrols the southwestern border of Libya day and night with Abdurrahman to ensure its security. In the meantime, Tebus soldiers in the border posts of Um al Aranib and Luweegh Military Base continue their work of spotting illegal immigrants from neighboring countries.
They record their names and later hand them over to the Libyan Ministry of Interior’s Illegal Immigration Service in Sebha; which in turn house them in a detention center in the city, awaiting their repatriation to their countries.