Even the New York Times’ support for the TNC “Libyan Rebels” is wavering it seems.
Below is a report by C.J. Chivers of the NYT. published July 10th.
Looting and Arson in Qawalish The village of Qawalish sits on the rolling high ground of the mountains of western Libya, a small collection of houses, shops and a mosque astride a single two-lane asphalt road. By the time the fighters opposed to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi had chased away pro-Qaddafi forces last week, the battle for this tiny place, all but unknown by outsiders until that day, had provided several scenes that offered insights into how the rebel campaign is being conducted here.
Like those elsewhere in Libya, the fighters here share a sense of common purpose: the belief that their uprising represents a long-awaited chance to topple an ossified, brutal and corrupt regime. But also like that of rebels in the east, their performance on the battlefield is uneven, often unnerving, and at times at odds with the interests of their cause. All of this emerged in the kaleidoscopically mixed picture they presented as they pressed forward last week.
In Qawalish, rebel bungling and crime played out beside pockets of militarily impressive behavior. And then matters turned worse. Ultimately, the contradictory scenes along a single stretch of road underscored a shortage of strong commanders at the front, or at least of commanders who adhered to the pledges of the National Transitional Council, the de facto rebel authority, to respect human rights and the laws of war. And this raised worrisome questions.
Minutes after Qawalish fell last Wednesday, none of the village’s residents remained. They had bolted. There were signs, however, that until the rebels had arrived, at least some villagers had been present. The bazaar was still stocked with fresh vegetables, as if it had been working while the pro-Qaddafi forces held the town. The bakery had loaves of fresh bread. And little in the town appeared to have been disturbed as the town changed hands. Then the storm hit. The rebels began helping themselves to the fuel in Qawalish’s only gas station. Then an armed rebel wheeled about the road on a children’s bicycle he had apparently just taken from a home. A short while later rebels were shooting padlocks off the metal doors to shops, and beginning to sweep through them.
At the time, rebels said they were carefully searching and securing the town. But their behavior soon raised questions, including: Was something besides military necessity taking hold? The next day the questions became more pressing. Houses that had not been burning the previous day were afire, and shops were being aggressively looted by armed men in rebel attire. Every few minutes, a truck would pass by on the road, headed back toward Zintan loaded with what seemed to be stolen goods. Animal feed appeared to be a favorite item to carry off. Several trucks an hour carried away bales of hay and sacks of grain.
The rebels at the checkpoints at the town’s edge did nothing to stop any of this. The town, in short, was being looted by the rebels, and vandalized, and worse. The destruction was not total — five of the town’s scores of houses were on fire. But what would their owners think? And what kind of message was being sent to the people of this town? One eerie aspect of life now in western Libya is the number of villages near the front where no civilians are present, even weeks after falling to rebel hands. This is not exactly a novel sight for a continuing, fluid war. In some cases, the emptiness would seem to be related to infrastructure and scarce supply. Shortages of food and water, a lack of electricity — these are conditions that discourage the return of families who fled.
In other cases, the risks of incoming high-explosive rockets from the Qaddafi forces can keep much of a population away. But support for the rebels is not full-throated and uniform in several mountain towns — the village of El Harabah still flies the green flag of the Qaddafi government, for example. And there is a fair question here, after watching the rebels damage Qawalish and steal its residents’ possessions, about whether suspicions about villagers’ affiliations and tribes have given life to rebel crimes, which in turn have caused civilians to flee. Researchers from Human Rights Watch have been roaming the abandoned villages of the mountains, trying to answer these very questions; their findings could be released as soon as this week.
There are tantalizing clues that factional rivalries are in play — the sort of social kindling that could make the ground war uglier as it nears Tripoli, Libya’s capital, where more people who have enjoyed government patronage have their businesses and homes. One of the buildings being looted in Qawalish late last week bore a scratched-on label in Arabic. “Mashaashia,” it read. This was a tag indicating the presence of a tribe that has enjoyed the support of the Qaddafi government, and that rebels say is in turn the source of many pro-Qaddafi soldiers.
Had the rebels helped themselves to shopkeepers’ goods because they believed they were wrongly aligned? As one house burned inside near the road and rebels openly stole from the town’s few stores, the question by late last week was whether what was happening was the opportunistic looting of an inexperienced quasi-military force, which was suffering the same shortages as everyone else, or something punitive and potentially much worse. Either behavior would be a crime under any notion of modern law, though the first might not set into motion long-term grievances while the second might be taken as an indicator that as this war smolders on, the possibility of unleashing bitterness between tribes and Qaddafi-era political factions grows each day.
By Sunday evening, the rebel license to loot had run almost its full course, and any such distinctions were fast slipping away. All of the shops in the town had been ransacked, several more homes were burned, and the town’s gas station, in fine condition when Qawalish fell, had been vandalized to the point of being dismantled. In building after building, furniture was flipped over, dishes and mirrors shattered, and everything torn apart.
Except for a few rebels roaming the streets in cars and trucks, the town was deserted — a shattered, emptied ghost town decorated with broken glass. Fully sorting out the motivations behind what happened in Qawalish would take more time. Multiple victims and participants in the looting and the arson would have to be found and interviewed separately to gain a credible sense of whether Qawalish’s residents had been targets because of their tribal or other affiliations, or, almost as important, whether the residents believed they had. But for now, none of the villagers could be found. And the rebels were hardly talking. What was obvious and beyond dispute by Sunday was only this: Whatever their motivation, the behavior of rebels in Qawalish, who have been supported by the NATO military campaign against Colonel Qaddafi, was at odds with the NATO mandate to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure, and at odds with rebel pledges to free and protect the Libyan population.
Moreover, the leadership of the Free Libyan Forces, for all the statements otherwise, appeared to lack the ability or inclination to prevent these crimes. When asked on Sunday about the looting and arson, the former Qaddafi military colonel who commands fighters in the mountains, Mukhtar Farnana, had little to say beyond being careful to insist that any looting was not officially sanctioned. “I haven’t any idea about that,” he said. “We did not give an order or information to do it.”
The problem could be framed another way: that the rebel commanders did not do enough to stop it. In a small town like Qawalish, what happened was, from a military perspective, preventable. A standing post or a few patrols each day to the shops, a checkpoint or two at the town’s edge with fighters checking identification, instructing their colleagues not to steal and stopping cars departing the town with stolen goods — these might have been enough. Instead, the capture of Qawalish has shown that as the war grinds through its fifth month, the rebels, emboldened by NATO support and fired with the certitude that now is their time, risk suspending the distinction between right and wrong.
As the rebels talk of pushing toward Tripoli, they risk embarrassing their backers, losing international support and fueling exactly the kind of war they have insisted they and NATO would prevent. The rebels say they plan to push further through the mountains soon, toward the city of Garyan. Will the villages along the way suffer Qawalish’s fate?