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Fascist Italy’s forgotten concentration camps in Libya

June 29, 2023 at 10:33 am

Libyan youth hold a picture of Libya’s anti-colonialist resistance hero Omar al-Mukhtar and posters reading “I love Benghazi” during a small protest in support of Libya’s General National Congress election in the eastern city of Benghazi on July 7, 2012 [MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/GettyImages]

On 30 August 2008, Italy and Libya signed their Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Partnership, ending their awkward past of feuding and diplomatic tensions over Italy’s colonisation of Libya from 1911 to 1943. Libya was seeking compensation, recognition of suffering of its people and, above all, an apology. Rome, as is the case with all former colonial powers, tried for years to close the matter without offering anything. The treaty, a success for Libya, might have ended the political and diplomatic struggle over the colonial past, but it will not wipe it out from history and people’s memories.

The idea of invading Libya came during the colonial rush that saw major colonial powers like France, United Kingdom and others divide the dying Ottoman Empire possessions in North Africa, the Middle East and southern Europe itself. Libya was part of that empire, very close to Italy across the Mediterranean Sea and, above all, Libyans lacked effective means to fight back after the Ottoman military garrison left the country.

The rise to power of the Republican Fascist Party, led by Benito Mussolini in 1922, gave the occupation of Libya another nostalgic dimension as the fascists strongly believed in the deceptive idea that modern Italy was the rightful heir to the Roman Empire and, therefore, they were responsible for recovering the possessions of the bygone empire.  Another reason that made Libya more attractive to fascist Italy is the fact that Italy, united just 50 years earlier, became overcrowded and its farmers, particularly in the south, were eager to own land of which Libya has plenty. Mussolini used to call Libya the “fourth shore of Rome”.

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Italians thought that the taking over of Libya would not be more than a few days’ sea trip and the entire country would be conquered. However, once the first amphibious forces tried to land on Tripoli shores in 1911, they were faced with stiff resistance from the locals, who rushed to defend their country with the little means they had.

As the invaders increased their numbers and widened their presence, the resistance shifted to new tactics, using the guerrilla tactics of hit-and-run. Outnumbered and out-gunned, the Libyans, mostly nomads and shepherds, figured out that direct confrontation with one of the most modern armies at the time was suicidal and destructive.

Instead of facing the Italian army directly, they waged rather small battles, mostly at night time. Benefitting from their detailed knowledge of the land and its geography, the Mujahidin, as they were called, managed to make life really difficult for the Italian army wherever it went. Facing a ghost enemy fighting on horseback, the Italian army started to use unheard of methods of war, scoring many firsts.

For instance, Italy was the first country to use air war and Libya became the first country to be bombed from the air. An Italian pilot named Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti, in a letter to his father, described how he threw the first bomb at an Arab [Libyan] camp in November 1911, just a month into the invasion. The young pilot wrote “today I have decided to try to throw bombs from the aeroplane”, before pointing out that it was “the first time that we [Italian army] will try this and if I succeed, I will be really pleased to be the first person to do it.”

Pilot Gavotti, indeed, succeeded in throwing the first ever bomb from an aeroplane, ushering in the age of air war for the first time in the history of mankind.  He wrote “and after a little while, I can see a small dark cloud in the middle of the encampment” in Ain Zara, today a town, but at the time just an oasis south-east of Tripoli. Ain Zara became the first place on earth to be bombed from the air. The Italian pilot did not realise what he had just done and had no idea what his bomb had done to people, mostly civilians, below. He returned to base, overwhelmed by his success in hitting “the target” and went straight to report to General Caneva that he just registered his name in history as the first person to bomb a target from the air. Carlo Caneva was the first Italian commander to announce that “Tripoli will be Italian”, as his forces launched the first attacks on Libya. He led the earlier brutal stages of the invasion before being replaced later by another, crueler General Rodolfo Graziani in 1930.

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In the same year, the Italian army scored another world first when Benito Mussolini authorised, for the first time, the use of sulphur mustard to subdue Libyans. Bombing formations of fighters and civilian villages suspected of supporting the Mujahidin from the air but, this time, using poisonous gas, besides explosives.

In the 1920s, Libyan resistance intensified, particularly in eastern Libya with the rise of Omar Al-Mukhtar, a septuagenarian who suffered old age and chronic back pain, who became the national leader of the Mujahidin against fascist Italian occupation.

This forced General Graziani to revert to using collective punishment against entire civilian communities by forcing them into concentration camps across Eastern Libya. At one point, there were some 16 different camps in the Sirte desert and further east in which thousands of civilians including women, children, the elderly and young men were forced to live with their animals in desert plots surrounded by barbed wire and guarded, around the clock, by armed soldiers.

Despite this brutality, Al-Mukhtar and his colleagues fought for 20 years, until he was captured on 11 September 1931, after suffering an injury in a village called Slonta, south of Al-Bayda town in Libya’s eastern Green Mountain region.

After a quick trial, he was sentenced to death by hanging on 16 September. Hundreds of civilians, including women and children were forced to watch as Al-Mukhtar was hanged in Suluq concentration camp, one of the most infamous, south-west of Benghazi. By staging such a gruesome show, the Italian authorities wanted to terrify Libyans who might think of following in his footsteps and fight them.

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Modern Libya, before the NATO invasion of 2011, used to commemorate 16 of September as a national day of mourning to remember Al-Mukhtar and remind younger generations of what happened in Libya, decades before. New Libya, however, has forgotten the mourning day, while fascist concentrations camps are never really mentioned outside academic circles.

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