October 28, 2012KR OnlineNonfiction

Libya’s Day of Liberation: One Year On

Tripoli, Oct. 24, 2012: A dispatch from the poet and translator Khaled Mattawa one year after the liberation of Libya.

Yesterday was the anniversary of the collapse of the Qaddafi regime. He was caught and killed on October 20th of last year. Three days later his native city, Sirte, and other areas that were still contested basically surrendered. Hence, this day has become our Day of Liberation.

Many here celebrated Qaddafi’s death, but I was not alone in feeling only a sense of relief, aided by a sense that history’s events often surpass our feelings. It was hard for me to feel anything regarding the basic rule of thumb that those who rule violently often die that way. I was stunned by the scenes of his capture and the display of Qaddafi’s dead body. I could not simply understand the glee some felt at having ‘gotten’ him.

Much has happened since then in Libya and much of it is good. But it’s too much to chronicle here. The events of the last few days in Bani Walid have been highly reminiscent of what took place this time last year. The city of Bani Walid was never ‘liberated’ then, and in the ensuing months it became a refuge for many of Qaddafi’s former aids and supporters. Qaddafi’s son, Saif, hid there for a few weeks, and was captured when he tried to escape to Niger.

Since that time, a pro-Qaddafi group had basically held the town hostage. Some of its armed groups extended their reach and began a revenge campaign against the men who captured, and may have killed, the former dictator, snatching them one by one and torturing them to death. The pro-Qaddafi groups had tanks, RPG’s, and loads of light weaponry. They’d hoped to spur a nation-wide armed campaign to take over the country.

However, the situation was not simply the pro-Qaddafi groups in Bani Walid vs. the rest of Libya. The conflict increasingly took on a regional bent as a resumption of tensions between Bani Walid and the city of Misrata that go back a hundred years.

It is quite possible that a core group from Bani Walid’s Werfala tribe refused to join the revolution back in the spring of 2011 simply because Misrata came out the victor. It’s also possible that the many of the young men of Bani Walid who fought on Qaddafi’s side did so to help him conquer Misrata which his forces besieged for three months and upon which they’d undertook a campaign of terror that included numerous incidents of mass murder and mass rape. The pro-Qaddafi forces in Bani Walid have attempted to make the tension simply between them and Misrata in order to draw the country into a tribal civil war. To their credit, Misrata’s leadership have managed for moths to contain the hot heads and profiteers among them who wanted throw their city headlong into the conflict.

A month ago several incidents riled the nation and spurred ‘the government’ to lead an assault on Bani Walid to finally liberate it. That’s what it looks on the surface, and that’s what all reasonable persons here had hoped for.

But it is also evident that the national army is mainly made up of forces from Misrata, who are the more organized among the army’s many independent military units.

The latest reports state that Bani Walid is almost liberated. I certainly hope that the last remaining armed supporters of Qaddafi are caught–the list includes 1000 names. And I certainly hope that the civilians from Bani Walid who fled their town can return there safely and soon.

I also hope that the victors would consider this a national victory, which it is, and not an opportunity to snatch more than their fair share of the nation’s resources or its political institutions. The Libyan people voted for a democratic, moderate, modern state run by institutions that favor the citizen over that which is incidental: religion, tribe, gender, race, and regional background.

What makes these developments bitter sweet, yet again, is that it is indeed unreasonable to celebrate situations that may bring about more violence in the future. This goes along with my conviction that it is indeed inhumane to celebrate any war victory.

The great poet philosopher Laozi wrote:

The killing of many people should create sorrow and grief.
A great victory is a funeral ceremony.

Laozi also wrote:

Weapons always turn back against themselves.
Encamp an army today;
the campground is all thorns and brambles tomorrow.
Make war for a month; there will be famine for years.
Do what needs to be done, but do not rejoice in victory.
Make war, if necessary, and win,
but without arrogance, without hostility, without pride,
without needless violence.
War, victory, and the rest do not last.

What will last I hope are the memories of real accomplishments, the moments when the nation in duress acted in peace to further the wellbeing of its citizens. We’ve had a few of those here in Libya this past year. I hope we will begin to celebrate them instead.

Khaled Mattawa currently teaches in the graduate creative writing program at the University of Michigan. He is the author of four books of poetry and a critical study of the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Mattawa has coedited two anthologies of Arab American literature and translated many volumes of contemporary Arabic poetry. His awards include the Academy of American Poets Fellowship Prize, the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation, and a MacArthur Fellowship. He is the current editor of Michigan Quarterly Review.