As accusations fly, Libya’s brutal war grinds on

In Libya’s civil war, where conflicting accusations collide and dusty farmlands have become a battleground, there was little doubt about the conflict’s human toll, no matter its nature or numbers.

The scene was gruesome and chaotic in the seaside town of Zlitan on Tuesday as sweaty cameramen and government officials crowded into the tiny, sweltering hospital morgue, clutching scarves and paper masks to protect against the sickening smell.

The sights, as medical workers unzipped some of the body bags lying haphazardly on the floor, were even worse: jumbled body parts coated with blood and dust; a foot stacked the wrong way against someone’s corpse; the heartbreaking sight of a limp child still in diapers.

Such is the reality of the Libya conflict more than four months after Western nations began their airstrikes to help a ragtag rebel force defeat troops loyal to longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi.

The allegations from Gaddafi’s government on Tuesday that the latest Nato strikes had killed scores of civilians could further strain a campaign that has waning support and no clear end in sight.

Officials in Tripoli, hoping to show the world that Nato bombings have strayed from military targets, rushed foreign reporters on to a bus to witness the aftermath of airstrikes they said had killed 85 civilians — 33 children, 32 women, 20 men — late the night before.

“Only God knows why these people were targeted,” said Faraj Mohamed, another resident of the village of Majar, where the isolated farmhouses were struck about 10km south of the Mediterranean coast.

For residents like Mohamed, mindful of Italy’s colonial experiment in Libya and decades of Western interest in its oil riches, the deaths were further proof that no good could come of foreign involvement here.

When reporters arrived, they saw that massive blasts had collapsed the concrete farmhouses, surrounded by high walls in the middle of stubbly, dry fields. Inside, the rubble was littered with blankets, mattresses and children’s schoolbooks. There was no evidence of weaponry.

Footage later provided by government officials showed men combing through one of the bomb sites, apparently the night before, picking hands and feet and other body parts out of the rubble. The battered corpse of an infant was placed on a blanket along with the remains of another child.


Confusion, conflicting reports
But onlookers milling around the scene of the strikes the next day had confused and sometimes conflicting narratives. There were neighbours who couldn’t remember the names of dead; people who became confused about the death toll; accounts of the series of strikes that were difficult to piece together.

Perhaps people didn’t understand the questions posed through interpreters or in foreigners’ Arabic; perhaps grieving relatives and neighbours were in shock.

Nor did reporters see more than about 30 corpses throughout the day, though they were told the rest of the bodies were brought to Tripoli or were still trapped in the rubble.

Nato, which accuses Gaddafi forces of housing military assets alongside civilians, said soldiers may have been killed in the strike it said hit a military staging ground south of Zlitan, where nearby rebels are hoping to break a long impasse against Gaddafi.

While Nato said there was no proof civilians had been killed, it is virtually impossible for the alliance to verify who is killed in such strikes.

The confusion on Tuesday was just one example of the murkiness that has characterised a conflict that Nato powers have kept at arms’ length and which the Gaddafi government has sought to depict as a Western crusade against Islam.

Rebels claim regularly to seize towns that Tripoli says are firmly in its control. The government accuses Nato of choking off food and power supplies; Nato says Gaddafi is denying his people basic rights. It is often difficult for reporters to verify claims on either side.

The credibility of the rebels’ leadership meanwhile has been hit by the mysterious assassination of its military chief.

The scene at the crowded, claustrophobic hospital morgue on Tuesday afternoon was another reminder of the toll the current conflict has taken as Libya drifts back into greater isolation and the body count rises on both sides.

In a nearby hospital room, Majar resident Ali Muftah Hamid Gafez stood by the bed of his wife, Fattiya, whose left leg had apparently been severed the night before.

“I was sitting with my friends in the house, when we suddenly heard the bomb. Then I blacked out,” she whimpered, appearing frightened of the crowd of reporters assembled at the foot of her bed.

She pulled the covers up over her head, and waited for the foreigners to leave. – Reuters

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.

Advertising

ConCourt settles the law on the public protector and interim...

The Constitutional Court said it welcomed robust debate but criticised the populist rhetoric in the battle between Busisiwe Mkhwebane and Minister Pravin Gordhan

Where is the deputy president?

David Mabuza is hard at work — it’s just not taking place in the public eye. The rumblings and discussion in the ANC are about factions in the ruling party, succession and ousting him
Advertising

Press Releases

Covid-19 and Back to School Webinar

If our educators can take care of themselves, they can take care of the children they teach

5G technology is the future

Besides a healthcare problem Covid-19 is also a data issue and 5G technology, with its lightning speed, can help to curb its spread

JTI off to court for tobacco ban: Government not listening to industry or consumers

The tobacco ban places 109 000 jobs and 179 000 wholesalers and retailers at risk — including the livelihood of emerging farmers

Holistic Financial Planning for Professionals Webinar

Our lives are constantly in flux, so it makes sense that your financial planning must be reviewed frequently — preferably on an annual basis

Undeterred by Covid-19 pandemic, China and Africa hold hands, building a community of a shared future for mankind

It is clear that building a community with a shared future for all mankind has become a more pressing task than ever before

Wills, Estate Administration and Succession Planning Webinar

Capital Legacy has had no slowdown in lockdown regarding turnaround with clients, in storing or retrieving wills and in answering their questions

Call for Expression of Interest: Training supply and needs assessment to support the energy transition in South Africa

GIZ invites eligible and professional companies with local presence in South Africa to participate in this tender to support the energy transition

Obituary: Mohammed Tikly

His legacy will live on in the vision he shared for a brighter more socially just future, in which racism and discrimination are things of the past

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday