Libya’s ‘Committee of Wise Men for Negotiation’
Meet the roving, long-bearded dignitaries building peace among Libya’s many hostile factions. Toppling Gaddafi was the easy part.
OBARI, Libya — Inside a tent in this small southern village, Arab sheiks with long beards talked peace with Libyan officials from across the country. Outside, a group of black tribal women wearing colorful full-length burkas, played drums and sang.
Recognizing the need to bring all of Libya’s disparate groups under one flag, the country’s transitional government has dispatched a team of roving peaceniks — made up of local leaders, intellectuals and government officials representing all of Libya’s racial groups — to reconcile Libya’s various tribes and clans over the coming months.
They are known as the Committee of Wise Men for Negotiation.
Libya’s population is made up of about 140 tribes and clans, a mix of Arab and nomadic African tribes, including the dark-skinned Tabu and Tuareg, and the light-skinned Berber.
And they don’t get along.
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Since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi — who often used the violence to secure his rule — Libya has been consumed by tribal clashes, bloody reprisals and bids for local autonomy.
The effort to heal such divisions has proven difficult.
Here in the southern village of Obari, it is the Tuareg who are under attack. The black nomadic tribe is targeted because many of them fought alongside Gaddafi during the revolution.
A Tuareg tribal leader and member of the Committee of Wise Men, Fndyet Al Koui, said he had earlier led negotiations with some 2,000 Tuareg soldiers living in the region, asking them to give up their weapons in exchange for immunity. But as news of revenge killings against other black Libyans filtered through, the negotiations broke down.
Rejecting Al Koui’s pleas for unity, the Tuareg soldiers took their families, ammunition stocks and an estimated 300 to 400 heavily-armed vehicles, and fled to Mali, where they joined another armed Tuareg tribe. It was these combined forces that later claimed independence in northern Mali, Koui said, plunging the country into chaos.
As a nomadic people of the Sahara whose history knows little of borders and boundaries, many Tuareg living in Niger, Mali and Libya still have no official nationality.
“They are in a very critical position and each country is pushing them to another. This is why they are seeking a land of their own,” Koui said.
But many Tuareg, including Koui, can trace their roots in Libya back thousands of years and have no intention of leaving.
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As the Tuareg living in Obari welcomed the Committee for Wise Men, Sheik Ibrahim Binhasher from Misrata, an Arab, gave the opening speech.
“Many people asked me why we were holding a meeting here with these people,” he said. “I answered, because in the new Libya there are no outsiders. Gaddafi fueled divisions and hatred, but the new Libya is a complete brotherhood, and in the new Libya we can all be equal.”
While those listening appreciated the sentiment, they were quick to point out that it was going to take a lot more to diffuse tensions. After all, they said, whole families have been killed over the years. That’s hard to forget.
In one recent conflict, a tribal feud between the nomadic Tabu and an Arab clan claimed almost 150 lives and injured hundreds more. It began as a simple disagreement between two families. But with heavy weapons still readily available throughout the country, the conflict quickly escalated into a full-scale tribal clash.
One man became emotional as he found shrapnel in his living room from an RPG that had weeks earlier left his wife in critical condition. Blood still stained the dirt floor.
When the clashes began to spread to nearby villages, Amnesty International called for the government to intervene.
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Tensions between black and Arab Libyans simmered during the Gaddafi regime because black migrant workers were often granted citizenship and other concessions that were not offered to Arab families. Those tensions only grew during the revolution because many black immigrants and mercenaries fought against the rebels. In the aftermath, black people were collectively labeled Gaddafi loyalists in many parts of the country.
In the south, however, the opposite is true. It was the dark-skinned Tabu that led the rebellion, while many Arab families remained loyal to the regime.
Their treatment as outsiders — and the lack of basic necessities under the old regime, including clean water, education and health care — fueled the Tabu’s revolutionary spirit.
“We led the fight against Gaddafi in the south so we could leave all these divisions behind and build a Libya where everyone gets their rights. But the new government has so far not offered us any help,” said Mohammed Seed Ibrahim, who is vice president of the National Tabu Congress and now a member of the Committee of Wise Men.
In the poverty-stricken Tabu neighborhood of Hajara, in the southern town of Sabha, the violence got so bad most of the people living there fled. A population of thousands dwindled to less than 200.
On a recent visit to Hajara, a young girl dressed in a soiled pink dress peered through the hole that had been blown through her bedroom wall. She surveyed the burned-out cars and shrapnel that littered the street outside.
The Committee of Wise Men has yet to come to her town.
“They come with RPG’s, tanks and bombs. We want peace but we have to protect our women,” said Ali Abohkar, the village elder, who has remained in Hajara with his 10 children.
Abohkar said a rival Arab clan repeatedly attacked the village.
“Before the tourists would come here with their cameras to see our ancient buildings, but now no one cares,” he said, standing in the ruins of his now roofless kitchen.
“They are holding peace talks, but they do not come here. The reporters write about the fighting but they do not come to see what is really happening. I am human! I am Libyan! Why does no one see what has happened to me? Look at my house, my family … please,” he pleaded.
Ibrahim, who represents Tabu villagers like Abohkar on the Committee, said the meetings were an important first step toward building a new Libya. But he admitted the obstacles were substantial.
“Before peace negotiations can go ahead, our families need help, and an investigation must be made to find those responsible for the attacks on our villages,” he said.