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Heavily Armed and With No Economy, This Town Is Libya in a Nutshell

The Saharan town of Ubari is now at peace — but full of kids with weapons and no prospects for a life after the fighting. And Libya's three rival governments can do very little about it.

by Rebecca Murray
Jun 3 2016, 3:20pm

A checkpoint in Ubari, Libya, in May 2015 (Photo by Rebecca Murray/VICE News)

Amid the ongoing battles across Libya, at least one town has found peace: the warring tribes in the Saharan oasis of Ubari successfully brokered a ceasefire in February, and welcomed in fighters from a neutral third tribe to come in and enforce it.

But today, like many battered and cash-strapped communities across Libya, Ubari is in ruins and with little prospects for a new life, an apt metaphor for the devastated country that has been at war since the 2011 revolution toppled dictator Muammar Qaddafi.

Today Libya has three governments, a legacy of the destruction of whatever little structure the regime's famously loose institutions left behind.

Fayez Seraj, the internationally recognized prime minister, leads the Government of National Accord or GNA in Tripoli. He arrived in the country in March after securing the support of the United Nations, and rarely leaves the naval base in Tripoli where the GNA is holed up under heavy guard. The rival National Salvation government is also based in Tripoli, with a different prime minister; a third, the "parliament in exile" resulting from elections in 2014, has fled to Tobruk in the country's east after its militias came out the losers in fighting around the Tripoli airport.

Related: Libyan Bikers, and Everybody Else, Fight for Normalcy in a Devastated Country

In Ubari, far from whatever authority any of them can muster, reconciliation and reconstruction are still distant mirages. The town's indigenous tribes, the Tuareg and Tebu, are exhausted from a brutal battle that has lasted a year and a half, and their leaders have successfully held the ceasefire until now.

But concerns mount that with little dialogue between Ubari's mistrusting residents, and promised aid from the Libyan government and international players slow to come as the West focuses on fighting the Libyan offshoot of the Islamic State, the area's armed youth will grow restless.

To try and keep them at bay, equally young and equally armed young men from the Husawna tribe — who have travelled south almost 200 kilometers (125 miles) through the desert to serve as peacekeepers — warily man the makeshift checkpoints that lead into Ubari's still-destroyed downtown, checking the few vehicles that pass by.

Ubari, in the Sahara, is at least 15 hours by dusty desert road from Tripoli.

For a year and a half Tuareg and Tebu snipers occupied this deadly frontline in a fight that destroyed homes, schools, clinics and government buildings, killed and wounded hundreds, and forced hundreds more to flee.

The conflict was a flare-up that broke a century-old peace between the tribes, erupting in the chaos of post-Qaddafi Libya and the fight for assets and power. Raids on the regime's arsenals during the revolution ended up giving tribes enormous amounts of weaponry.

Ubari today is in stark contrast to life before 2011, when it was a vibrant Saharan hub for oil workers and tourists, the latter attracted by the sand dunes and palm-fringed lakes outside of town. Ubari lies strategically alongside the Sharara oil field, Libya's second largest — it's now shut down, like a lot of the country's oil facilities — and is close to the lucrative cross-border smuggling routes into Chad, Niger, Algeria, and beyond.

"The problem with this conflict was it was fed by outside powers — there are economic interests in the area," said Mohammed al-Aljeli al-Hasnawi, the elderly leader of the peacekeepers, at an old army barracks at the foot of the town's looming Tendi mountain.

The conflict, triggered by a squabble between youth over the illicit trade in gasoline in the fall of 2014, quickly spiraled out of control. Hasnawi, like the Tuareg and Tebu themselves, is convinced the conflict has been fueled by the political and economic agendas of Libya's competing governments in the west and east; their international backers (France, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Turkey); and the interests of neighboring states.

"We didn't come here and force a peace. The tribes wanted it and we accepted to manage it," Hasnawi said, motioning to his ragtag force. "We will remain here as long as Ubari needs and wants us."

But patience is running thin. There is virtually no outside aid from Libya's competing national politicians, themselves in crisis mode, international powers, or presence of international organizations. The rubble remains mostly untouched.

According to Abu Baker Mohamed Qanso, a Tebu member of the local government who leads the task force evaluating the town's damage, residents who fled the fighting — Ubari is a mixture of Tuareg, Tebu, and Alhali tribes — are returning, but very slowly.

"Maybe their homes are destroyed, or it depends on services: health, education, and the banks, while many have kids in other schools," Qanso said. The painstaking work of measuring the damage, done by volunteers, will be sent as a report to Libya's competing governments, the United Nations and international donors, he explained.

The community holds out hope that Qatar, which hosted peace negotiations between the Tuareg and Tebu last year, will send Ubari the money needed to rebuild. But for now, nothing has materialized and skepticism is sinking in.

Because of this, Ubari's military and tribal leaders are under increasing pressure to keep the town's young restless fighters — some as young as 16, and with few prospects or jobs to go to — in check.

"Every tribe has their own leader or sheikh who controls their own," explained one Tuareg elder, Ismael Mohamed, who, like many, worries about the possibility that local youth will be recruited by extremist groups. "But this situation is not sustainable with the deterioration of jobs and destroyed homes. There is the threat of outside interference, [that would] pay money and corrupt people within a security vacuum."

In an impoverished Tuareg neighborhood, teachers at a school which served as a makeshift field hospital during fighting last year now complain about chaotic and overcrowded classes.

"Some students stopped studying, and some have psychological problems at home — maybe they have family who were killed," said Mohamed Luti, a math teacher who has up to 80 teenagers in his class. "There are boys who were fighters who have problems. They don't know how to answer questions, or they walk out when class is in session. They don't care."

Luti himself hasn't been paid for over a year because he's missing his national ID number — something similar to the social security system in the US — which bars him from most paying work and from obtaining a passport, even though he was born in Libya.

The lack of identification is a widespread problem for the traditionally semi-nomadic Tuareg and Tebu, and especially painful for the young. Ahmed, a 30 year-old university graduate who said he wanted to be a journalist, is one. His father came from neighboring Algeria in the 1970s; others came to Libya from other Saharan nations with sizable Tuareg populations, like Niger and Mali.

Ahmed, who would only give his first name, now spends his days behind the grungy counter of a tobacco store. He hung up his gun after fighting last year against the Tebu, alongside a motley group of soldiers and civilians from his neighborhood.

"There are weapons everywhere now," Ahmed said, gesturing around. "Before the revolution there weren't. Now the problem is the unemployed have weapons. We need jobs to have people put them down."

A checkpoint manned by Husawna fighters in Ubari (Photo by Rebecca Murray/VICE News)

Under Qaddafi's regime, the Tuareg and Tebu, who aren't Arab, suffered discrimination. Their knowledge of the desert made them alternatively an asset or a threat to the government, which engaged in fighting in the Sahara with its neighbor to the South, mineral-rich Chad, during the 1980s.

Mostly with no formal education, the Tuareg had few work options but to join Qaddafi's security forces, which got them largely ostracized after the 2011 revolution. The Tebu were marginalized even under Qaddafi, who made them pay for their strong ties with Chad — which had beaten Libya, also thanks to help from France.

But while the Tebu chose to side with the rebels against Qaddafi in 2011, the two indigenous tribes never turned their weapons against each other. Until Ubari, which most view as a proxy war for oil and territory.

Divided among the factions that emerged from the regime's demise, Libya is rife with super-heated political rhetoric, and Ubari is no exception.

The Tebu accuse the Tuareg of being "terrorists," especially after the spectacular 2013 attack at the In Amenas gas field in Algeria, reportedly planned in the southwestern Tuareg town of Anaiwat by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the leader of a local terrorist militia then affiliated with al Qaeda. Dozens of foreign hostages were killed along with terrorists when Algerian special forces stormed in. And the Tuareg, with historic grievances against France, the former colonial power in much of the region, accuse the Tebu of working with the French to seize Tuareg territory.

The shift in power dynamics directly after the revolution, when the Tebu gained control over much border trade thanks to their alliance with the rebels, while the Tuareg fought on the losing side, played a major part in igniting the conflict.

Tripoli is far away, 1,000 kilometers by desert road (600 miles), and the government there has no clout this far south. Neither do the other two competing governments, both based on the coast, where most Libyans live. In the distant Sahara, keeping arms silent is a job only the locals can do.

"Now we have peace with the Tebu. It's tense, but hopefully it will turn out okay," said Mohammed, a local Tuareg teacher who fought in the conflict, and lost close friends over the year. "We will change our destiny — we will work to make the change. Not the people in Tripoli, or elsewhere. We will depend on ourselves."

Follow Rebecca Murray on Twitter: @Beccamurr

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