[Marxism] Libyan rebels behaving badly

Jeff Goodwin jgoodwin.nyu at gmail.com
Tue Jul 12 08:54:53 MDT 2011

More from the imperialist press:

“Whatever their motivation, the behavior of rebels in Qawalish, who
have been supported by the NATO military campaign against Colonel
Qaddafi, was at odds with the NATO mandate to protect civilians and
civilian infrastructure, and at odds with rebel pledges to free and
protect the Libyan population.”


Reporter’s Notebook: Reading the Rebels in Western Libya, Pt. I

By C.J. CHIVERS, The New York Times, July 10, 2011, 11:12 pm

Looting and Arson in Qawalish

The village of Qawalish sits on the rolling high ground of the
mountains of western Libya, a small collection of houses, shops and a
mosque astride a single two-lane asphalt road. By the time the
fighters opposed to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi had chased away
pro-Qaddafi forces last week, the battle for this tiny place, all but
unknown by outsiders until that day, had provided several scenes that
offered insights into how the rebel campaign is being conducted here.

Like those elsewhere in Libya, the fighters here share a sense of
common purpose: the belief that their uprising represents a
long-awaited chance to topple an ossified, brutal and corrupt regime.
But also like that of rebels in the east, their performance on the
battlefield is uneven, often unnerving, and at times at odds with the
interests of their cause.

All of this emerged in the kaleidoscopically mixed picture they
presented as they pressed forward last week. In Qawalish, rebel
bungling and crime played out beside pockets of militarily impressive
behavior. And then matters turned worse. Ultimately, the contradictory
scenes along a single stretch of road underscored a shortage of strong
commanders at the front, or at least of commanders who adhered to the
pledges of the National Transitional Council, the de facto rebel
authority, to respect human rights and the laws of war. And this
raised worrisome questions.

Minutes after Qawalish fell last Wednesday, none of the village’s
residents remained. They had bolted. There were signs, however, that
until the rebels had arrived, at least some villagers had been
present. The bazaar was still stocked with fresh vegetables, as if it
had been working while the pro-Qaddafi forces held the town. The
bakery had loaves of fresh bread. And little in the town appeared to
have been disturbed as the town changed hands. Then the storm hit.

The rebels began helping themselves to the fuel in Qawalish’s only gas
station. Then an armed rebel wheeled about the road on a children’s
bicycle he had apparently just taken from a home. A short while later
rebels were shooting padlocks off the metal doors to shops, and
beginning to sweep through them. At the time, rebels said they were
carefully searching and securing the town. But their behavior soon
raised questions, including: Was something besides military necessity
taking hold?

The next day the questions became more pressing. Houses that had not
been burning the previous day were afire, and shops were being
aggressively looted by armed men in rebel attire. Every few minutes, a
truck would pass by on the road, headed back toward Zintan loaded with
what seemed to be stolen goods. Animal feed appeared to be a favorite
item to carry off. Several trucks an hour carried away bales of hay
and sacks of grain. The rebels at the checkpoints at the town’s edge
did nothing to stop any of this. The town, in short, was being looted
by the rebels, and vandalized, and worse. The destruction was not
total — five of the town’s scores of houses were on fire. But what
would their owners think? And what kind of message was being sent to
the people of this town?

One eerie aspect of life now in western Libya is the number of
villages near the front where no civilians are present, even weeks
after falling to rebel hands. This is not exactly a novel sight for a
continuing, fluid war. In some cases, the emptiness would seem to be
related to infrastructure and scarce supply. Shortages of food and
water, a lack of electricity — these are conditions that discourage
the return of families who fled. In other cases, the risks of incoming
high-explosive rockets from the Qaddafi forces can keep much of a
population away.

But support for the rebels is not full-throated and uniform in several
mountain towns — the village of El Harabah still flies the green flag
of the Qaddafi government, for example. And there is a fair question
here, after watching the rebels damage Qawalish and steal its
residents’ possessions, about whether suspicions about villagers’
affiliations and tribes have given life to rebel crimes, which in turn
have caused civilians to flee. Researchers from Human Rights Watch
have been roaming the abandoned villages of the mountains, trying to
answer these very questions; their findings could be released as soon
as this week.

There are tantalizing clues that factional rivalries are in play — the
sort of social kindling that could make the ground war uglier as it
nears Tripoli, Libya’s capital, where more people who have enjoyed
government patronage have their businesses and homes. One of the
buildings being looted in Qawalish late last week bore a scratched-on
label in Arabic. “Mashaashia,” it read. This was a tag indicating the
presence of a tribe that has enjoyed the support of the Qaddafi
government, and that rebels say is in turn the source of many
pro-Qaddafi soldiers. Had the rebels helped themselves to shopkeepers’
goods because they believed they were wrongly aligned?

As one house burned inside near the road and rebels openly stole from
the town’s few stores, the question by late last week was whether what
was happening was the opportunistic looting of an inexperienced
quasi-military force, which was suffering the same shortages as
everyone else, or something punitive and potentially much worse.
Either behavior would be a crime under any notion of modern law,
though the first might not set into motion long-term grievances while
the second might be taken as an indicator that as this war smolders
on, the possibility of unleashing bitterness between tribes and
Qaddafi-era political factions grows each day.

By Sunday evening, the rebel license to loot had run almost its full
course, and any such distinctions were fast slipping away. All of the
shops in the town had been ransacked, several more homes were burned,
and the town’s gas station, in fine condition when Qawalish fell, had
been vandalized to the point of being dismantled. In building after
building, furniture was flipped over, dishes and mirrors shattered,
and everything torn apart. Except for a few rebels roaming the streets
in cars and trucks, the town was deserted — a shattered, emptied ghost
town decorated with broken glass.

Fully sorting out the motivations behind what happened in Qawalish
would take more time. Multiple victims and participants in the looting
and the arson would have to be found and interviewed separately to
gain a credible sense of whether Qawalish’s residents had been targets
because of their tribal or other affiliations, or, almost as
important, whether the residents believed they had. But for now, none
of the villagers could be found. And the rebels were hardly talking.

What was obvious and beyond dispute by Sunday was only this: Whatever
their motivation, the behavior of rebels in Qawalish, who have been
supported by the NATO military campaign against Colonel Qaddafi, was
at odds with the NATO mandate to protect civilians and civilian
infrastructure, and at odds with rebel pledges to free and protect the
Libyan population.

Moreover, the leadership of the Free Libyan Forces, for all the
statements otherwise, appeared to lack the ability or inclination to
prevent these crimes. When asked on Sunday about the looting and
arson, the former Qaddafi military colonel who commands fighters in
the mountains, Mukhtar Farnana, had little to say beyond being careful
to insist that any looting was not officially sanctioned. “I haven’t
any idea about that,” he said. “We did not give an order or
information to do it.”

The problem could be framed another way: that the rebel commanders did
not do enough to stop it. In a small town like Qawalish, what happened
was, from a military perspective, preventable. A standing post or a
few patrols each day to the shops, a checkpoint or two at the town’s
edge with fighters checking identification, instructing their
colleagues not to steal and stopping cars departing the town with
stolen goods — these might have been enough.

Instead, the capture of Qawalish has shown that as the war grinds
through its fifth month, the rebels, emboldened by NATO support and
fired with the certitude that now is their time, risk suspending the
distinction between right and wrong. The argument now surrounding
Qawalish is that battlefield behavior is relative. Our conduct is
better than that of the Qaddafi soldiers, the rebels say, as if that
standard suffices. On this line of thinking, other rebels were
expressive. They said that what the Qaddafi forces have done in Libya
and to its people is much worse than anything that has happened in the

No one could reasonably dispute that when the Qaddafi forces were at
their strongest — when they crushed the demonstrations in Tripoli,
besieged Misurata, stormed Ajdabiya, shelled Benghazi — that all of
these resulted in more damage to civilian property and loss of
civilian life than what happened when the rebels captured tiny
Qawalish. But as the rebels talk of pushing toward Tripoli, if they
think that the smaller scale of their crimes excuses or justifies
them, then they risk embarrassing their backers, losing international
support and fueling exactly the kind of war they have insisted they
and NATO would prevent.

The rebels say they plan to push further through the mountains soon,
toward the city of Garyan. Will the villages along the way suffer
Qawalish’s fate?

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