10.22.12

Libyan Refugees Flee Siege of Bani Walid

Bani Walid, one of the last holdouts loyal to Gaddafi during the Libyan rebellion last year, is under attack from the rebels’ new government—and civilian casualties are mounting. Jamie Dettmer reports from outside the besieged town.

The middle-aged woman sits in a battered minivan, partially covered by a hijab, and beseeches Allah. She unleashes a string of curses on the people of Misrata and on the government in Tripoli for endorsing the assault on the hilltop town of Bani Walid, which has sent thousands fleeing over the past few days—and which has left dozens dead, according to the refugees.

“Hasbi Allah wa’ niem al’Wakeel,” she screams, asking God to punish her enemies.

Around 400 to 500 refugees have fled to this isolated junction town, about 30 miles from Bani Walid across a rock-strewn hilly desert. A toddler holds up his cat to be photographed. The elderly are helped into the shade of the few stunted trees nearby. Men rest on the ground in front of their cars, or sit by a mosque not far away. Many faces register shock. Some young men vent their fury at America and Britain for assisting the rebels in the first place and helping them to overthrow Col. Muammar Gaddafi. “This is the new Libya,” they cry.

For three days now, Bani Walid—one of Gaddafi’s holdouts during the rebellion last year—has come under intense assault, and defenders inside the town say by phone that they fear government-backed attackers are preparing to storm them on Tuesday in a bid to vanquish them on the first anniversary of the rebels’ triumph over Gaddafi.

The United Nations has expressed concern about the assault on Bani Walid, 105 miles from Tripoli. Yesterday, United Nations aid workers held talks with senior Libyan officials, but were denied permission to send humanitarian relief to the town, which has been without water and electricity since Oct. 1, when the siege began. A U.N. source says that Libyan government officials would not grant permission to enter the town because they said they couldn’t guarantee safe passage. Several Libyan NGOs plan to see if they can deliver medical supplies and food on Tuesday.

On Sunday, the U.N. envoy to Libya, Tarek Mitri, urged all parties in the conflict to abide by international humanitarian principles, noting “their obligations to ensure the protection of civilians and take all necessary measures to avoid the targeting of civilian areas, allow for the evacuation of all wounded, and to provide unimpeded humanitarian access, including provision of food and medical care.”

“The fight is just gaining in ferocity. This is worse than it was during the civil war.”

The country’s new rulers claim that Bani Walid is a nest of Gaddafi loyalists who are resisting the new Libya. On Oct. 20, Mohamed Magarief, the president of Libya’s newly installed parliament, warned that Libya has not yet been completely liberated from Gaddafi’s rule. He singled out Bani Walid, which has been locked in a standoff with Misrata for months, saying, “Bani Walid’s misfortune is that it has become a sanctuary for a large number of outlaws and anti-revolutionaries and mercenaries.”

But the town folk and fighters of Bani Walid say that the siege is collective punishment for having sided with Gaddafi during the uprising. They insist they want reconciliation, but that their revolutionary neighbors in nearby Misrata do not want to compromise, and have hounded them for months. “We have begged for reconciliation, for a deal, but they don’t want one,” says 29-year-old Arafat, a fighter from Bani Walid, who says he’s ready to die for his town. “They just want to break us.”

Since the rebellion, Misrata and Bani Walid have accused each other of kidnappings, and this latest clash between them was triggered by the death of Omran Shaaban, a rebel fighter from Misrata who died after two months in detention in Bani Walid. Shaaban was the man credited with finding Gaddafi hiding in a drainpipe in Sirte on Oct. 20, 2011. Libya’s congress ordered the Defense and Interior ministries to find those responsible for abducting Shaaban and suspected of torturing him and it gave Bani Walid a deadline to hand them over.

Libya’s State news agency, LANA, says 22 people have been killed and 200 wounded in the fighting but it bases its numbers primarily on information provided by authorities in Misrata and is likely to underestimate the dead and wounded in Bani Walid. With journalists and rights organizations also being prevented from entering the town, it is impossible to gauge casualties from the siege.

For three days, Bani Walid has come under withering Grad rocket barrages. Yesterday, with attackers closer, tank shelling was added to the assault. Resistance is fierce and fighters in the town claimed last night to have captured dozens of pickup trucks mounted with heavy weaponry. 

Refugees interviewed by The Daily Beast say dozens are dead. A woman refugee says she saw 10 dead children yesterday alone. A fighter said he had seen 29 dead over the weekend. Others say hundreds of homes have been destroyed in the shelling and rocket attacks.

“The shelling is indiscriminate,” says 60-year-old Musbakr al-Shibani. “We were being shelled from all around. My home was destroyed and so that is why I and my family fled.” A teacher of Arabic at a high school in Bani Walid, he says he saw a small child decapitated by shrapnel. “The fight is just gaining in ferocity. This is worse than it was during the civil war.”