Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1261, (3 - 9 September 2015)
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1261, (3 - 9 September 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Hope drains away in Benghazi

Salafist militias have taken control of the port and strategic neighbourhoods of Benghazi, halting the flow of basic goods and services, reports Francesca Mannocchi from the Libyan port city

Al-Ahram Weekly

Benghazi has seen some turbulent years since the bloody overthrow of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Today, Libya’s second city looks vastly different from the Benghazi of four years ago, and conflict and violence continue to grip the birthplace of the 2011 revolution.

General Khalifa Haftar launched his Operation Dignity campaign a year and a half ago to root out what he called “Islamist and terrorist forces” from the city and beyond, but key pockets of resistance remain and the fighting rages on.

In May 2014, many city residents welcomed Haftar’s announcement that he planned to boot out religious militias like Ansar Al-Sharia and end a long season of murders and kidnappings.

But Haftar has been unable to claim victory, and after 16 months of war 1,600 people are thought to have been killed and more than 100,000, or about a quarter of the Benghazi population, displaced.

Haftar claims to control 90 per cent of Benghazi, but militants of the Shura Revolutionary Council, which is linked to Ansar Al-Sharia and Fajr Libya (militias close to the Tripoli government), are holding out in strategic areas and are understood to be in full control of the city’s port and several of its central neighbourhoods. Amid the chaos, the Islamic State (IS) group has also entered the fray.

In March, Haftar was named supreme commander of the Libyan army, which is formally linked to the Tobruk-based government chaired by Abdullah Al-Thinni. But with an arms embargo in place, Haftar has not been able to adequately arm or train his men for the battle against the militias.

The Libyan Ministry of the Interior has set up a special force that supports Haftar on the frontlines and makes up part of a mosaic of forces in the field: government military forces, in conjunction with some smaller Salafist militias against Ansar Al-Sharia, and citizen brigades have taken up arms to defend the city.

Despite this, the situation is deadlocked and there are 11 frontlines in the city alone, according to fighters in Benghazi.

Along some streets, clashes break out on a daily basis, with the western Al-Sabri and southern Lithi neighbourhoods most affected. Not so long ago these were seen as affluent residential communities, but they have since become strongholds for religious militias determined to retain their influence in the city.

In Lithi, pro-Haftar army-trained citizens are locked in an ongoing battle with the Islamists for control. But with little formal training, the largely young fighters, who wear T-shirts and slippers instead of army fatigues, have been complaining of war weariness.

“In front of us [and our front lines], there are [IS] snipers,” commented Said, a Special Forces fighter who provided few details about himself. “IS and Ansar Al-Sharia are the same thing. The snipers here are very dangerous, and we have no means [to fight them off]. We buy weapons on the black market, often with our own money, but we are all very tired.

“Maybe Haftar’s war is not our war anymore. We all began to fight because we were hoping to retake the city in a short time, but with each passing day or suicide attack we lose comrades and hope. We cannot do it without more aid and ammunition.”

Most of Libya’s wealthiest citizens have left the country, while the poorest have moved into abandoned schools. The city’s educational buildings have been closed as a result of the war, lessons have been suspended, and there is usually a family sheltering in almost every classroom.

“The schools are all closed and hosting displaced people, and the hospitals that have remained open no longer have the necessary medicines or enough food,” said Hafed, a former medical student who abandoned his studies to help his family. He is also fighting with the pro-Haftar militias.

In July, a warplane from the Libyan army bombed a ship near the port of Benghazi thought to be carrying weapons, but the flow of guns has not been stemmed.

With Ansar Al-Sharia and possibly IS controlling the port, Special Forces and self-organised civilian fighters claim that the militant groups have been able to smuggle in supplies.

“Equipment and reserves are not reaching us from the port. The normality you [can see in some parts of town] is only superficial,” Hafed added, pointing out that the city centre has been all but levelled by the fighting.

Many relief goods are running out. The queues to buy petrol and bread stretch for several kilometres every day and grow longer as getting fuel into the city becomes harder. With no fuel to power the local power station and generators, continuous power blackouts have affected large swathes of the city.

Entire streets in Benghazi are filled with rubbish, with Ansar Al-Sharia and other militias in control of the city’s dump.

Tareq, a 29-year-old Benghazi resident, works for the Tobruk government’s Interior Ministry. He says that three of the five power plants that supply the city are unusable as a result of the clashes, but for him the crippling power shortages are a secondary concern.

“We had months of daily murders, and 2014 as a whole was a terrible year,” he told the Weekly over coffee in Benghazi. “I’ve seen too many friends and comrades die: soldiers, officers, activists, journalists. Kids aged just 17 who were only asking for justice for this country.

“[At one time we were seeing] six, seven, or even ten murders a day. The terrorists would enter houses wearing masks and take people away. Sometimes family members discovered that their relatives had died only after seeing photographs of the bodies posted on the Internet,” he added.

Despite Haftar’s advance, suicide attacks have surged in the city. In the latest large-scale attack, 11 pro-Haftar fighters were killed on 28 July. Many more are picked off on a daily basis by IS snipers and grenades.

“When we hear on the radio or read in the newspapers about the army of Haftar, [we have to ask ourselves] what army?” said Ibrahim, a 40-year-old resident who has joined a pro-Haftar brigade.

“The truth is that Haftar is sabotaging many of the militias here. The truth is that Haftar does not show up at the front. He should come here to see what we are lacking and what we need. Our enemies get weapons, but we have to deal with very old and inappropriate weapons,” Ibrahim added.

Ibrahim, who fought in the 2011 NATO-backed uprising against Gaddafi, said that he used to own a grocery store and made a comfortable living before the violence flared back up.

“I did not think I would fight again, but I did because it’s right to do so and because I’ve seen my friends and relatives die,” he said while on patrol in Lithi. “But we have to tell the truth: in these conditions we cannot move forward.”

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