Libya’s Front Lines: Bernard-Henri Livy on War’s Cost (Photos)

Bernard-Henri Levy, shows the everyday horrors of Libya’s civil war—and the desperate need for NATO’s help.

Marc Roussel

Marc Roussel

At 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the frontier lies the barracks of Jweibya, halfway between the Arab city of Zintan and the Berber city of Nalut. At the very beginning of the war, Gaddafi’s first defeated battalion left 200 tanks like these behind as they fled. Except that there is one thing about these tanks that left the insurgents perplexed when they took possession of them—all of them are lacking the same firing pin necessary to function. What happened? Was it sabotage on the part of an army adept—as everywhere in the Jebel—at scorched-earth tactics, and who found the time to remove the 200 firing pins before they retreated (we were shown 20, fished out of a pond at the outskirts of the camp)? Or were the tanks always like that—Gaddafi, not trusting his own troops, accumulating a store of sophisticated arms like so many wonderful but broken toys (or like so many decoys and phantom weapons, absurdly tampered with and, at once, never really operable)? I don’t know.

Marc Roussel

It’s the route to Gharyan, the last block before Tripoli. It’s the normal road, the one that runs over the ridge without detour, leaving on the left and the right all the cities of the region, as though to show that the arteries in the country are made less to facilitate circulation than to enclose, control, occupy the interior space (roads meant for tanks, not for people—and that’s some piece of news!).  And then here, at al-Rehebat, a big yellow arrow followed by a double zero in white, indicating that the 2,600 meters (8,530 feet) of blacktop—up to the other line in red, behind the fighter with the cartridge belt who is shouting “Vive la France!”— have become a landing field. It was about 6 p.m. when the plane set down (coming from Benghazi, having made a stopover in Malta, we were told, but I do not know if it’s true). It took off again at 7:00 p.m. (on board the 20 or so inhabitants of Jabrah we see in the photo, taking advantage of the opportunity to visit their families in Cyrenaica). Meanwhile, about 30 khaki, canvas-covered cases were unloaded and crammed into pick-up trucks by lightly armed men who immediately drove them down the road to Zintan, the zone's capital. There have been seven flights like this one in the past three weeks. We are the first to witness this scene and to film it. Perhaps France's deliveries of military materiel—so loudly and wrongly criticized—are there.

Marc Roussel

You find everything in the alleyways of Zintan, where we were taken by Colonel Mokhtar Khalifa, second-in-command and charged with defending the city. He  moved around all day with the Koran in one hand and a Colt in the other. There are empty ammunition cases piled up in a stairwell. A tin cylinder, 50 centimeters high, 20 centimeters in diameter, labeled, “1 igniter for napalm bomb,” found in Gaddafi’s fort at Bir Ghanam (indicating, as well—and this too would be a real piece of news—that Gaddafi is using or preparing to use the dirtiest of dirty weapons). And pick-up trucks like this one, with Russian-made rockets, probably taken from Gaddafi as well, forgotten in the back. Jebel Nafusa is not really lacking weapons. Some of the best fighters of free Libya are there, along with arms either taken from the enemy or delivered by the coalition. What is missing, then, for these men to descend into the valley and march on Tripoli? The green light from NATO, Osama Jewel, Colonel Khalifa’s superior, told us. And then reinforcements from Misrata, where the troops will join them from the east to take the capital in a pincer movement. That’s my analysis also, after weeks and weeks, and the strategic recommendation I came to deliver to President Nicolas Sarkozy as soon as I returned, accompanied by a delegation from Misrata who left the country by sea and then traveled from Malta.

Marc Roussel

Zintan again.  A school transformed into a military prison.  We have taken the elementary precaution of having their jailers leave before questioning those among these 18 men who were willing. No tales with claims of bad treatment. No visible traces of blows. Plastic dinner trays that arrive during our visit—rice, breaded fish, peppers. And there was at least one eyewitness account of a unit of tanks advancing on a rebel trench with, at their rear, as many soldiers equipped with firearms as there were tank crew (the former threatening the latter with execution at the least sign of retreat or of fraternization with the enemy). In the next room is the same number of prisoners, but they are from Niger, Chad, and Sudan. An indication of the proportion of mercenaries in the “loyalist” army? The confession of a Gaddafi who, like the Norman kings of Palermo, surrounds himself with a Sarrazin guard he knows has no other choice but to fight to the very end?

Marc Roussel

It's the furthermost post of the first
 line on the front, 60 kilometers after Zintan, at Gualich. These men are 
civilians whose uniforms are from Gaddafi prisoners.
 Like their 50 comrades outside the frame who are holding the line with 
them, they were trained at Jadu, a nearby camp. Before this war, none 
of them had ever touched a weapon. And yet last night, it is they who--Arabs and Berbers shoulder-to-shoulder and in almost equal number--
thwarted the Gaddafi offensive. After bitter fighting, they pushed them all 
the way back to Al Assabah, through the valley to the opposite promontory. 
This afternoon, the front is calmer. In an hour, the insurgents, who have
 stopped to pray, are going to shoot three rockets from an artillery piece 
that is hidden (on the right) at the other side of the lookout post. Two 
salvos will be fired in return, more powerful but too long. Outside the 
frame, Ali Zeidan, emissary of the National Transitional Council accompanying me, has come to represent the authority of Benghazi and has just given a speech urging all the resistance groups on all fronts to unite. 
It's time to say goodbye, and I assure them that on my return,
 like Ali, I will spread the word of this will to unite and determination to win to the institutions and the public in my country. "All the tribes of Libya are as one," Souleiman, the man in the black hood who is in command of the position, reassures me.

Marc Roussel

Kabao. Nightfall.  It’s the main street of a town that was among the most beautiful of the region.  It counted 10,000 inhabitants before the war. In the storehouses of dried mud, gypsum, and uncut red stone of the old city, a Berber culture festival was once held every year. Today, it is a dead city. Not one inn.  Not one business. A half-destroyed service station, whose attendant we looked for until midnight to negotiate, at last, the five jerry cans that would take us all the way to the border. Ali, the friend who has driven us since Jerba and who seemed so impatient to show us his city, sees it suddenly through our eyes and seems to apologize. “I have scarcely any more neighbors, it’s true,” he says. “And myself, I admit that I sent my family to shelter in Tunisia. But it would take little, so little, for Kabao to be reborn—if NATO were to bomb, for example, the heavy artillery in Jawsh and Tiji that reduced it to these ruins and continues to trap us under fire. Listen!”  The war is not over. Jebel Nafusa is as yet, at Kabao, the shadow—a living shadow—of free Libya.