Libyans head home to a cloudy future

Tribal allegiances and a history of intolerance among many groups could cause Libya to descend into lawlessness, say analysts, diplomats.

Libyan kids 311 (photo credit: REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra)
Libyan kids 311
(photo credit: REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra)
DUHEIBA, Tunisian-Libya border - Abdullah sits here with his family in a beat up white van at the border crossing with Tunisia, anxiously waiting to return to his hometown in Zenten in the east of Libya.
His haggard face tells a story of the months he spent in a refugee camp set up by the government of Qatar in the desolate town of Duheiba just over the border from his homeland.
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The father of three children, two boys and a girl, he was forced to flee after forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan strongman whose 42-year rule ended just over a week ago, shelled his hometown to flush out anti-regime rebels seeking to topple him.
His shy wife refused to speak, but the joy of triumph is visible on her gleaming eyes.
Their five-year-old daughter waived the green and red flag of the revolution, a sign of a new era in their oil-rich, but poverty -stricken homeland.
“I bit my tongue when Gaddafi’s forces arrived in our town. I wanted to tell them leave us alone, but they could have shot dead all my family if I had done so,” he said as he picked up his passport, while returning to join his family.
“I am free. Libya is free. I have never felt so happy as I did when the news spread about the rebels gaining control over Bab Al-Azizya," he said, referring to the compound where Gaddafi used to give his flamboyant speeches at the start of the revolution.
The lines of Libyan asylum seekers are long, but people wait patiently to have their passports stamped before embarking on a journey into a new Libya. Abdullah will be entering the evacuated Libyan side of the border without getting his passport stamped by the Libyan government. For now, the crossing is unhindered. Officials from the office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) stand among lines of Libyans to survey their movement.
The return home won’t be easy. They face a country with dilapidated infrastructure, with no proper medical care and a backward education system imposed by Gaddafi during his reign over the most oil-rich countries in North Africa. In large parts of the country, basic services like water and electricity have shut down in the chaos brought on by fighting between rebels and the remnants of Gaddafi’s forces.
Experts say it could take months to begin pumping the oil Libya desperately needs to get its economy moving again.
As the Libyans headed home, they were acknowledging the tough times that lie ahead. Many had loaded their vehicles with food, fuel and other badly needed items. Vegetables and fruit are rare commodities, let alone fuel and medicine, said Libyans entering from Tunisia.
The Qatari run camp was deserted after most of its inhabitants decided to return to their hometowns as the rebels announced they were relocating their headquarters from Benghazi in the east to Tripoli, the official capital. But garbage and strewn around empty tents shaken by the strong winds of Tunisia desert are a reminder of an era Libyans wish to forget.
A university professor from Zenten, a rebel stronghold and one of the key towns that played a role in dethroning Gaddafi, is among the others waiting at the border. Al-Arabi, as he asked to be identified, said he was returning home with feelings of both joy and grief because he lost his two brothers and three cousins during the fighting.
“My family suffered a lot. Two of my brothers were killed during clashes in Zenten as well as my cousins,” he said while recalling the day he had to abandon his house and take the road west.
“I never imagined Libyans would end up as refugees, but they did. We need to learn from our past to build a country for our future children,” he told The Media Line while looking at his two young boys, Ali and Samer.
Officials from the Tunisian government say thousands of refugees from Libya were hosted by Tunisian families in the early days of the revolution. Tunisia is the birthplace of the Arab Spring, which has not only dethroned Gaddafi but Tunisian President Zein Al-Abedeen Bin Ali and Egypt’s Husni Mubarak.
“We owed it to our revolution to open our arms to Libyans and help them after lighting the first candle in the dark era imposed by dictatorial regimes that showed no respect for human rights or the freedoms of individuals,” said an official, who identified himself as Abu Azizi.
In Libya the revolution came at a price. While the international community expressed readiness to help reconstruct the North African country, tribal allegiances and a history of intolerance among many groups could cause Libya to descend into lawlessness, say analysts and Western diplomats.
Abdullah says his house needs rebuilding as much as his country does.
“You can’t build a good house if you don’t demolish the old house and this is what the rebels need to do. They have to break with the past, but never forget their history,” he added.
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