Our Longreads Member Pick: Letter from Kufra, by Clare Morgana Gillis

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This week’s Member Pick is “Letter from Kufra,” a story by Clare Morgana Gillis, first published in the summer 2012 issue of The American Scholar. Gillis, who was featured on Longreads for her report after being captured in Libya, explains:

I first arrived in Libya at the end of February 2011, less than ten days after the uprising began when peaceful protests were attacked by Col. Qaddafi’s forces. I spent a few months there on that trip and witnessed the beginnings of the armed conflict and the NATO intervention and, accidentally, the inside of the Libyan prison system.  In September of 2011 I returned to report on the final phases of the war and the eventual execution of Qaddafi by rebel forces.

Like nearly every journalist who covered the conflict, and over 90% of the Libyan population, I had spent all my time in Libya on the Mediterranean coast. When I returned in February 2012 for the one-year anniversary of the uprising, I was determined to see more: the vast southern deserts had always fascinated me with their promise of oil-fields, tribal peoples, camels and oases. That month an age-old friction between the Tubu and Zwaya ethnic groups broke out into open battle in Kufra, some hundred miles north of the Chadian border. Despite claiming around 100 lives, it got almost no media attention, and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to go south. 

We—my Ukrainian colleague Vadim Naninets (whose photographs were in the piece), our driver and I—set out before the break of dawn to make the 620-mile drive south from Benghazi. Fully stocked with bread, cheese, dates, and many cigarettes and bottles of water for the trip, the only real concern we had was bandits on the road. Since fighting in the city had ended, and it was fully ‘liberated,’ under the control of anti-Qaddafi rebels, we didn’t worry about politics in town. That was our first mistake…

On arrival we were immediately taken to the military council headquarters, where the questioning started off fairly innocuously (‘where are you from,’ ‘what are you doing here?’). Within an hour or two we were being questioned separately, our answers transcribed. Local newspapers wrote of our detention, prompting anxious Facebook discussions and phone calls from the temporary consulate in Benghazi. Ten hours later we were released into the custody of the National Army, the Benghazi-based outfit which had come south to quell the battles. 

I quickly understood that in the Sahelian region of Libya—where lighter-skinned Zwaya and darker-skinned Tubu live together—the revolution had a very different meaning from the straight politics of the coast. Pro- and anti-Qaddafi factions were largely based on ethnicity and the history of relations between each ethnic group and the onetime Leader.

The ride home was much swifter and livelier than the ride down: National Army gave us a night-time lift in a C-130. In flagrant violation of any extant aviation law, we rode in the cockpit (I took a turn in the pilot’s seat), each of the ten or so men in the flight crew chain-smoking and explaining what all the dials were for, and pointing to distant red flares burning in the darkness which marked locations of oil fields. 

I was struck yet again by the unimaginable vastness of the deserts, and the sense that we can never fully know what goes on there.

Read an excerpt here

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