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Italian Genocide in Libya in the early 20th Century—Who knew? Now we do

posted on: Jan 27, 2021

A long march of the Bedawin to the Italian concentration camp Photo

By: John Mason/ Arab America Contributing Writer

Italian government officials in the years between World Wars I and II, 1924-1934, and present-day officials, have known about this shameful moment. To this day, Italian officials have tried to hide the fact of the genocide. Here we review a new book that covers it, almost as if in a murder mystery, Genocide in Libya: Shar, a Hidden Colonial History, (Routledge 2021) by Professor Ali Abdullatif Ahmida, a Libyan American scholar.

A new study of the hidden history of Fascist Italian concentration camps

Shar, from the title, is an Arabic word referring to evil, starvation, and death. In the context of this compelling story, it also means ‘depression in Italian concentration camps.’ Dr. Ahmida has put his heart and soul into the preparation of this revelatory story. Since little has been published about this travesty, he had to do much of the research himself, including interviews of survivors of the genocide and their children.

One of Ahmida’s own grandfathers was a mujahid, who fought valiantly against the Italian attempt to take over Libya militarily starting as early as 1911. The price he paid was to become a refugee in a nearby country. Through stories and poems, Ahmida’s own family began to reveal critical parts of the history, including the massive death and sorrow it engendered. Italy forced thousands of Libyan Arab Bedawin herders and farmers on long desert and mountainous marches to 16 concentration camps in eastern Libya. There, they were starved to death.

Al-Magroon Libya concentration camp/Photo Wikipedia

But the story is even more malevolent on the part of the Italians. They wanted to transplant hundreds of thousands of poorer Italians into the agriculturally rich region in Libya along the Mediterranean. After all, Libya was part of the Roman Empire’s earlier breadbasket. Additionally, the Italians forced many Libyans into prison-like conditions in southern Italy. This strategy represented a massive dislocation of both Libyans and Italians, all aimed at fulfilling the motives of a growing fascist Italian government, to revel in the glories of ancient Roman times. This and other nationalist ambitions spawned the emergence of the  Italian fascist leader, Mussolini.

“We died because of shar, evil, my son” (as told to Ahmida in a Survivor interview)

Over years, Ahmida interviewed numerous survivors, who told their awesome stories of death, destruction, and trauma in the concentration camps. Many of these stories became part of a legend of the tragedy inflicted on the Libyan Bedawin, their families, and their precious herds of camels, goats, and sheep. The Italians of that era stopped at nothing to destroy the culture and family structure of the Bedawin, who were and are today an ecologically well-adapted society living in a fragile environment.

Italian fascist leader Mussolini (middle) visiting Libya /Photo Pinterest

Since the Bedawin did not have their own literate tradition, much of their history is encapsulated in oral traditions. Ahmida relied on these traditions for much of his research. I, your AA contributing writer, did my fieldwork many decades ago in an oasis in the eastern Libyan Sahara and relied on these same kinds of oral histories, collected in long interviews with middle-aged and older residents.

Some of the more poignant stories of the Italian atrocity are captured by Ahmida in poems. One, ‘Our Homeland Ruined Twice,’ written by a young woman, expresses the trauma perfectly—

Ruined twice, our homeland

Some are dead hanging in

The gallows others are

Forced to flee in exile

We are ruined twice our homeland

Another, long, epic poem called ‘I have no Illness but this place of Agaila’ (a concentration camp), penned by an educated elder from the period, is a masterpiece of the suffering, emotion, and pain of the Italian genocide, a small sample of which is—

I have no illness but this place of Agaila,

The imprisonment of my tribe

And separation of my kin’s abode


I have no illness except this endless aging,

Loss of sense of dignity,

And the loss of good people who were my treasure

While ending on a note of a religious plea to end the evil, this poem, known in colloquial Bedawin Arabic as Mabi Marad, ‘I Am Not Ill,’ nevertheless richly depicts the tragedy of the death of 83,000 Libyans, several hundred thousands of their treasured animals, and an attempt to annihilate the Libyan Arab Bedawin culture, a way of life that had begun over a thousand years earlier in the Arabian peninsula where Islam began.

Bad news from the colonial Italian era and what it means for how we look at genocide today

Photo LibyanGenocide

During his long research over more than two decades, Ahmida was denied access to Italian government archives dating to the period of the genocide. Especially towards the end of his recent research, he was barred from those archives. The Italians during their long occupation, 1911-1935, were experts in documenting their experiences in different domains, so one can only imagine the level of detail they recorded in their reporting on their ethnic cleansing of the Bedawin.

One stunning fact Ahmida uncovered was that before World War II, the German authorities had sent three generals to Libya to “learn from” the Italian fascist model, namely how they were managing their version of extermination. One of them was none other than Hermann Goering, known as a major architect of the nazi “corrective treatment of difficult opponents.”

Forgotten genocide and a path to future understanding of national atrocities

Ahmida’s book is a richesse of details and understandings of genocide as a worldwide phenomenon. While we don’t have space here to discuss his frameworks for such understandings, a few examples of the breadth of his study include his review of the American genocide perpetrated on the American Indian people and the German genocide of the Herero tribal people of southwest Africa, among several others.

As to Libya’s dealing with the aftermath of the Italian effort to expunge the Bedawin of Cyrenaica, a 2008 initiative of then-leader Muamar Qadhafi resulted in a “vague apology and to pay five billion dollars as compensation for the crimes of the Italian colonial period.” Furthermore, certain Libyan educational institutions have already contributed to understanding the genocide through their research and studies programs. An effort to popularize Libyan resistance to Italian rule is captured nicely in a Qadhafi-sponsored film, Lion of the Desert, which was well-received by audiences worldwide.

This book is a tribute to the few remaining survivors of the Italian attempt to wipe out the Bedawin as a people and a lifeway. May it also become a lesson to the world and lead to, in Ahmida’s words, “a decolonization of colonial and fascist knowledge.” In other words, let’s keep the perpetrators of genocide honest.

John Mason, PhD., who focuses on Arab culture, society, and history, is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He did fieldwork in an east Libyan Saharan oasis and has taught at the University of Libya, Benghazi, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and the American University in Cairo. John served with the United Nations as an official in Tripoli, Libya, and consulted extensively on socioeconomic and political development for USAID, the UN, and the World Bank in 65 countries.

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