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Why Do the Libyan Militias Run Amok?

31/10/2014 11:20 | Updated 30 December 2014

In Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Michael Fengler's memorably-named 1970 film Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?, a depressed white-collar worker is seen meandering his way through stiflingly boring days before killing his wife, his son and a family friend in an act of sudden, apparently senseless violence.

Meanwhile, in Amnesty's not-quite-as-memorably-named new briefing on Libya - Rule of the gun: Abductions, torture and other abuses by militias in western Libya - Amnesty's extremely downbeat assessment of the state of post-Gaddafi Libya, the Fassbinder-esque claim is made that militias are now running amok in Libya.

Alright. The word amok is just a trigger here and I'm not seriously going to compare a famously dour German art film with the present state of an entire north African country. But ... well, I'll at least come back to Fassbinder & Fengler's drab masterpiece at the end of this quick run-through of Libya's current woes.

Libya's present malaise is multi-faceted, but among the county's many ills it's the increasingly dangerous nature of the militias that's predominating. Even back in 2011 during the NATO war against Colonel Gaddafi's forces, anti-Gaddafi armed groups - the then revolutionaries (thuuwar) - often viciously maltreated any Gaddafi loyalists that fell into their hands. The thuuwar seem never to have been disarmed and since the fall of Gaddafi a multitude of militia groups - operating along tribal, political and simply criminal lines - has been ripping the fabric of the country apart (see earlier Amnesty reports on this here and here).

The situation is now desperate. There's serious factional fighting in Tripoli, Benghazi and Misrata, and much of western Libya is afflicted by a wave of house-to-house manhunts and abductions by militia gangs. Bernadino Leon, the UN special envoy to Libya, has warned that things are now "very close to the point of no return" in the country.

The Amnesty briefing I mentioned at the outset is full of examples of militias targeting people because they're from a rival town or tribal group, often itself an indicator of continuing pro-Gaddafi-ism or anti-Gaddafi-ism. For example, what happened to a 38-year-old lorry driver called Hussein al-Fitouri and his colleague one afternoon a couple of months ago is typical. They were driving toward the port city of al-Khoms in the north-west of Libya when five heavily-armed men forced them to stop, demanding to know where they were from. When they said they were from the city of Zawiya (where Gaddafi had once labelled protesters young people duped into "destruction and sabotage" with drugs and alcohol), they were forced out of the vehicle, called "rats" and taken away bound and blindfold. Hussein says:

"We were held for six days. During this time, they must have taken us to four different places. In each place, they beat and tortured me. They would hit me with a metal bar all over my body. They applied electric shocks onto my back asking me 'are you with or against the rats?' ["rats" being anti-Gaddafi fighters]. They hit me with a rifle on my head. At one point, they poured fuel on my entire body from top to bottom, and told me that they would set me on fire if I even tried to move my hand. You can't imagine the pain of fuel on open wounds. In one of the places we were held there were about 11 detainees. The only reason that they were detained is because they are from Zawiya. A man who was held in a room next to mine died as a result of the torture. I never held a gun, I am just an ordinary citizen."

After nine days of this hell Hussein and his companion were released following negotiations by tribal leaders. But Hussein needed extensive medical treatment, including for a broken leg.

It's salutary and depressing to note that many of the cruelties being meted out to people like Hussein are happening while the name of Muammar al-Gaddafi is invoked. Gaddafi clearly still haunts Libya. (It's also the case, of course, that Gaddafi-era torture was absolutely legion, and - topically enough - the Abdul-Hakim Belhaj rendition case implicates the UK as an accessory to some of that torture when it suited the British spooks and politicians). As Adam Taylor suggests, had the old tyrant been captured and put on trial (rather than being unceremoniously butchered by an armed group) it's at least conceivable that his malign spell might have been broken and Libya's deadly fractiousness avoided. Instead, Libya is tearing itself apart.

After initially hailing Libya as a NATO/"Arab Spring" success, the international community has largely ignored Libya, seemingly embarrassed by its semi-disintegration. Like Herr R in the Fassbinder/Fengler film - ignored while rage and violence are welling up inside him - Libya has been simmering to the point of explosion. The world needs to start paying attention to Libya before even more people there start running amok.