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Joint effort

June 28, 2011

After centuries of voluntary segregation in the Libyan mountains, Arabs and Berbers are forced today to live together in refugee camps in the Tunisian desert. The fight against Gadhafi could bring them closer together.

refugee camp
Almost 3,000 Libyan refugees are being assisted in refugee camsp in Tunisia's south eastImage: Blazej Mikula

Libyans have basically two ways to cross the southeastern Tunisian desert these days; either crammed into rusty and overloaded cars, or wounded in ambulances racing toward Tataouine, the remote capital city of the eponymous province.

But several of them will remain in the Dehiba refugee camp, the first stop in Tunisia, just a stone's throw from the volatile border between the two countries - disputed daily between troops loyal to Tripoli and rebels since the conflict between the two sides began in February.

Raised and managed by the United Arab Emirates, the camp in Dehiba hosts Libyan refugees who have arrived from the Nafusa mountain range in the last four months.

"Last month we got a peak of 1,820 individuals with us, but today we have 811. There are people who leave the field but we do not know whether they go back home or travel to other cities in Tunisia. We never ask," Khalfan Sayeed al Qurerini, the camp's head manager, told Deutsche Welle

News from the Western Front in Nafusa is always confusing and the Emirati official avoided jumping to conclusions about a hypothetical improvement of the situation in the mountains. Small wonder here, as a town allegedly "liberated" yesterday could well be back under Tripoli's control, and so on. And yet another problem adds to the dire situation in the frontline, but this one inside this "limbo" of tents and dust.

"Most of the families here are Berbers from Nalut but we also have three others of Arab origin, from Zintan. Yesterday there was a fight between two of them. The situation turned so violent that we had to ask the police to enter the camp and intervene because we couldn´t cope with the situation ourselves," Khalil Harraz, a local Tunisian working in the camp since last March, told Deutsche Welle.

Ancient hatred

Arab man
Despite their enmity, Berbers and Arabs from the mountains are fighting together against Gadhafi's troopsImage: Blazej Mikula

Harraz pointed to the ancient enmity between Arabs and Berbers of Libya. The latter hardly amount to 4 percent of the war-torn country's population. Berbers barely differ physically from their Arab neighbors, but they have their own language which the call "Amazigh" and follow a branch of Islam which diverges from the hegemonic Sunni orthodoxy in Libya. Accordingly, their mosques in the mountains might be the only ones in the whole Muslim world that are not oriented toward Mecca.

"All our mountain villages are built from a defensive angle, in Nafusa's most rugged and inaccessible spots. Nalut, Jadu, Qalaa, Kabaw Yefren are Berber villages, while Arabs live in Zintan, Rayaina and Rushba," Waheed, a native of Nalut, told Deutsche Welle.

"We have lived apart for centuries because that was the only way to survive, and not to vanish among the ever-growing Arab population. In Tunisia there is hardly anyone who speaks the Amazigh and in Libya it has only been preserved in the mountains of Nafusa," added this Berber from the TV tent. Unsurprisingly, nobody here wants to miss the latest information coming from the front through the Al Jazeera news network.

The map of "mono-ethnic" mountain villages drawn by Waheed is graphically displayed on the desert ground at the Remada refugee camp, just 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the border.

"Arabs and Berbers occupy different areas of the field but we have to monitor the common areas very thoroughly in order to avoid them insulting or attacking each other," Hatim Said, a Sudanese who heads this UN run refugee camp, told Deutsche Welle.

"Since we set up the field last April we have noticed that many Nalutians look down on Arabs from Zintan. We have several Berbers with university studies - teachers, doctors, nurses, etc - but we still haven't come across any Arab with similar training," said Patricia Eckhoff, who's in charge of the camp's security.

kids on swings
The swings at the camps are the most popular place to gatherImage: Blazej Mikula

The UN official added that "despite the sewing, English and Islam workshops, the swings for the children seem to be the most successful common area at Remada's camp."

The refugee camp in Tataouine was set up inside the capital's old stadium with the help of the government of Qatar. At first glance, its straight distribution matches the usual patterns. However, the humanitarian staff in Tataouine may have crossed a "red line" by allowing the coexistence of both communities as Arabs and Berbers wait for the war to end inside adjoining tents.

However Muftah, an English teacher until last February in Zintan, says there's more to it than just a joint camp.

"Here our tents are together but that is not such a big thing for us. The most important thing is that after centuries turning our backs to each other, we are finally doing something together. We're all struggling against the tyrant," he said.

Author: Karlos Zurutuza, Tataouine, Tunisia
Editor: Rob Mudge