Second Italo-Senussi War
|Second Italo-Senussi War|
|Part of Interwar Period|
Senussi rebel leader Omar Mukhtar (the man in traditional clothing with a chain on his left arm) after his arrest by Italian armed forces in 1931. Mukhtar was executed in a public hanging shortly afterward.
|Commanders and leaders|
|Casualties and losses|
|~56,000 Libyans dead|
The Second Italo-Senussi War, also referred to as the Pacification of Libya, was a conflict that occurred during the Italian colonization of Libya between Italian military forces (composed mainly of colonial troops from Libya, Eritrea, and Somalia) and indigenous rebels associated with the Senussi Order. The war lasted from 1923 until 1932, when the principal Senussi leader, Omar al-Mukhtar, was captured and executed.
Fighting took place in all three of Libya's provinces (Tripolitania, Fezzan, and Cyrenaica), but was most intense and prolonged in the mountainous Jebel Akhdar region of Cyrenaica. The war led to the mass deaths of the indigenous people of Cyrenaica, totalling one quarter of the region's population of 225,000. Italian war crimes included the use of chemical weapons, execution of surrendering combatants, and the mass killing of civilians, while the Senussis were accused of torture and mutilation of captured Italians and refusal to take prisoners since the late 1910s. Italian authorities forcibly expelled 100,000 Bedouin Cyrenaicans, half the population of Cyrenaica, from their settlements, many of which were then given to Italian settlers.
Italy had seized military control of Libya from the Ottoman Empire during the Italo-Turkish War in 1912, but the new colony had swiftly revolted, transferring large swaths of territory to local Libyan rule. Conflict between Italy and the Senussis – a Muslim political-religious tariqa based in Libya – erupted into major violence during World War I, when Senussis in Libya began collaborating with the Ottomans against Italian troops. The Libyan Senussis also escalated the conflict by attacking British forces stationed in Egypt. Conflict between the British and the Senussis continued until 1917.
In 1917, an exhausted Italy signed the Treaty of Acroma, which acknowledged the effective independence of Libya from Italian control. In 1918, Tripolitanian rebels founded the Tripolitanian Republic, though the rest of the country remained under nominal Italian rule. Local resistance against Italy continued, such that by 1920, the Italian government was forced to recognize Senussi leader Sayid Idris as Emir of Cyrenaica and grant him autonomy. In 1922, Tripolitanian leaders offered Idris the position of Emir of Tripolitania; however, before Idris could accept the position, the new Italian government of Benito Mussolini initiated a campaign of reconquest.
Since 1911, claims had been made of killings of Italian soldiers and civilians by Ottoman and local Muslim guerrillas, such as a slaughter in [[Battle and massacre at Shar al-Shatt |Sciara Sciat]]:
I saw (in Sciara Sciat) in one mosque seventeen Italians, crucified with their bodies reduced to the status of bloody rags and bones, but whose faces still retained traces of their hellish agony. Long rods had been passed through the necks of these wretched men and their arms rested on these rods. They were then nailed to the wall and died slowly with untold suffering. It is impossible for us to paint the picture of this hideous rotted meat hanging pitifully on the bloody wall. In a corner another body was crucified, but as an officer he was chosen to experience refined sufferings. His eyes were stitched closed. All the bodies were mutilated and castrated; so indescribable was the scene and the bodies appeared swollen as shapeless carrion. But that's not all! In the cemetery of Chui, which served as a refuge from the Turks and to whence soldiers retreated from afar, we could see another show. In front of one door near the Italian trenches five soldiers had been buried up to their shoulders, their heads emerged from the black sand stained with their blood: heads horrible to see and there you could read all the tortures of hunger and thirst. –– Gaston Leroud, correspondent for Matin-Journal (1917)
Reports of these killings led to cries for retaliation and revenge in Italy, and in the early 1920s the rise to power of Benito Mussolini, leader of the National Fascist Party, as Prime Minister of Italy led to a much more aggressive approach to foreign policy. Given the importance that the Fascists gave to Libya as part of a new Italian Empire, this incident served as a useful pretext for large-scale military action to reclaim it.
The war began with Italian forces rapidly occupying the Sirte desert separating Tripolitania from Cyrenaica. Using aircraft, motor transport, and good logistical organization, the Italians were able to occupy 150,000 square kilometres (58,000 sq mi) of territory in five months, cutting off the physical connection formerly held by the rebels between Cyrenaica and Tripolitania. By late 1928, the Italians had taken control of Ghibla, and its tribes were disarmed.
From 1923 to 1924, Italian troops regained all territory north of the Ghadames-Mizda-Beni Ulid region, with four-fifths of the estimated population of Tripolitania and Fezzan within the Italian area. In this period they also regained the northern lowlands of Cyrenaica, but attempts to occupy the forested hills of Jebel Akhtar were met with strong guerrilla resistance, led by Senussi sheikh Omar Mukhtar.
Attempted negotiations between Italy and Omar Mukhtar broke down and Italy then planned for the complete conquest of Libya. In 1930, Italian forces conquered Fezzan and raised the Italian flag in Tummo, the southernmost region of Fezzan. On 20 June 1930, Pietro Badoglio wrote to General Graziani: "As for overall strategy, it is necessary to create a significant and clear separation between the controlled population and the rebel formations. I do not hide the significance and seriousness of this measure, which might be the ruin of the subdued population...But now the course has been set, and we must carry it out to the end, even if the entire population of Cyrenaica must perish". By 1931, well over half the population of Cyrenaica were confined to 15 concentration camps where many died as result of overcrowding in combination with a lack of water, food and medicine while Badoglio had the Air Force use chemical warfare against the Bedouin rebels in the desert.
12,000 Cyrenaicans were executed in 1931 and all the nomadic peoples of northern Cyrenaica were forcefully removed from the region and relocated to huge concentration camps in the Cyrenaican lowlands. Italian military authorities carried out the forced migration and deportation of the entire population of Jebel Akhdar in Cyrenaica, resulting in 100,000 Bedouins, half the population of Cyrenaica, being expelled from their settlements. These 100,000 people, mostly women, children, and the elderly, were forced by Italian authorities to march across the desert to a series of barbed-wire concentration camp compounds erected near Benghazi, while stragglers who could not keep up with the march were shot by Italian authorities. Propaganda by the Fascist regime declared the camps to be oases of modern civilization that were hygienic and efficiently run - however in reality the camps had poor sanitary conditions as the camps had an average of about 20,000 Bedouins together with their camels and other animals, crowded into an area of 1 square kilometre (0.39 sq mi). The camps held only rudimentary medical services, with the camps of Soluch and Sisi Ahmed el Magrun with 33,000 internees each having only one doctor between them. Typhus and other diseases spread rapidly in the camps as the people were physically weakened due to meagre food rations and forced labour. By the time the camps closed in September 1933, 40,000 of the 100,000 total internees had already died in the camps.
To close rebel supply routes from Egypt, the Italians constructed a 300-kilometre (190 mi) barbed wire fence on the border with Egypt that was patrolled by armoured cars and aircraft. The Italians persecuted the Senussi Order; zawias and mosques were closed, Senussi practices were forbidden, Senussi estates were confiscated, and preparations were made for Italian conquest of the Kufra Oasis, the last stronghold of the Senussi in Libya. In 1931, Italian forces seized Kufra where Senussi refugees were bombed and strafed by Italian aircraft as they fled into the desert. Mukhtar was captured by the Italians in 1931, followed by a court martial and his public execution by hanging at Suluq.
Takeover of Kufra
"How did Kufra fall?"
With a weary gesture, Sidi Umar motioned to one of his men to come closer: "Let this man tell thee the story...He is one of the few who have escaped from Kufra. He came to me only yesterday." The man from Kufra sat down on his haunches before me and pulled his ragged burnus around him. He spoke slowly, without any tremor of emotion in his voice; but his gaunt face seemed to mirror all the horrors he had witnessed.
"They came upon us in three columns, from three sides, with many armoured cars and heavy cannon. Their aeroplanes came down low and bombed houses and mosques and palm groves. We had only a few hundred men able to carry arms; the rest were women and children and old men. We defended house after house, but they were too strong for us, and in the end only the village of Al-Hawari was left to us. Our rifles were useless against their armoured cars; and they overwhelmed us. Only a few of us escaped. I hid myself in the palm orchards waiting for a chance to make my way through the Italian lines; and all through the night I could hear the screams of the women as they were being raped by the Italian soldiers and Eritrean askaris. On the following day an old woman came to my hiding place and brought me water and bread. She told me that the Italian general had assembled all the surviving people before the tomb of Sayyid Muhammad al-Mahdi; and before their eyes he tore a copy of the Koran into pieces, threw it to the ground and set his boot upon it, shouting, "Let your beduin prophet help you now, if he can!" And then he ordered the palm trees of the oasis to be cut down and the wells destroyed and all the books of Sayyid Ahmad's library burned. And on the next day he commanded that some of our elders and ulama [scholars] be taken up in an aeroplane - and they were hurled out of the plane high above the ground to be smashed to death...And all through the second night I heard from my hiding place the cries of our women and the laughter of the soldiers, and their rifle shots...At last I crept out into the desert in the dark of night and found a stray camel and rode away..."— Muhammad Asad, The Road to Mecca
Repression focus on the non-combatant population
After the failed negotiations with Omar Mukhtar, the Italian occupying power renewed its repressive policy against the Cyrenean resistance with arrests and shootings in November 1929. Since Badoglio had not gotten a grip on the guerrillas in Cyrenaica until 1930, Mussolini appointed General Rodolfo Graziani as the new lieutenant governor of Cyrenaica at the suggestion of Colonial Minister De Bono. Graziani, notorious for his firmness in fascist principles, had just completed the conquest of Fessan and had made a name for himself as the "butcher of Fessan" in years of guerrilla warfare. Literally interpreting the regime's slogans, he understood the pacification of the country as the submission of “barbarians” to “Romans”. On March 27, 1930, Graziani moved into the Governor's Palace of Benghazi. Colonial Minister De Bono regarded an escalation of violence as inevitable for the “pacification” of the region and on January 10, 1930, in a telegram to Badoglio, suggested the establishment of concentration camps (""campi di concentramento"") for the first time. Badoglio had also come to the conclusion that the "rebels" could not be permanently subjugated to the counter-guerrilla with the methods they had previously used. From then on, both appeared as pioneers and strategists in genocidal warfare within the framework defined by Mussolini, while Graziani fulfilled the role of executor.
The Italians had originally divided the Libyan population into two groups, on the one hand the armed resistance "rebels", on the other hand the non-fighting, subjugated population (sottomessi), which had surrendered in the eyes of the colonial administration. In doing so, they wanted to undermine the unity of the people and act more efficiently against the armed fighters. Now, after the failure of the military offensive against the resistance movement, the Italians changed their attitude. It became clear that a clear distinction between the two groups was not possible, since the resistance movement was supported both materially and morally by the "subject population". The civilians paid taxes, donated weapons, clothing or food to Omar Mukhtar's desert warriors or made horses available to them. Since the non-combatant population ensured the reproductive conditions of the adwar system and formed the social basis of the resistance movement, they were now classified as dangerous potential by the colonial administration.
During the spring and summer of 1930, Graziani systematically targeted the social environment of the guerrillas. As a first measure, he had the Islamic cultural centers (zâwiyas) closed. The Koran scholars who led them were captured and deported to the Italian prison island of Ustica. Their lands were expropriated; Hundreds of houses and 70,000 hectares of prime land including the cattle on them changed hands. In addition, Graziani ordered the complete disarmament of the non-combatant population as well as draconian punishments in the event of civilians cooperating with Omar Mukhtar's adwar combat groups. Anyone who owned a weapon or provided support to the Senussi Order had to face execution. In the colonial administration, Graziani began a purge of Arab employees who were accused of treason. He had the battalions of Libyan colonial troops, which in the past often indirectly supported Omar Mukhtar's resistance, disbanded. All forms of trade with Egypt were banned in order to control the smuggling of goods to the insurgents. Last but not least, Graziani began expanding a road network in the Jebel Akhdar Mountains - a project that none of his predecessors had previously carried out. Simultaneously with these measures, a mass exodus of the Cyrenean population to the surrounding countries began.
In a carefully prepared and coordinated operation with ten differently composed columns, Graziani tried from June 16, 1930, to encircle and destroy the units of Omar Mukhtar. However, the Senussi adwar combat units were again informed in good time by the local population and by deserters from Italian colonial troops. By dividing them into smaller groups, they were able to escape the Italian columns with slight losses.
Deportations and death marches
At this point, Badoglio took the initiative again and emphatically proposed a new dimension of repressive measures: By deporting the people of the Jabal-Achdar Mountains, he literally wanted to create an empty space around the adwar combat units. On June 20, 1930, he wrote to Graziani in a letter:
Above all, one must create a broad and precise territorial division between the rebel formations and the subjugated population. I am aware of the scope and gravity of this measure, which must lead to the annihilation of the so-called subject population. But now the way has been shown to us and we have to go to the end, even if the entire population of Cyrenaica should perish "— Aram Mattioli, Experimentierfeld der Gewalt. Der Abessinienkrieg und seine internationale Bedeutung 1935–1941
After a meeting with Graziani, Marshal Badoglio ordered the complete evacuation of Jabal Achdar on June 25, 1930. Three days later, the Italian army, together with Eritrean colonial troops and Libyan collaborators, began to round up the population and their cattle. Italian archival documents date the beginning of the action to the summer of 1930. The overwhelming majority of Libyan contemporary witnesses, however, agree that the first such arrests were made in autumn 1929. Specifically, Badolgio's order resulted in the forced relocation of 100,000 to 110,000 people and their internment in concentration camps - about half of the total population of Cyrenaica. While only one report of the deportation of a single tribe is available in Italian archives, the oral history of the victims reports in detail on the extent of the action, which covered the entire area from the Marmarica region on the Egyptian border in the east to the Syrte desert in the West concerned. However, the urban population on the coast and residents of the oases inland were not affected. From the assembly points, those who had been rounded up had to set off in columns on foot or by camels, some were also deported from the coast by ships. Such a deportation had hardly any role models in the colonial history of Africa and even put Graziani's rabid counter-guerrilla methods in the shade.
Guarded by mainly Eritrean colonial troops, the entire population was forced, together with their belongings and cattle, on death marches that sometimes led over hundreds of kilometers for 20 weeks. Anyone who was picked up on the Jabal Achdar after the forced evacuation had to expect an immediate execution. In the summer heat, a considerable number of the deportees did not survive the rigors of the marches, especially children and the elderly. Anyone who fell to the ground exhausted and could no longer go on was shot by the guards. The high death rate was a deliberate consequence of the marches, and the land that was freed was again passed into the hands of colonists. Of the 600,000 camels, horses, sheep, goats and cattle that were taken on the way, only about 100,000 arrived. The survivors refer to the deportation in Arabic as al-Rihlan ("path of tears").
Specific war crimes committed by the Italian armed forces against civilians include deliberate bombing of civilians, killing unarmed children, women, and the elderly, rape and disembowelment of women, throwing prisoners out of aircraft to their death and running over others with tanks, regular daily executions of civilians in some areas, and bombing tribal villages with mustard gas bombs beginning in 1930.
The Senussi were accused by Italian sources of refusing to take prisoners from the Italian armed forces and torture including mutilation of Italian soldiers before death.
In 2008, Italy and Libya reached agreement on a document compensating Libya for damages caused by Italian colonial rule. Muammar Gaddafi, Libya's ruler at the time, attended the signing ceremony wearing a historical photograph on his uniform that showed Cyrenaican rebel leader Omar Mukhtar in chains after being captured by Italian authorities during the war. At the ceremony, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi declared: "In this historic document, Italy apologizes for its killing, destruction and repression of the Libyan people during the period of colonial rule." He went on to say that this was a "complete and moral acknowledgement of the damage inflicted on Libya by Italy during the colonial era."
These declarations received harsh criticism from the Associazione Rifugiati Italiani dalla Libia and from some Italian historians, who felt the agreement was "based on false assumptions created by Gaddafi propaganda".
In popular culture
The 1981 film Lion of the Desert by Moustapha Akkad is about the conflict.
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