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Libya's Berbers

July 29, 2011

After four decades of brutal assimilation under Moammar Gadhafi's regime, today the Berbers in the Nafusa Mountains struggle to rediscover their identity amid the war debris.

berber, pre-gadhafi flags
The Berber and pre-Gadhafi flagsImage: DW

The Berbers, North Africa's indigenous people, were harshly suppressed under Gadhafi. The leader viewed the teaching of their language and culture as a separatist threat in his Arab country. Under the regime, it was forbidden to write or even speak Berber in public. Amazigh-language material could not be printed or even read.

But since the rebels now control the Nafusa Mountains southwest of Tripoli, Berber villagers are reviving their cultural identity.

"We want to tell our people what is happening in Libya, and in their own language," Mohammed Khalifa, chief editor of The Echo of the Mountains, told Deutsche Welle. Printed in Nalut village, this Berber weekly vows to fill a long term vacuum.

"We speak about Libya's present and future, but also about our past, that of the Amazigh," Khalifa said, proudly showing one of the 500 copies about to be distributed throughout the region. A column displaying the ancient Amazigh alphabet shares a page with other headlines.

newspaper prints
Berber print media in the Amazigh language is booming in the Nafusa MountainsImage: DW

The Echo of the Mountains is just one among several newspapers that have popped up in Nafusa thanks to a number of volunteers "armed" with photocopiers. Since the revolt against Gadhafi erupted on February 17, this mountain range has been witnessing an unprecedented flowering of the Berber culture.

Sounds of change

The control over the border with Tunisia - 60 kilometers (37 miles) west of Nalut - played a key role in changing people's lives in this region. Today, the battle is fought on different fronts: from the trenches to the printers, but also in the air.

"If we had a good transmitter, we could reach the cities down the valley," Mohamed Adil, sound technician at Free Nalut Radio (FNR), told Deutsche Welle. "Ours only covers a 70-kilometer radius."

Unlike most of his fellow journalists, Adil is no newcomer in the broadcasting world. He has been working in this building since 2002. Trends, though, seem to have changed dramatically in the last few months. He said of the four rooms in the radio building, only one was used for broadcasting.

"The other three were occupied by the political police," Adil said. "A colleague of mine was brutally beaten in this very room immediately after he broadcast a Berber song while we were on air. God willing, nothing like that will ever happen here again."

News from abroad

Ali's voice is likely to be one of the most familiar ones in Nafusa. But it's not surprising that the FNR presenter prefers to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals against his family in Tripoli.

"I was studying abroad to be a medical dentist when the revolution started so I came back home as fast as I could to help my people," the 21-year-old told Deutsche Welle. "Someone told me I had a good voice for radio, and here I am." He said he hopes to combine both his journalistic and dentist careers "when everything is over."

By then, a Berber television channel shall come as no surprise. For the time being, locals can watch the news in their own language for a half hour every afternoon, via satellite from Qatar - one of the Libyan rebels' main allies.

Keeping tradition alive

The Berbers in Libya form the largest minority, making up for an estimated five to 10 percent of the total Libyan population of 6.4 million people. It is often said they have lived with Arabs for centuries in the Nafusa Mountains. If true, everything suggests that they've been turning their backs to each other. Among the number of villages dotting Libya's western mountain range, Rehibat seems to be the only "mixed" location.

According to many in Nafusa, living apart - often on a self-imposed exclusion basis - has historically played a key role in keeping their ancient tongue Tamazight alive. It constitutes the main sign of identity of this mountain people.

children in class
Volunteers are teaching the native Berber language Tamazight to children in YefrenImage: DW

In Yefren though, Tamazight is hardly heard in the empty streets of this Berber village. Its shelled hospital and the numerous craters on almost every building are dumb if eloquent witnesses of the punishment subjected to this village since the war began. Gadhafi's Grad rockets are still the sword of Damocles over this Berber community and time will be needed for the children to run safely and without fear across the streets.

Around 40 of them spend their days in a makeshift school. There, a group of volunteers instructs them in their mother tongue, through games and songs. Such an initiative would have inevitably led to the arrest, torture, and even execution under charges of "sedition and separatism" during Gadhafi's 41 years of rule. But things are slowly changing, even in war-torn Yefren.

Today, the kids sing making the victory sign, boasting both Berber and pre-Gadhafi Libyan flags painted on their cheeks. Right under the threshold of the class lays an ancient portrait of Colonel Gadhafi, who has not yet lost his smile to the little steps of the kids who attend classes here - three days a week since the school opened a month ago.

More help needed

Mazigh Buzakhar is a young Berber in his early twenties. He was jailed in February after some "suspicious material" - a set of books on Berber culture - was confiscated from his home. But providence was on the side of the young man and the revolution a few days later released him from a life sentence.

"The recognition of Berber as a co-official language in Libya's future constitution is one of our main goals," Buzakhar told Deutsche Welle. "It has not just been decades, but centuries of repression. It is time to fight for our national rights."

A sign in three languages
The Berbers hope their language will become official in post-Gadhafi LibyaImage: DW

In Yafran, all documents are now written in Arabic and Berber, and the hope is that Amazigh will be recognized as an official language in post-Gadhafi Libya.

But Sarah Harem, head of Yefren's main Berber cultural association, said for now, there are more urgent needs to help the children in the region.

"We have plenty of volunteer teachers but we lack psychologists. We are struggling to look after the kids in a friendly environment but most of them need urgent psychological help," Harem said. "After five months of war, the majority here has lost somebody in the family, often their parents."

Author: Karlos Zurutuza, Nafusa Mountains, Libya
Editor: Sabina Casagrande

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