Tuareg fighters with heavy weapons patrol the jagged precipice of windswept Tendi Mountain, with its panoramic view over the remote Saharan oasis of Ubari. This mountaintop is the strategic focal point of an ongoing bitter tribal fight between the Tuareg and the Tebu for who controls the town.
A deadly battlefield for nine months, Ubari's downtown is held hostage by Tebu snipers who have blocked the one rutted road leading into town. Homes and businesses are destroyed; families scattered; the airport, once popular with tourists, is deserted; and Libya's sprawling oil fields in the desert beyond remain offline.
After being spotted by Tebu forces lodged in the valley below, a volley of incoming mortar rounds sends Tuareg men on the mountain diving behind a fortified sandbank, while others return fire.
One 26-year-old fighter, Ali Issa, speeds down the steep road's hairpin turns, expertly swerving to avoid sniper fire. He makes the trip up Tendi Mountain several times a day, and counts 15 good friends lost to the fight so far.
Like many local conflicts that have roiled Libya since the ouster of former strongman Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, Ubari — with its pre-war population of around 35,000 consisting of a mostly Tuareg and Arab majority, with a small Tebu presence — is illustrative of the post-revolutionary power struggle between local tribes in the new Libya.
Downtown Ubari has been divided by active frontlines with snipers on both sides, displacing the civilians that live there. (Photo by Mauricio Morales)
For the indigenous southern Tuareg and Tebu tribes, politically used and variously marginalized by Qaddafi, this is a local battle about historical grievances, Libyan identity, and who belongs to the land.
The Tuareg are traditionally based in Ubari and Ghat, along Libya's southwest borders, and have kin mostly in Algeria, Niger and Mali. The Tebu tribe, with ties to Chad, mostly stretch from the desert town of Murzuq to isolated Kufra, hundreds of kilometers east near Egypt and Sudan.
Like the others, this conflict has been sucked into the national political context where Libya's two dueling governments back disparate armed groups in a brutal fight for key oil infrastructure, military bases, ports, and borders.
One government, "Libya Dawn," is based in Tripoli and allied with Qatar and Turkey. The other, "Dignity," has been exiled to Tobruk in the east, and supported by the UAE, Egypt, and the EU.
The arrival of the Islamic State, whose militants have exploited the ongoing chaos to expand their presence, has just made the environment more deadly and complex.
Tendi Mountain overlooks Ubari and is a key position in the fighting. (Photo by Mauricio Morales)
Hopes are cautiously pinned on an Ubari ceasefire agreement written this week, although negotiations in the past have failed and many from the local Tuareg and Tebu community view this as an outside proxy war beyond their power to resolve.
"Do you see al Qaeda here, do you see Daesh?" Tuareg fighters with Ali Issa defensively ask VICE News, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State, whose militant fighters have gained rapid ground around the northern coastal town of Sirte this past week.
With virtually no media coverage of this remote southwest Libyan corner where the frontiers of Niger and Algeria meet, the Tuareg accuse the Tebu of smearing their reputation by calling them "terrorists" to concerned international powers, in order to cement their own role as a strong desert tribe to do business with.
'Any entrance of foreign armies will create big problems.'
Economic gain and the specter of terrorism continue to be dominant interests in Libya's oil and mineral-rich south. The French run military operations out of Madama, a counterterrorism base in Niger 100 kilometers south of the Libyan border, and control a huge, lucrative uranium mine that poses a radioactive threat to the impoverished Tuareg living on the land.
Algeria has ratcheted up its border security, worried about a violent spillover dragging its own country into chaos. US soldiers are in Niger as well, and have just inked a deal to expand their military presence in southern Spain, to keep a watchful eye on Libya and the Sahel region.
Many families in Ubari live without electricity, running water, and other necessities. (Photo by Mauricio Morales)
But still, a marked increase in smuggled migrants over porous borders to Europe and the growing threat of the Islamic State in the north has forced the international community to explore contingency plans in case the United Nations-brokered talks for Libya's peace — involving both Libyan governments — fail before the start of the holy month of Ramadan in a couple weeks.
But with the UN talks skewed favorably toward keeping the power with the Dignity government — and the east's alliance with controversial General Khalifa Heftar, who is one of those leading the fight against the Libya Dawn forces, another stumbling block — the fighting could likely continue, despite dwindling government finances and state institutions falling apart.
"Any entrance of foreign armies will create big problems," Abu Baker Al-Fakih, a prominent Tuareg elder, warned, while taking a rest on a living room sofa from the debilitating midday heat during a rare meeting of all Tuareg leaders earlier this year.
Al-Fakih is part of a team tasked with brokering the peace between the Tuareg and Tebu tribes. The Tuareg are split in their support for Libya's dueling governments, but they do agree they are united in their fight to preserve their traditional Tuareg base in Ubari.
Tuareg men pray in the Sahara dessert near the algerian border in south Libya. (Photo by Mauricio Morales)
"In Libya, every tribe is fighting each other. We Tuareg need to unite with one voice to solve things," said Al-Fakih at the time. He carries an old yellowed copy of the longstanding "Midi-Midi" truce signed between the Tuareg and Tebu in his battered suitcase as a historical reminder of their past coexistence in the south.
During his 42-year rule, Qaddafi pushed Arab nationalism at the expense of Libya's indigenous tribes. He considered them a threat, with their intimate knowledge of the southern desert gleaned by generations of guiding camel trade caravans.
Today, Toyota pickup trucks have mostly replaced the camel, and with few job prospects in the area, many residents make an illicit living carrying migrants north, along with drugs, weapons, subsidized gasoline, and food goods.
Qaddafi had manipulated the Tuareg's regional battle for self-determination, giving them jobs primarily in his army and intelligence services, with promises of a safe haven and rights. Although many Tuareg lack national identification cards, and the access to services and white-collar jobs they bring, by offering them shelter, the dictator deliberately infuriated neighboring states with substantial Tuareg kin.
Downtown Ubari has seen urban combat for the control of the town between Tuareg and Tebu fighters. (Photo by Mauricio Morales)
The Tebu were also used and then marginalized by Qaddafi after he lost his war for their home territory in mineral-rich northern Chad in 1994. They were blocked from higher education and most legitimate employment, so when the 2011 revolution kicked off, they cast their lot with rebels, and emerged with a prize from the transitional government of guarding southern borders.
Apart from a small group of revolutionaries, however, many Tuareg remained in their jobs with the regime's army, and fight the stigma of doing so today. After Qaddafi's demise, his massive arms stockpiles were cracked open, and weapons were sold to local armed groups, ferried to the Syrian war, or used by the Tuareg to aid their fight for a homeland in Mali.
The Ubari fight, triggered last September by a petty dispute between local Tebu and Tuareg smugglers and their hold on lucrative cross-border routes, has killed and wounded hundreds, and forced most of the town's families to scatter across desert towns.
"Ubari had drug smugglers, so we formed a joint operations team with Tuareg, Tebu, and Arabs to combat them," explained Edal Abu Baker Issa to VICE News, before he was killed in a Tebu ambush in Ubari in March. Issa was one Tuareg leader from the border town of Ghat who sided with the revolution against Qaddafi.
A group of Tuareg tribal elders meet to address issues in Ghat and Ubari. (Photo by Mauricio Morales)
"When the drug smugglers started the fight, it was a political problem and elders tried to solve the issue," he had said. "But the Tebu broke the ceasefire and it changed to a tribal fight."
Captain Ali Hussein heads the Tuareg military operations room based out of the old Maghawir Brigade compound, where Qaddafi's fighters made up of mostly Tuareg from Mali and Niger were trained and sent to his ambitious interventions in far-flung wars, including Uganda and Lebanon. Hussein believes the only way to solve the Ubari fight right now is by force.
He says the Tuareg receive token financial support from the Tripoli government, while medical evacuations are flown out of the nearby Sharara oil field, Libya's second largest, which is currently secured by forces from the city of Misrata and many of the Tuareg — who just four years before were largely on opposing sides of the 2011 revolution.
The Tuareg accuse the Tebu, who are allied with the Tobruk-based Dignity government, of doing France's bidding by seizing Tuareg land and resources in southwest Libya. The Tuareg have a long history of regional oppression by the French to draw from.
Campo is one of the Ubari neighborhoods controlled by young Tuareg fighters. (Photo by Mauricio Morales)
Tuareg fighters say the Tebu they are fighting are not their former neighbors, but mercenaries recruited from Chad and Darfur. This, they tell VICE News, they have learned from interrogations, eavesdropping on radio conversations, and finding SIM cards dead bloated bodies with photos of "foreign" fighters posing with guns.
Mirroring these claims, the Tebu accuse Tuareg fighters in Ubari of being extremists back from a bloody war in Mali, who have brought Islamic fighters to the oasis town. They point to Brigade 315, with its massive compound alongside the Maghawir complex run by a religious teacher called Sheikh Ahmed Omar al-Ansari, as "al Qaeda" and a threat to Libya's security.
'They want to say we have problems with the Tuareg, but we don't. We have a problem with terrorists.'
"They want to say we have problems with the Tuareg, but we don't," said Mohammed Lino, a Tebu activist from the nearby town of Murzuq. "We have a problem with terrorists."
But when terrorism accusations about Sheikh al-Ansari are brought up, Tuareg fighters often laugh. Spending time between Misrata and Ubari, this pious leader is viewed by many as a local revolutionary trying to save Ubari from encroaching Qaddafi loyalists, and now the Tebu.
"We Tuareg love our music and love our desert culture," one Tuareg fighter explains to me. "We would never blow ourselves up."
With the rise of Islamic State in the north however, some believe it is only a matter of time before this militant group seizes the opportunity to transplant themselves in the chaotic south.
Tuareg fighters prepare dinner at a checkpoint on one of the entry roads they control to Ubari. (Photo by Mauricio Morales)
In 2013 in Ubari, when fighters from the Tebu and Zintan tribe — who fought the Misratans and lost over control of Tripoli's airport last summer — patrolled Sharara oil field, dejected Tuareg were returning from Mali, where their battle for self-determination had been hijacked by Islamic militants. They sat along crumbling sidewalks in the desolate downtown, with few prospects for work and money.
Now when Tuareg fighters drive their trucks through the narrow, sandy maze of whitewashed alleyways in Campo, a scruffy neighborhood where the people are often too impoverished to flee the violence, residents greet them warmly for defending them.
Tilla Ali, a 40-year-old Tuareg mother in a brightly colored jalabia, lives with her daughters in a squalid dusty home. She ushers in the fighters for tea. Her husband was in the Libyan army, and like many, still relies on a sporadic salary from the diminishing coffers of Libya's governments to survive. Her neighborhood has been mortared numerous times, she says, and many neighbors have been killed. A somber field on the edge of town is littered with freshly dug graves.
"We know the Tebu in Ubari — we were in school together," said Mohamed Al-Ansary, a Tuareg conflict resolution advisor, says. He believes powers like Algeria, France, and many Libyan politicians benefit to keep the Tuareg weak and fighting a proxy battle with the Tebu in the oil-rich land. "When I talk with Tebu leaders, they all agree with peace. So why is there a war in Ubari?"
Follow Rebecca Murray on Twitter: @Beccamurr