Born from Slavery, a Libyan Town Falls in Revolution
By: Abdullah Elmaazi
Published Thursday, January 24, 2013
Tawergha and Misrata: two Libyan towns with unfortunate historical ties. The former was established by emancipated slaves, the latter was the home of those who enslaved them. The residents of the two towns lived side-by-side in relative peace until the Libyan Revolution. It was then that Gaddafi exploited this historical divide in his last bid for power.
In 1963 Dadda Salma, at the age of 95, had a toothless smile which was quite infectious. You could not help but smile back. Her eyes were a window to the sadness in this world and told the story of the suffering of her race. She was an emancipated black slave spending her final years in a “poor house" on the outskirts of Tripoli.
Salma was kidnapped at the age of five by Libyan slave traders from her village in southern Sudan late in the 19th century and sold to a wealthy Libyan officer in the Ottoman army.
Salma was the name given to her by her owners. She doesn’t remember the name her mother gave her. Salma’s story was not confined to the sad look in her eyes.
Astonishingly, even in her advanced years she was still able to narrate the vivid image of her mother and other women in her village screaming as they were carried away in a caravan of horse-drawn carriages by their kidnappers. The mothers heaped mud on their heads as a sign of deep grief while they gave chase to the caravan.
The distance between her village and the caravan grew and she sobbed for a long time after losing sight of her mother. Exhaustion eventually set in and Salma and her friends fell asleep.
Within a few days they found themselves in a strange city among strange people living in a strange house which looked nothing like the mud hut where she was born and grew up. The lady of the house was not a surrogate mother, but the owner of the most recently acquired slave.
Salma’s life as a slave was miserable. At the age of 12 she became responsible for all the domestic chores in the house. At 14 she was raped by her master and had to continue satisfying him in addition to doing her other 'chores.'
The lady of the house took out her jealousy on Salma by beating her regularly. Salma was well into her thirties when a fellow slave told her of an escape route.
Salma was to be among the first black slaves to seek emancipation, availing herself of a freedom-granting decree declared by the Ottoman Sultan.
A free woman – but destitute with no means of support – Salma headed for the poor house outside Tripoli. The majority of other emancipated slaves went to a small village just outside of Misrata, called Tawergha. The fact that this village, which soon grew into a town as a result of the increasing number of emancipated slaves, was located just outside Misrata was not a coincidence.
Misrata has long been one of Libya’s most entrepreneurial communities with trade, be it in spices from India or slaves from Sub-Saharan Africa, being the mainstay of the city’s livelihood.
The main task of the newly emancipated was to locate family members from whom they had been separated under slavery. Tawergha was an ideal venue for family reunions. However, emancipation was not without its challenges. The freed slaves needed to work, but the town itself offered no means of survival.
As was the case in the emancipated US south, many freed slaves from Misrata continued to work for their former owners as farmers or domestic workers. Soon, almost everyone in Tawergha was working in Misrata and the former became a “dormitory” town.
The relationship between the inhabitants of the town and those of the city was cordial, but never equal. Former slaves wanted to have autonomy within their working lives, but the former slave owners were convinced they should remain “in their place."
Even in post-independence Libya, the biggest challenge the people of Tawergha faced was a lack of socio-political empowerment. In a country where power resided with major regions and strong tribes, they had no way of gaining access to decision-making circles.
The social and political structures in Libya ensured that the people of Tawergha – who lacked any affiliation or blood relationship with other tribes and clans – were in no position to demand attention for their communities' problems. Tawergha remained one of the most underdeveloped towns in Libya, with its people almost entirely dependent for their survival on Misrata.
Moving Upward in Misrata
The people of Misrata took pride in their business acumen. Wherever they settled in Libya, they formed the backbone of the commercial community and became part of their adopted home’s elite.
A city enjoying such a high degree of self-confidence could afford to be generous and hospitable. Gaddafi arrived in Misrata as a struggling teenager after being expelled from secondary school in the southern city of Sebha for political activism. It’s in the homes of some of the city’s most affluent families that he found shelter, hospitality, and friendship.
It was from among these school friends in Misrata and the sons of his benefactors that he recruited some of the most influential members of his “free officers” movement who successfully mounted the September 1969 coup against the Idris Senousi monarchy. It was also in Misrata that Gaddafi became engaged to the daughter of a police general.
If anything, the engagement of a destitute army lieutenant – the son of a Bedouin shepherd – to the daughter of a police general reflected the opportunities in Misrata for upward social mobility. High-society was ready to open its doors to those who demonstrated personal ambition, as was the case with Gaddafi in his bid for education and military rank.
But race was always an obstacle to social mobility. It is virtually impossible for a black Libyan from Tawergha, the grandson of an emancipated African slave, to marry into a notable Misratan family. Slavery was still a stigma endured by the offspring of the emancipated slaves if hardly ever discussed in either society.
There were no other outward signs of discrimination: both communities seemed to understand that they could mix on any level, except genetically.
Genes counted for nothing among school children in 2001. Among teenagers in Misrata, racial affiliation, skin color, and social background were never criteria for choosing friends.
This was certainly the case for a high-spirited 14-year-old named Mariam, the daughter of a wealthy Misrata businessman. Mariam chose her friends based on their antics in class; the more outrageous they were, the greater chance of joining her inner circle of mischievous friends.
Mariam’s friends knew that once she put her mind to something she would be successful and they never doubted she would become a surgeon when she announced she wanted to study medicine.
Mid-way through Mariam’s school year the revolution began. The people of Misrata and those of Tawergha tragically found themselves on opposite sides.
Encircled by Gaddafi’s forces by land and sea the people of Misrata refused to lay down their arms and the city became the Libyan revolution’s “Stalingrad.” The city which embraced Gaddafi and helped propel him to power was now the most determined to bring his 42-year rule to an end.
Revolution Comes to Tawergha and Misrata
Misrata is key to ruling a united Libya. It is also indispensable for ruling an autonomous western part of the country. For Gaddafi, regaining control of Misrata was a matter of life or death.
Gaddafi unleashed his full wrath on the city and its inhabitants. Tawergha was to be the launching pad of the no holds barred onslaught. Gaddafi lured the people of Tawergha to his side with a devilish message appealing to the basest of human instincts: revenge.
“There will be no city called Misrata – whatever you annex will be yours," Gaddafi told the young men of Tawergha. “This is your chance to avenge centuries of slavery suffered by your ancestors and overcome your social marginalization."
Tens, some say hundreds, of young men from Tawergha accepted Gaddafi’s offer to help him regain control of Misrata and cleansing it from the “rats” – the term Gaddafi coined for the revolutionaries.
Three weeks into the revolution, Mariam’s villa was stormed by five young men from Tawergha, drunk and armed with automatic rifles. Mariam’s brothers, together with other men of fighting age, were on the frontline fighting Gaddafi’s forces. Only Mariam’s grandfather was home. The five men took turns raping Mariam, her sister, and her mother. They forced Mariam’s grandfather to watch at gunpoint. Mariam recognized the face of one of the rapists as that of her best friend’s brother.
Mariam’s fate was sealed forever. Tragically, such is the stigma that haunts rape victims in Misrata and other parts of Libya: that Mariam will never leave her parents’ house. She will be married off, in name only, to some distant cousin who will volunteer to conceal the family shame. The marriage will not be consummated. Mariam will remain forever housebound. She will never become a surgeon. If she is to be widowed, she might remarry someone who does not know the story of her rape. Perhaps then she might start a new life.
Ultimately, Misrata emerged 'victorious' after the revolution. Tawergha was subjected to revenge attacks and largely destroyed. Human Rights Watch documented reports of scores of young men from Tawergha who died under torture in makeshift jails in Misrata. Hundreds more are still missing.
Libyans cannot build a future on a heap of historical grievances. Sometime somewhere somehow the cycle of revenge and counter revenge has to stop. Reconciliation between the people of Misrata and Tawergha can be a precursor for national reconciliation, but can it be achieved within our lifetime?
Abdullah Elmaazi is founder and CEO of Trakon Consulting & Training. He is a regular contributor to The Tripoli Post.
The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.
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