With rebels in charge, life returns to Libyan town

AP News
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Posted: Aug 01, 2011 6:25 AM
With rebels in charge, life returns to Libyan town

For months, this front-line community in range of Moammar Gadhafi's rockets was a town of men _ rebel fighters, doctors, drivers and others needed for the war. Women and children were sent to safety in nearby Tunisia.

Now Nalut is slowly coming back to life.

Thousands of refugees, their belongings crammed into the backs of pickup trucks, have returned in the past three days. They were lured by the prospect of safety after rebel fighters, pushing back Gadhafi's men in their biggest offensive in this area after months of military deadlock, freed Nalut from the threat of shelling.

Returnees are coming home to a town with meager resources: only two of 11 bakeries are open, most stores have nothing to sell and electricity is off more than it is on.

But spirits are high after the recent battlefield successes.

Some now dare to hope that the war will end soon, perhaps even by the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, which caps the fasting month of Ramadan that starts Monday.

"Things are going the right way," said Mustafa Barkeek, 40, who had just brought his wife and two children back from Tunisia a day earlier, after a three-month stay. "We hope that this Ramadan, it (the war) will be over," he said, waiting with about two dozen other men outside a Nalut bakery Sunday to take his daily allotment of five loaves of French bread.

Such optimism is widespread here, though perhaps premature, considering the long battlefield stalemate and new concerns about possible cracks in rebel ranks after the death of a senior military commander last week.

Rebels and government troops have been locked in their positions since shortly after an uprising against Gadhafi in February escalated into a civil war: anti-government rebels hold eastern Libya, as well as the port city of Misrata and the Nafusa mountain range in the west of the country. From his stronghold of Tripoli, Gadhafi has managed to hang on to the rest.

However, starting Thursday, hundreds of rebel fighters descended from their Nafusa mountain plateau into the coastal plain, pushing Gadhafi's forces and their rocket launchers back tens of miles. On Sunday, they surrounded Tiji, a town of about 10,000 people strategically located on the main road to Tripoli, about 150 miles (240 kilometers) to the northeast.

Even if the war drags on, the people in Nalut say they're not turning back. Like most of the mountain people, they are Amazigh, or Berber, an ethnic minority whose culture and language Gadhafi has systematically tried to suppress.

In Nalut, a mountain town of 23,000 people about 40 miles (65 kilometers) from the Tunisian border, many have bitter memories of Gadhafi's harsh rule. In 1984, seven Nalut men were hanged in a playground in town for their involvement, along with others from elsewhere in Libya, in a failed attempt to kill Gadhafi, said a town elder, 62-year-old Mohammed Mazid.

Mazid and other men in traditional white caps and robes gathered Sunday in the office of Gadhafi's provincial intelligence chief, who quickly fled after the start of the uprising. "It's a taste of freedom. We can do whatever we want," said Mazid, sinking into a leather sofa belonging to Nalut's once most feared man.

Fueled by long-standing resentment against the regime, Nalut quickly joined the uprising after mass protests erupted in several parts of the country in February, particularly the city of Benghazi, now the main rebel stronghold in the east.

With the outbreak of full-fledged fighting, Gadhafi's troops started regularly shelling Nalut from the valley below, eventually sending about 15,000 residents fleeing across a rebel-controlled border crossing to Tunisia.

Mazid said that since the start of the offensive last week, some 7,000 to 8,000 refugees have come back to Nalut and that he expects the remainder to follow soon, especially as Ramadan gets under way.

Over the weekend, pickup trucks laden with mattresses, plastic chairs and sacks of rice formed long lines on the Tunisian side of the crossing as people made their way back.

Now they have to contend with power outages lasting hours every day, water barely trickling from faucets and short supplies of fuel, milk and vegetables.

Jalia Yehiyeh rushed back from Tunisia three weeks ago, even before it was safe to come home, to give birth to her first child in Libya. Her husband is on the front, and on Sunday the 30-year-old, who is expecting a boy she plans to name Jumaa, was the only patient in the maternity ward of the Nalut hospital.

"I am a little bit afraid, and it's a horrible time, but the most important thing is that Gadhafi will go, no matter how we suffer now," she said. "My son will grow up free."

The ward was deserted, except for the expectant mother and one nurse. In the past four months, only about 10 babies were born in Nalut, the nurse said, noting that in the past 20 births per day were not unusual for the regional hospital.

Most of the two dozen patients in the 236-bed hospital were fighters, both rebels and captured Gadhafi men who were kept separately in two rooms off-limits to visitors. On Sunday, seven were brought in with gunshot and shrapnel wounds but also lesser scrapes. Relatives and hospital staff crowded the emergency room as doctors patched up the young men.

Some are maimed for life. Abu Bakr Ishtawi, a 32-year-old policeman-turned-soldier, lost part of his right foot when an anti-aircraft bullet tore through it Friday near the town of Tiji. His foot a bandaged stump, he was writhing in pain. "All of us will be glad when Tiji is free, when Tripoli is free," he said.

About 50 Nalut men have so far been killed in the war, said Salah Shiboub, a spokesman for the local military council, set up in an apartment building. In one of the council's rooms, men in uniform gathered around radio equipment, keeping in touch with fighters at the front.

Free Nalut, the local radio station, has also joined the war effort, broadcasting updates from the front lines and sending encouraging messages to towns in the region where Gadhafi's men are still in control.

News anchor Monir Kafu dedicated his Saturday evening show to the people of Tiji. "I told them Gadhafi will be finished very soon," he said.