March 20, 2012

Libyan militia desecrates WWII cemetery in Benghazi

The recent desecration of a World War II cemetery in Benghazi, Libya by what appears to be members of an Islamist militia underscores the difficulty in reconciling East and West in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. It also serves as a warning to other Arab countries what can happen when you remove the sitting government, be it good or bad.

The video is pretty self explanatory. I have listened to it a few times - my Libyan dialect is not as good as my Syrian/Lebanese, but I'll share with you some interesting excerpts.

Mostly they are just egging each other on, yelling things like "Break them, they're Crusaders* and dogs," "God is great," and "Let's start with that cross (the cenotaph)" interspersed with profanity.

At about time code 1:00, one militiaman dislodges a headstone inscribed with the Magen David, the Shield of David (often called the Star of David), indicating the grave of a fallen soldier who was a Jew. The speaker remarks that this is "the grave of a Crusader." Everyone else appears to be focused on the large cross and knocking it down. Then the speaker realizes the grave is marked with the Shield of David and says, "Look at the flag on the front of it, this one was one of the Israeli battalion, it's Hebrew." Note that Israel was not yet a country when this soldier was killed.

The militiamen then turn their attention to the large cross. The speaker tells the man on the ladder to break off the sides of the cross. Others shout break it, God is great, etc. with more profanity. At some point, they appear to give up on knocking down the cross, one remarking that "it isn't breaking."

The video has made its way to other Arab countries. I received an email from a friend in Syria, a supporter of the regime of Bashar al-Asad. He is a physician who believes in secular government and although not a fan of the ruling Ba'th Party, believes it is better to maintain the current government than risk a takeover by the Islamist al-ikhwan al-muslimin (the Muslim Brotherhood).

The text of his email:

That is what we don't have in Syria; that is what they are trying to do to my country. But I think that we Syrians have more open minds than to let something like that happen here. What we are seeing in Damascus now are people from Afghanistan, Libya, Lebanon and Africa - it's not normal. We don't want what happened there (Benghazi) to happen in our country and I think the people will fight to keep our beautiful Damascus - Muslim, Christian and Syrian Jews.

As as aside, there is a large British Commonwealth cemetery in Damascus with graves of 1077 soldiers from both world wars. The Commonwealth Countries hold a somber ceremony at the cemetery on Remembrance Day (November 11). I have attended these as a representative of the U.S. Air Force - quite moving.

The Libyan government (or what passes for it) has pledged to find and punish those responsible for this outrage, and to restore the cemetery to its original condition. I hope they mean it, since it was the airmen of the United Kingdom and at least one of the Commonwealth countries - Canada - and their NATO allies that liberated them from the regime of Mu'amar al-Qadhafi. Otherwise, they will appear to be a nation of ingrates.

We'll see.

* The actual word is صليبي - salibi, or "of the cross." It is commonly used as a derogatory term for Western troops, which they regard as Christian.