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Libya's Minority Berbers Renew Equality Demands

  • Al Pessin

YEFREN, Libya — Libya's revolution has led to renewed demands from the country's Berber minority for cultural and language rights and full integration into the Arab-majority country. Such demands have been heard before, but this time the local people believe their goals are being achieved.

The Berber village of Yefren is remote, dry and dusty. It was also one of the cradles of last year's Libyan uprising, claiming one of the first anti-regime demonstrations, and several of the revolution's martyrs.

One symbol of the Berber people's aspirations is their radio station, which was shuttered by the security forces of former dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Now, it is open again, with technicians in training for its first broadcasts in the Berber language, or what local people prefer to call the Amazigh language.

One of the founders of the Libyan Amazigh Youth Assembly, Said Henshir, says Berbers, like all Libyans, live in freedom now. But he says they also have some demands for the newly elected government.

"We want the full rights of language and culture granted in the previously marginalized Amazigh areas without any restrictions whatsoever," said Henshir. "We want to be treated as 100 percent Libyans, not as a minority, and not as if we were faking being Libyan."

The Berbers are an ancient people who live across North Africa. Through the centuries, many of them have maintained their own language and identity, while also becoming part of the largely-Arab cultures of their home countries.

Said Henshir says the Berbers don't want any special status in Libya, only the recognition that their bonds with other Libyans were sealed during the revolution.

"We are connected with the ties of blood and the blood that has been spilled," Henshir added. "When Libyans were martyred during the Feb 17th Revolution Berber and non-Berber blood was mixed together."

In the cave under a friend's traditional Berber house, Henshir shares tea and homemade bread. His host, Bilgassem Ali Maadi, introduces himself in the Berber, or Amazigh, language.

Maadi opens his family home to tourists interested in the local culture, something he says Gadhafi's police didn't like.

"This house was open but, sort of, not officially, as there was always some kind of harassment from security units," Maadi recalled. "Visiting tourists would be followed by officers or summoned for questioning, and their visits to this house and other Berber heritage sites were restricted."

Today, the Berber flag and the Berber symbol depicting a free man are displayed alongside the Libyan flag in the village, with local residents openly and equally proud of both their cultural heritage and their national identity.
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