AFRICANGLOBE – In 1963 Dadda Salma, at the age of ninety-five, 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.
Dadda 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. Dadda Salma’s story was not confined to the sad look in her eyes.
Astonishingly even in her advanced years when memory begins to fade, 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 Arab 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 distraught mother and the caravan grew longer 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 humble abode 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 extremely miserable. At the age of 12 she became responsible for all the domestic chores in the house. At fourteen she was raped by her Arab captor and had to continue satisfying him in addition to doing her other ‘chores’.
The wife of her captor, content that her husband had not taken a second rival, nonetheless 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 enslaved Africans to seek emancipation, availing herself of a decree by the Ottoman Sultan offering those slaves who wanted to be free the right to emancipation.
A free woman, but destitute and 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 Misurata, called Tawergha. The fact that this village, which grew into a town as a result of the increasing number of emancipated slaves, was located just outside Misurata was not a coincidence.
Misurata has long been one of Libya’s most entrepreneurial communities with trade, be it in spices from India or enslaved Africans from south of the, 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 southern United States, many ex-slaves from Misurata continued to work for their former owners often in agricultural jobs or as domestic help and nannies in the case of many of the women. Soon almost everyone in Tawergha was working in Misurata and Tawergha became a “dormitory” town.
The relationship between the inhabitants of the town and those of the city was in the main cordial but never one of equals. 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 lack of socio-political empowerment. In a country where power resided with major regions and strong tribes and clans they had no way of gaining access to high decision making circles within the country’s hierarchy.
The social and political structure in Libya ensured that the people of Tawergha, with no affiliation or blood relationship with other tribes and clans, were in no position to command either respect or demand attention to their communities’ problems. Thus Tawergha remained one of the most underdeveloped towns in Libya with its people almost entirely dependent for their survival on Misurata.
The people of Misurata took pride in their business acumen: the words pride and Misurata were almost synonymous. Wherever they settled in Libya, they formed the backbone of the business and commercial community and became part of their adopted home’s special elite.
A city enjoying such a high degree of self-confidence could afford to be generous and hospitable. Gaddafi found refuge there when he arrived 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 among his new school friends.
It was from among these school friends in Misurata 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 Misurata that Gaddafi became engaged to the daughter of a police general in the royal police.
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 for upward social mobility provided for by the people of Misurata. High society in Misurata was ready to open its doors to those who demonstrated personal ambition as in Gaddafi’s case through acquiring an education and achieving army officer 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 Africans 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 other level except mixing genes.
Genes counted for nothing among school children in 2001. Among teenage children in Misurata, racial affiliation, colour and social background were never a criteria for choosing friends – even “best friends”.
This was certainly the case for fourteen-year-old high spirited Mariam, the daughter of a wealthy Misurata businessman. Mariam chose her friends according to her rating of their antics in class. The more outrageous they were the closer they came within her circle of extra 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. Witty, pretty with a commanding presence of someone far beyond her fourteen years Salma was the life and soul of every school party. To describe her as the apple of her parents eyes is an understatement.
Mid-way through Mariam’s school year the revolution began. The people of the city of Misurata and those of the town of Tawergha were tragically to find themselves on opposite sides.
Encircled by Gaddafi’s forces by land and sea the people of Misurata refused to lay down their arms and Misurata became the Libya 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.
Misurata is the key city to ruling a united Libya, more so it is indispensable for ruling an autonomous western part of Libya. For Gaddafi regaining control of Misurata 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. He lured the people of Tawergha to his side, with a devilish message appealing to one of humans’ most base instinct, that of revenge, of righting past wrongs.
“There will be no city called Misurata – 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 marginalisation”.
Tens, some say hundreds, of young men from Tawergha the town that gave refuge to their slave ancestors accepted Gaddafi’s offer to help him regain control of Misurata 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 gun point. Mariam recognised the face of one of her rapists, as that of her best friends’ brothers.
Mariam’s fate was sealed forever. Such is the stigma that haunts rape victims in a conservative city like Misurata, 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. Mariam however will never be a surgeon.
Ultimately, Misurata 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 Misurata. 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 Misurata and Tawergha can be a precursor for national reconciliation but can it be achieved within our lifetime?
Meanwhile where will the people of Tawergha be located without being dependent on another city for their livelihood? This is the moment for statesmen to take control, unfortunately however, so far there has been a lamentable dearth of statesmen in Libya.
It is incumbent on those who claim to have Libya’s interest at heart to give priority to solving this problem with justice and humanity and in a manner that both addresses the suffering and aspirations of all of the inhabitants of Libya whether they be of the elk of Dadda Salma or of Mariam.
Until that happens the suffering will continue and the pain will endure.
By; Abdullah Elmaazi