Families reunite in Libyan town after surviving rocket attacks | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 03.08.2011
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Families reunite in Libyan town after surviving rocket attacks

In the western center of the Libyan rebellion, families were driven from their homes by rocket attacks and imprisonment. They took shelter in caves but are now reuniting, and emigre family members repatriating.


A Grad rocket landed by this house in Zintan

In Libya's western Nafusa Mountains, the city of Az Zintan is ground zero for the rebellion against Moammar Gadhafi's regime.

For three months, Gadhafi forces used Grad rockets to crush the opposition in the town only about 100 miles (161 kilometers) south of Tripoli. That was up until a few weeks ago, when rebels won several key positions down in the valley and pushed loyalists away.

Zintan was abandoned during the shelling, with many families taking shelter in nearby caves which were once dwellings. Now, they are returning to the town.

One now sees scenes in like a crowd of children and teenagers enjoying an impromptu street fair. On the edge of the fair, Deutsche Welle spoke with a man in his early thirties who had brought his nephew to the street party.

Mohamed - who asked that his real name not be used - had been working on his PhD in the United Kingdom for four years. He dropped out in spring, only two months away from graduation.

"I couldn't just watch from there what was happening in my hometown, so I contacted my supervisor and said, 'That's it. This is my last decision - to suspend my study until Gadhafi goes.'"

Soldiers in Zintan

Zintan became the western center of the Libyan rebellion

Mohamed gathered his family and flew to Tunisia, where he left his wife and three young children with his in-laws. Then he drove straight to Zintan, the mountain town that joined the rebel stronghold of Benghazi in rising up against Gadhafi's rule in February.

"The scene of the first checkpoint in Zintan was unbelievable feeling. To see all Zintanis as one," he said. "When I saw that this from that tribe, and from different tribes together fighting one dictator, I was so proud of it."

But Mohammed's elation quickly dampened after he'd passed the checkpoint.

Grad rockets

When he arrived at his extended family's property in Zintan, Mohammed found a row of empty houses - and a Grad rocket in the middle of the front yard.

The building was abandoned, and a room had been damaged along with a water tank. Some of Mohamed's relatives had fled to caves to escape the shelling, while others had gone to Tunisia.

But now, as rebels have extended their grip on the region and missiles have stopped raining down on Zintan, people started returning to their homes, just like some of Mohamed's brother and sisters, and their families.

Displaced family, arrests

Close-up exterior view of the caves

The caves people took shelter in for up to three months were once dwellings

Mohamed's father, Abdullah, has been living in Tripoli for decades. The retired army officer said he wanted to leave the capital every day since the uprising started in February but added that the trip was risky.

Numerous checkpoints dot the road from the Libyan capital and part of Mohamed's family has been traveling with fake IDs. There would be no way for pro-Gadhafi soldiers staffing checkpoints to know where they came from. A general suspicion against anyone from the Nafusa region is also enough to land a person in jail.

Mohamed's cousin Ali learned that the hard way. The 24-year-old economics student, was arrested on March 4 on his way to a gas station near Qalaa, a town in the Nafusa Mountains that was still controlled by Gadhafi troops.

When asked what reason the Gadhafi soldiers gave for arresting him, Ali just said: "Zintan."

It was enough, he said, that he was born in the city that helped spark the rebellion, along with the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, to put Ali in prison. He was locked up in a jail in Tripoli for three months and said interrogators were only receptive to confessions.

"They accused me of being al Qaeda ... they asked me over and over if I or any of my relatives were with al Qaeda," he told Deutsche Welle. "They slapped me or used electroshocks if I didn't answer. The oddest thing they asked me was Bin Laden's phone number."

Ali said one of the guards set fire to his plastic handcuffs while he was wearing them. More than a month after his release, a bracelet-shaped scar still blackens both his wrists. Then he was randomly released on May 28 along with some 100 other detainees. Because new prisoners were brought in every day, he said he thought they just needed to clear some space.

'Enforced disappearances'

The caves seen from a distance

It took three days of digging and cleaning to make one cave habitable

Amnesty International said Ali's case is hardly an exception. The human rights group documented what they call a "campaign of enforced disappearances" conducted by forces loyal to Gadhafi.

According to Amnesty, scores of men from the Nafusa region have been arrested and thrown in jail because pro-Gadhafi authorities suspected them of supporting the opposition or organizing supplies for the rebels in the besieged mountains.

Home to stay

Ali isn't the only person from Zintan with a horror story. Mohamed's aunt is still haunted by the memories of constant shelling.

"Rockets were falling when we were eating, falling while we were sleeping," she told Deutsche Welle. "We found shelter in caves."

Mohamed's older sister, Aida, spent three months in one of the caves with two of her children. Up to 16 people would crowd into a small room carved into the mountain. Aida said it took three days of digging and cleaning to make the caves into a suitable shelter. They put out rugs and even managed to get electricity until a blackout in May.

"We used firewood to cook and candles," she told Deutsche Welle. "It's like we had gone a hundred years back."

Mohamed said such stories will probably liven up family's dinners for years to come. Despite the hardships they had to go through, his family members said they're grateful that most of them survived the past few months relatively unharmed.

Mohamed said he wants other families to have a chance to share their war experiences. He's started working at Zintan's new museum, which has begun to collect people's memories of Libya's uprising

Author: Marine Olivesi in Zintan, Libya (gps)

Editor: Sean Sinico

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