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Remembering Bloody August of 2011

August 25, 2022 at 8:30 am

Smoke following an air strike that hit Libya [Mahmud TURKIA/AFP/Getty]

On the night of 4 August, 2011, Mustafa Naji Al-Morabit, his mother Fatima ‘Omar Mansur, wife, Ibtisam, and three children: Mo’taz three, Mohamed six and Naji nine years old, were all asleep in Mustafa’s house in the Western part of Zlitin, a coastal city some 180 km east of Tripoli. At precisely 06:30, a rocket hit the house, killing Ibtisam, Mo’taz and Mohamed, while injuring mother and Naji. Mustafa survived, apart from minor injuries, perhaps because “I was sleeping in a different room”, he told me.

It is good to remember that, on 17 March, 2011, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) adopted Resolution 1973, literally authorising all UN member States to “take all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians and civilian populated areas from the alleged brutal crackdown by Muammer Gaddafi’s government against unarmed civilian protests in different parts of the country.

Libya, just like other North African countries, was going through what was called the “Arab Spring”, when waves of protests erupted against governments – first, in Tunisia, before spreading out across the region. However, the situation in Libya is unique, in the sense that it attracted foreign military intervention, sending Libya into the chaotic situation it has been in, ever since.

This was the first time since the UN was founded that the UNSC took full charge of an internal situation within a member State, based on the general principle of ‘Responsibility to Protect’—a fuzzy concept that requires the UN to intervene to protect civilians. But how that applied to Libya is still controversial and legally disputed.

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Between March and October 2011, NATO launched over 26,000 air strikes all over Libya, in which civilians were killed and private properties destroyed, cumulatively. By the end of NATO’s “Operation Unified Protector”, hundreds of Libyan civilians were killed in at least five Libyan cities and towns, particularly in the west of the country.  Precise figures are very hard to find since hardly anyone kept an accurate record but, still, witnesses and those who lost loved ones are still around.

11 years later, families like Al-Morabit are still seeking explanations and still further away in their struggle for justice for their loved ones who were killed while asleep, for no apparent reason.

Al-Morabit is not alone in his search for justice. On 8 August, 2011, Mohamed Al-Ja’arud’s family compound composed of several houses, in Majer town some 10 km south of Zlitin, was hit. Two houses in the compound, with families inside, were destroyed. The initial NATO strike killed 34 civilians, including babies, children and women. The second strike, shortly afterwards, killed another 18 civilians who rushed to the scene to help in the rescue operations. According to the different reports, including that of Amnesty International, there was no legitimate military target in the area.

My own investigation into the air strikes and interviews with survivors revealed that the total number of civilians killed in the compound is more than 80 civilians, mostly members of the same families. Some of the survivors still struggle with the physical and psychological consequences of what happened 11 years ago.

Mohamed Al-Ja’aru, who I spoke to yesterday, is in Germany accompanying two of his sisters who survived the attack but sustained serious injuries and still need complicated and costly medical interventions to “heal, if they will ever heal”, Mohamed said. His sister, Mahdia, 24, lost a leg while Mariam, 18, suffered serious injuries in her right leg. His eldest sister, Ajaeb, 33, suffered a broken spine and various burns. Mohamed said “because of financial reasons” he could not take her to Germany for treatment, hoping that “maybe next time”.

During NATO’s “Operation Unified Protector”, nearly 100 civilians, including few months’ old children, were killed in August alone, beginning on 19 June, 2011 when Mohamed Al-Ghrari’s home in Souk Al-Juma, west of Tripoli, was hit, killing five civilians. NATO air strikes went on for another seven months without stopping, and more civilians were killed in Tripoli, Surman, Bani Walid, Sirte and Brega, to name few.

11 years on and nothing has been done about what happened and, every time NATO is asked about those civilian deaths, it gives meaningless responses. In many cases, NATO acknowledged that some air strikes hit the wrong targets, killing civilians but has never directly admitted any responsibility. The successive Libyan governments since 2011 have, so far, failed to even recognise those civilian victims and have never raised the issue with NATO, or any other country that participated in the destruction of Libya in 2011, such as Qatar, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. Victims’ families are left alone to deal with the situation in chaotic Libya.

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Naji Al-Morabit and Mohamed Al-Ghrari have tried several times to get the Libyan authorities involved in “this big legal case”, as Mohamed described it, but failed. In their latest attempt two months ago, they managed to deliver a written complaint to the country’s Prosecutor General, asking for an investigation but “nothing has come of it so far”, Mohamed said.

According to Mr. Al-Morabit, the coordinates of his house were given by a “Libyan traitor” to NATO, but “I cannot prove it”, he said. The use of on-the-ground spies during the NATO operation is a fact, yet it is hard to verify. However, some individuals, including the former Minister of Education, admitted in videos that they, indeed, helped NATO by providing information to its military command. Such acts at the time were justified on the grounds that they wanted to get rid of Gaddafi.

While victims’ families still struggle to achieve justice, they are faced with serious hurdles including the lack of any help from the government of their country. Mr. Al-Ghrari said “without government intervention”, we cannot do much. The closest any Libyan government came to recognising the plight of victims’ families was in 2017, when the then deputy Chairman of the Presidential Council, Ahmed Maitiq, took part in the commemoration of the Majeur massacre. He promised the families financial and legal help but nothing has come of it, so far.

One thing is certain – dozens of Libyan civilians were killed in 2011 by NATO and the Alliance, yet even today it does not want to accept its responsibility. Indeed, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and even the UN have documented the civilian deaths caused by NATO, but they never managed to get a full explanation from the organisation. However, victims’ families like Al-Morabit, Al-Ja’arud and Al-Ghrari will not give up, however long it takes.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.