Berbers in Tunisia fed and housed Libyan Berbers displaced during the 2011 uprisings.  Photo: Samer Mohdad, Corbis Berbers in Tunisia fed and housed Libyan Berbers displaced during the 2011 uprisings. Photo: Samer Mohdad, Corbis

Chapter 9 – Berbers, borders and breakdown 
in the 2011 Libyan civil war

In the 2011 Libyan civil war

The 2011 revolts in North Africa and the Middle East, known by the not-so-inclusive moniker “Arab Spring,” brought together Tunisian and Libyan Imazighen (Berbers) in the borderlands of southeastern Tunisia and Western Libya. Whereas some Tunisians and Libyans had long moved through this borderland for trade, work or family visits, others had little direct familiarity with their co-ethnics until the Libyan Civil War, when hundreds of thousands of Libyans took refuge in this region of Tunisia – as many as 10,000 per day at the peak of the crisis.

Imazighen are the indigenous people of North Africa who preceded the Arab invasions of the 7th and 12th centuries; their populations today are largest in Morocco and Algeria. They share the Tamazight language in its various geographic varieties. Historically, they differed from Arabs in law, political organization, dress, expressive culture and many ritual practices, and in Tunisia and Libya, they shared troglodyte dwellings carved into the mountains. Imazighen also share histories of both coexistence and tension with ethnic Arabs. The struggle for Amazigh linguistic and cultural rights gained recognition in 1980 in Kabylia, Algeria, in what is called the Berber Spring.

Such recognition, however, sidestepped Tunisia and Libya until the revolts of 2011. In Libya, the situation was violent and dire under Muammar Gadhafi, who, along with his government ministers, denied the existence of Berber people or language in Libya and instead insisted in official documents that the Libyan population was homogeneous and that the Berber language was “merely a dialect or accent” of Arabic. In 2008, Gadhafi threatened Amazigh activists by saying, “You can call yourselves whatever you want inside your homes – Berbers, Children of Satan, whatever – but you are only Libyans when you leave your homes.” 1 Activists tell of peers who were harassed, tortured, jailed or killed for speaking out for Berber rights.2

In contrast, discrimination in Tunisia has been subtle, taking the form of both governmental and popular insistence on the Arab identity of the Tunisian population, with a broadly recognized nod to a Berber past few admit to remembering. Today, Tamazight language and renewed claims of Amazigh heritage are more robust in Libya than in Tunisia.3

The sudden coexistence of Libyan and Tunisian Berbers in 2011 for four to eight months was extraordinary for its rarity and scope. Tunisians housed and fed displaced Libyans outside the auspices of international relief organizations. Humanitarian organizations were more concerned with third-country nationals such as Sudanese and Somali guest workers fleeing anti-black violence in Libya. In some villages on the island of Djerba, Libyans became 10 percent of the village populations. In the frontier pre-Saharan town of Tataouine, the population doubled from 40,000 to 80,000. This transnational Amazigh coexistence is one of the hidden stories of the Arab uprisings. Some Libyans had heard there were Tunisian Berbers but had never met them, and vice-versa. Still others had no idea Berbers existed outside of their community or village, and thus underwent a kind of identity awakening when they met their co-ethnics from across the border.

From June 2011 to May 2012, I carried out five research trips to southeastern Tunisia to interview Tunisians and Libyans about their experiences of revolution and war in the borderlands. I researched the extraordinary organizational logistics through which Tunisian laypeople orchestrated the reception, housing and feeding of tens of thousands of Libyan families.4 By the time I began my research, displaced Libyans lived in camps, youth hostels, community centers and private furnished homes offered without charge by villagers.5 Some wealthy Libyans rented hotel rooms or houses, especially the pro-Gadhafi elite who fled after the fall of Tripoli in late August 2011, but this population is outside the scope of my study. The Libyans in this war context were called “refugees” (al lajiyin)by the Tunisians, but others insisted on calling them “displaced people.”

The label of “refugee” is a contested one for this population; officials at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), as well as officials at the Danish Refugee Council and Red Crescent whom I interviewed, disagreed as to whether Libyans were a displaced or refugee population. During the Libyan civil war, many families from the Nafusa Mountains took refuge with relatives in Tripoli, not yet under siege. Those fleeing into Tunisia and Egypt crossed international borders to seek protection, as a refugee must do by definition. But Libyans’ choices for relocation reflected less an intentional choice about which government could best protect them, and more an assessment of which roads or desert thoroughfares were open and safe to travel. For Berber men commuting to fight in the Nafusa Mountains, Tunisia was a safe base for their families and just a three-hour drive away.

Narratives of longstanding co-existence were part and parcel of the oral histories that people in these borderlands created during and after the Libyan civil war. Yet there had not been such massive coexistence between these groups since 1912, when Italy colonized Libya. By 2011, there were deep cleavages between the populations. Most striking to the Tunisians were Libyan governmental policies that they argued created a people accustomed to plenty and to a foreign migrant workforce, and that gave little incentive to workers to work full days or to claim ownership over their efforts.

One Tunisian from the border, working at the UNHCR refugee camp in Remada, referred to a Libyan teacher acquaintance of his when he said, “If you got paid regardless of whether you taught your classes, would you bother to get up in the morning?” Clearly, many displaced Libyans were of more modest economic status; this was evident in their descriptions of their meals, especially the centrality of the humble barley they farmed in the mountains, which was favored over store-bought soft wheat flour. While Tunisians’ narratives of solidarity and shared fate across the border were pervasive, equally common were tales of discarded food, abuses of generosity and dissatisfaction with furnished homes without air conditioning offered free of charge to the Libyans by Tunisian villagers. Wasteful and lazy behavior was shocking to the modest Tunisians who volunteered their time, energy and meager resources to help the Libyans, and who often lacked air conditioning themselves.

Borderlands and Transnational Crossings in Theory and Practice

Roadside stands near the border, selling nationalist souvenirs of the revolution with the reinstated Libyan flag (first flown from 1951 to 1969) as well as the Tunisian flag, raised questions about the nationalist sentiment and about borderlands in theory and practice.Post-independence governments have been deeply invested in enforcing the borders they inherited from colonial regimes. Moreover, even when borders “were originally ‘artificial’ creations, they have long since become an integral part of the lives of borderlanders … borders have an impact on social identities and have come to ‘demarcate mental space.’” 6 International borders are deeply meaningful for many people; they are naturalized via school lessons, bureaucratic administrative procedures, economic systems and even children’s play, as with the homemade flags Libyan refugee children made to decorate their camps.

Yet the border in and of itself is nothing without human mediation, narration and policing. As Kate Lloyd, et al., write, “borders and borderlands define ourselves and others. They both separate and bring together.” 7

The experiences of separating and bringing together via the border have potentially more impact on ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples who defy national demarcation yet are subject to the regimes of individual states. To illustrate this, I offer a few glimpses at challenges to the status quo of the border or new opportunities in the borderlands at the intersection of the 2011 revolts, transnational Berber coexistence, and the breakdown of the Tunisian and Libyan states.

The same border crossing actions are subject to different “legality claims” or “efforts to portray actions as legal or illegal, regardless of whether the law specifically addresses such actions,” as Maria Lorena Cook argues. 8 In other words, Cook continues, “Legality claims may be expressed as legal discourses or social practices in informal settings outside of official legal institutions.” Key among these legality claims were instances in which individuals and groups portrayed their actions as moral, upright or otherwise defensible, regardless of whether they were officially sanctioned by law or policy. A key arena of challenges to legality claims during the Libyan Civil War was in transnational families and marriages, and the border-crossing work required of them.

One example comes from Noujoud, a woman originally from the Nafusa Mountains but who had married and raised children and grandchildren in Douiret village, in southeastern Tunisia, where I met her this past April. A young Libyan man in her extended family died fighting Gadhafi’s militias, and Noujoud and a small group of women headed from their Tunisian village to the border to attend the funeral in Libya. Like most rural women, they had no passports. Border guards refused the women access. Yet rather than accept this, the women appealed to the guards’ sense of solidarity with the Libyan rebels and to their shared Islamic faith. They referred to the deceased as a “martyr” and a “revolutionary,” and explained that attending the funeral fulfilled a religious duty. The border guards succumbed and allowed the women to cross. In Cook’s terms, these women “both evade[d] and engage[d] the law by drawing simultaneously on legality claims that [were] ‘above the law’ and recognized ‘on the ground,’ or negotiated with authorities” (563). Who could argue with elderly women’s claims to doing their familial and religious duty? They clearly presented no threat.

People told me two stories about marriage between Libyan women and Tunisian men. The first was told to me by a Libyan woman who had relocated from a camp to a youth hostel. While en route, she had had one hand hennaed by a Tunisian woman (she claimed she needed the other hand to work). The Libyan future bride was a resident in a camp at which a young Tunisian man worked. he marriage was arranged by the young camp resident’s father, who had already been seeking a suitable husband for his daughter. In the more dramatic second story, the future Tunisian groom’s father’s family was hosting the Libyan bride-to-be and her family. When the bride’s father returned to Libya at one point in the fighting, he told his host that if he did not return to Tunisia, he wanted his daughter to stay in Tunisia and marry the host’s son. The father died in Libya, the story goes, and so the two were engaged. No one I spoke to had actually attended one of these weddings or knew the individuals firsthand. Arguably, what matters is what these stories tell us about goodwill, shared values and belief in the possibility of solidarity across the border in a time of war.

A second set of challenges threatened the status quo of Tunisia and Libya as separate but equal countries. These threats were integral to the cohesion during the civil war of the idea of Tunisia as a land of peace and order, and Libya as a lawless land. This characterization is striking, given that Tunisia had no policing in some of its southern provinces for the first three months of 2011, after the police and military retreated with the fall of President Ben Ali. In fact, in villages such as Guellala on the island of Djerba, local men with no previous organizational experience set up village patrols and checkpoints. They then used these new social networks to orchestrate the care of refugees as they arrived.

Many of the Tunisian community organizers I interviewed explained the registration processes they designed to keep track of the Libyans in their villages, neighborhoods and other locations where Libyans settled. I collected lists (albeit incomplete) of displaced Libyans from the local Tunisian men who organized their housing. We located these archives in unlikely places: under a truck seat parked in a private locked garage, in a Quranic association headquarters and, in one village, in the locale of the scout troop. With this information, it is possible to sketch a profile of many of the refugees’ origins, at least for the villages keeping information about hometowns or birthplaces. In the village of Ajim on Djerba, for instance, about three quarters of the displaced Libyans were from Berber-speaking towns and villages. Full information on the displaced is simply not available, as Tunisian host communities did not consistently succeed in eliciting accurate information from those taking refuge in their midst.

Many Libyan men were afraid of reprisals: In the first months of the war, Gadhafi’s spies infiltrated Tunisia to intimidate political opponents, so Libyan men were reluctant to show their identity cards, declare their wives’ and children’s names, and register their temporary residences. The tension was palpable in Tunisia during the crisis up until Gadhafi’s death, and there was much uncertainty. Some refugees’ desire for privacy and anonymity conflicted with the order that Tunisians were attempting to instill. There was no law in place requiring Libyan registration, only collectively defined rules. The narrative developed on the Tunisian side was of and Libyans themselves as lawless – not just their government – as evidenced by their driving habits: driving on the wrong side of the road, passing on the right, running red lights and generally wreaking havoc on the already-stressed host communities.

The trans-border understanding of Tunisia as safe haven, however, was shaken in April 2011. Gadhafi’s militias crossed the border into Tunisia and directly attacked the refugee camp established just a few kilometers from the border and run by the United Arab Emirates Red Crescent (UAERC) along with the Tunisian Red Crescent and the Tunisian army.9

Tunisians and Libyans were both terrified at this military confrontation against alleged rebels living in the camps; the conflict brought Tunisian men into the streets with rocks and handmade weapons.

Swift reprisals by the Tunisian military pushed the militias into retreat, but both refugees and local Tunisians remained unsettled at this sudden shift in the location of the border between safe and dangerous zones.

In addition, most Libyan refugee families went home for Ramadan, but women and children returned to Tunisia when they saw firsthand how food was scarce, wells were poisoned, electricity was rationed, and landmines and freely roaming armed youths made parents fear for their children’s safety. During Ramadan, landmine education became an important NGO activity, especially at the border where stickers, posters and drawing books distributed by the Mines Action Group all attempted to train Libyans to recognize these lethal weapons.A third area of new transborder relations concerned Amazigh activism in the wake of the revolts. The political regimes that limited Amazigh activism were gone. The first Tunisian Amazigh organization participated in the Nalut Cultural Festival in Western Libya in April 2012, and activists are building on new opportunities to connect face-to-face rather than through Facebook and social media, where they met before the revolts. Tunisian activists said they felt overshadowed by the Libyan activists because Tunisian resources were so meager in comparison. Additionally, there were budding attempts at cultural tourism and exchange across the border.

Tunisian tourism has for decades been primarily beach-based, but the Ennahda Islamist leaders heading the Tunisian government after the fall of Ben Ali spoke out against beach package tours catering to Europeans. Cultural tourism and exchange is underway in Guellala village on Djerba, where enterprising young men are building on the network of vacant homes that villagers had prepared for the refugee families, and are recruiting Libyan Amazigh families to vacation among them.

One organizer told me that among the positive effects of this transborder contact would be that Tunisian children playing with Libyan children and speaking Tamazight would no longer associate the Tamazight language with the elderly. A fourth and final area of challenge to the status quo of the border was a shift in cross-border trade. In Ramadan 2011, the Tunisian government prohibited the export of subsidized goods, including dates and lentils – heavily consumed in Ramadan meals – water and gasoline, as these became scarce with heavy trade into Libya. A once-legal activity (trade) became an illegal activity (smuggling) through the redefinition by the Tunisian state: “Borders allow market actors to play states against states, regions against regions, cities and communities against cities and communities. Markets also exploit the economic inequalities of people and goods in space and time.” 10

For some traders, smuggling through Ras Ajdir led to armed conflict with the paramilitary gendarmes who monitored traffic on the single road leading to Tripoli. Given Tunisian laypeople’s generosity in orchestrating refugee relief, and the international accolades they received for it, the Tunisian state risked appearing tightfisted by restricting trade. Yet clearly even humanitarian sensibility had its limits.

In conclusion, I want to echo refugee scholar and advocate Merrill Smith, who claims that popular solidarity is “essential to refugee protection and enjoyment of rights.” 11 This solidarity was a practical matter for Tamazight monolingual Libyan children who had not yet started school and could live in Tunisia among co-ethnics with whom they could communicate. But on a symbolic level as well, Berber heritage tended to go hand-in-hand with social conservatism, especially gender conservatism, and a perceived piety that many Berbers believed distinguished them from other Tunisians and Libyans. In this respect, for some Tunisian and Libyan men in particular, it was not the shared Berber heritage that they articulated as important, but instead the shared values that they associated with this heritage, exemplified by their desire to segregate the sexes outside the home.

For some Amazigh Tunisians, the experience of engaging in their own revolution, and then quickly turning to host Libyan revolutionaries in their communities, raised new possibilities of transnational Amazigh consciousness. Certainly, new understandings of the nation-state emerge from revolutions. But there may also be new forms of collective popular identification outside the framework of the nation-state, led not only by rebels who take up arms, but also by the refugees of revolution and the laypeople who organize these refugees’ lives in exile.

The research in this piece was

supported by the National Science Foundation’s Cultural Anthropology Program under Grant No. 1148741.

1 Cable entitled “Libya’s Berber Minority Still Out in the Cold,” July 3, 2008, The cable was marked classified by US diplomat Chris Stevens, who was later named Ambassador to Libya in 2012 and killed in an attack on the American consulate in Benghazi on September 11, 2012. On attacks on the homes of Berber leaders in Yefran, an important Berber town in the Nafusa mountains, see a report entitled “Regime-Orchestrated Attacks against Berbers in Yefran,” January 13, 2009, wikileaks/8294907/REGIME-ORCHESTRATED-ATTACKS-AGAINST-BERBERS-IN-YEFREN.html accessed August 2013. This report was classified by US Ambassador Gene Cretz.

2 Amnesty International has documented the Libyan government’s intolerance for calls to recognize Amazigh heritage and its insistence on ethnic heterogeneity and lack of discrimination in Libya. See its 2011 report, “Four Arrested Amid Fears of Amazigh Culture Crackdown,” accessed August 2013.

3 On the Amazigh movement in Tunisia see Stéphanie Pouessel, “Les marges renaissantes. Amazigh, Juif, Noir. Ce que la révolution a changé dans ce ‘petit pays homogène par excellence’ qu’est la Tunisie,” L’Année du Maghreb 8 (2012), 143 – 160. Also available at accessed August 2013.

Reports in Western media have amply covered the Amazigh public protests and calls for revival in Libya since the war, as in Tim Hume, “A Rebirth of Berber Culture in Post-Gadhafi Libya,”, September 3, 2012, accessed August 2013. It remains to be seen how the end of the regime and activist efforts may shape linguistic and cultural practices in Libya.

4 Preliminary findings on these organizing efforts are in Katherine E. Hoffman, “Local Hosting and Transnational Identity,” Forced Migration Review 39 (2012): 12 – 14. Also available at

5 In addition to the two camps established by the UNHCR, the State of Qatar built a camp outside of Tataouine, and the Red Crescent Societies of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) along with the Tunisian Red Crescent established another near the Dehiba border. All camps together accommodated around 6,000 to 7,000 people, including both Libyans and third-country nationals from sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere. See Ivana Vuco (SPO, UNHCR), “End of Mission Report: Libya operation, south Tunisia (PROCAP) (14 Jun – 16 Jul 2011),” accessed September 30, 2012. Available at See also Agence-France Presse, “Qatar opens camp in Tunisia for Libyan refugees,” May 30, 2011, docId=CNG.457a26ab62ddf88061e8abe5baa61c04.ab1 accessed August 2013.

6 Carola Lentz, “‘This is Ghanaian territory!’: Land Conflicts on a West African Border,” American Ethnologist 30.2 (2003): 274.

7 Kate Lloyd, et al., “Stories of Crossings and Connections from Bawaka, North East Arnhem Land, Australia,” Social & Cultural Geography 11.7 (2010), 703.

8 Maria Lorena Cook, “‘Humanitarian Aid Is Never a Crime’: Humanitarianism and Illegality in Migrant Advocacy,” Law & Society Review 45.3 (2011), 562.

9 Although it apparently was well-run, this camp was dangerously situated, unlike some of the allegedly lower-quality camps, as reported by the medical relief group Libya United: It is worth noting that the UNHCR camp in Remada improved dramatically between this report and my visits to it in August 2011, with air-conditioned tents, a women’s socializing tent and some basic schooling. See
accessed August 2013.

10 Markus Perkmann and Ngai-Ling Sum, eds, Globalization, Regionalization and Cross-Border Regions (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2002), quoted in Emmanuel Brunet-Jailly, “Theorizing Borders: An Interdisciplinary Perspective,” Geopolitics 10 (2005), 642n52.

11 Merrill Smith, “Resettlement in Exchange for Protection and Local Integration in Egypt: A Dubious Bargain,” Fahamu Refugee Legal Aid Newsletter, October 31, 2011,
accessed August 2013.