Oil wells, water supplies, border checks and illegal alien smuggling… Deep in southern Libya, the Tubus are masters of all they survey. Marginalized under Gaddafi, the Tubus helped bring him down. Now their plight is battling with neighboring Arab tribes to maintain control in the region. Their violent clashes have already claimed hundreds of lives. On the eve of elections, the situation is still a powder keg.
In the newsroom, we’d been receiving reports of deadly violence in southern Libya, first from Sabha and then from the town of Kufra. After making contact with the communities there, we decided to head to the region to investigate first-hand.
Members of the Tubu tribe, the black population living in southern Libya (as well as in neighbouring Chad and Niger), told us that fresh violence was breaking out in Kufra. They described shelling on civilian areas, and a conflict pitting the Tubus against the local Arab tribe, the Zwei, and with militias who had travelled south from Benghazi.
Kufra is deep in the south east of the country, an oasis in the Sahara. Heading down there involved a drive of more than 24 hours across the desert. Very little of the journey is on marked roads; the Tubus drive in pick-up trucks across the dunes, and know the sands of the Sahara by heart.
We arrived in the nearest village to Kufra, Rabyana. Piecemeal information about the conflict in Kufra was filtering through, via satellite phone. We were told that the two Tubu neighbourhoods of the town were under siege, with electricity and water supplies cut off. The situation remained confused, with very contradictory reports about the security conditions in town. Armed men and boys set off from the village to try and enter Kufra by force to evacuate injured civilians. Very little news filtered back of their perilous mission. After trying to arrange a safe passageway into the town for several days, we were informed the only way in was on foot across the desert, or by force.
But we still wanted to find out about the accounts of ethnic violence. In Sabha, a city in the south west of Libya, doctors had reported that some 50 people were killed in clashes dating back to March and April. Again, we were told that Tubu neighbourhoods there had come under fire. In Tayun, a large Tubu and Tuareg area, gunshot marks and shell damage is peppered through the streets. We met with residents who showed us rocket damage to their homes, and told us of relatives killed and injured. Hawa, a nurse, showed us mobile phone video footage of a devastated house, where she said her mother had been killed by shrapnel following a mortar attack.
Arab residents of Sabha we spoke to didn’t deny there’d been deadly violence. They told us they wanted to live in peace with their Tubu neighbours, as they had for most of the past 30 or 40 years. They said they didn’t know how or why the attacks and fighting had started. But it became clear that tensions between the different ethnic communities of Sabha have been brewing under the surface for years.
The difference between the Tubu areas of Sabha (or “Tubu villages”, as they’re known) is clear to see. The Khajera village, in particular, is extremely run down. It’s a dense slum of crumbling stone buildings and unpaved roads. A stark contrast to the modern, built-up parts of central Sabha, which are populated by Arabs or ethnically mixed. The leader of the Khajera village told us that the Tubus had been discriminated against under the Gaddafi regime, marginalized from public life. Many Tubus we met are bracing themselves to fight hard for their rights in this new, post-Gaddafi era.
In the south of Libya, as in the rest of the country, heavily-armed militias roam the streets. The Tubus have 7 separate militia brigades, still not incorporated into the national security forces. They fought as rebels against Gaddafi during the revolution and seized stocks of weapons and important military bases, still under their control. They’ve mounted checkpoints, they say, to ensure the security of this part of the country, which they basically consider as their own.
At a base near the Niger border, militia members proudly explain that it’s they, not the interim central government in Tripoli, who control the country’s southern frontiers. The militia members show us a haul of cannabis resin seized from smugglers. The trafficking of drugs, weapons, goods and even people is rife across this zone. It’s a passageway linking Mediterranean north Africa with the lawless Sahel (home to al Qaeda’s local wing), and then Sub-Saharan Africa beyond that. The Tubus themselves are seasoned smugglers; in our drives across the desert we came across their pick-up trucks crammed almost to bursting with parcels, goats and immigrants.
The porous borders and natural resources (water, petrol) of southern Libya make it strategically vital. Many Tubus say they are prepared to work with Libyan authorities, to co-operate in forging a post-Gaddafi state. But they’re also demanding their rights, and an end to discrimination and violence, if they’re going to hand over some of their control of the south.