A day in the life of Benghazi's war

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BENGHAZI - This time the explosion is close enough to make Saïd take notice. A cappuccino in his hand, he walks to the door of the café, peers out and discusses it with other customers.

“Two or three kilometres from here, it’s ok,” he says, wandering back inside.

The Lavazza café in central Benghazi is something of a throwback for many Libyans – a reminder of how life was before. Before the 2011 protests against Muammar Gaddafi in the city’s Tahrir Square, before his eventual downfall, before the sweet promise of democracy soured into an intractable civil war. Inside the café, life is as it was.

Saïd’s friend Ahmed had not been to Benghazi since he left to work in the capital Tripoli last summer. “I don’t recognize my city at all. There are checkpoints everywhere and a lot of streets are closed,” he bemoans.

You get used to the roughly 40 police and 150 military checkpoints that dot the city, Saïd reassures Ahmed. It is harder to adjust to the rubbish.

For the past six months, garbage collectors have been on strike as they haven’t been paid. The sides of streets are piled high. Even if the collectors returned to work, the main dump is south of the city in an area controlled by Islamist militants.

City on lockdown

While much of Libya has been mired in conflict since 2011, Benghazi’s own war really began in earnest last May when Khalifa Haftar, a general in Gaddafi’s army, launched a campaign to rid the city of what he calls “terrorists.”

Haftar is currently the supreme commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), which is loyal to the internationally-recognised parliament in the eastern city of Tobruk.

In the capital Tripoli a rival parliament has its own military force - the Libya Dawn alliance.

Haftar likes to paint his campaign, called ‘Operation Dignity’, as a patriotic mission – often comparing himself to Egypt’s ‘strongman’ Abdul Fattah el-Sisi – but in reality he is one side of a vicious civil war.

Since Haftar’s declaration of war more than 1,600 people have been killed in Benghazi, according to Libya Body Count.

The city is now divided in three. The LNA and its allies control around 80 percent and these areas tend to be safest, while parts of west and south Benghazi are controlled by Libya Dawn and Islamist groups. Then there are the deserted no-man’s lands between the sides.

Those eager to reminisce about the heady days of 2011, when the city was the capital of the revolution against Gaddafi, find it hard. Radical groups control Tahrir Square – where the revolution began and where former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron paraded in September 2011 to celebrate Libya’s bright future.

The LNA uses airstrikes to hit enemy positions, but in a tight urban environment this often destroys residential buildings.

Salem Langhi, a doctor running the Benghazi Medical Center (BMC), admits his staff struggle to cope with the number of injured. The facility was built for advanced medical research – nowadays it hosts an emergency hospital and has been hit by rockets.

“We have received patients from four hospitals which are closed. We are short about 600 beds, we are still working on our 2013 budget and the main drug warehouse have been destroyed”, Langhi says.

As the United Nations and many major international NGOs have little presence in the country due to the violence, aid is still relatively minimal.

“I understand UN and international NGOs don’t want to send staff here for security reasons but why don’t they drop drugs and medical equipment by helicopters?” Langhi asks.

Mohamed's house was destroyed by an LNA strike and his family are among 27,000 displaced, according to Benghazi municipality. A teacher by trade, his school has been closed for months so he is salary-less.

“We are twelve people living in a three-room flat for six months. I am outside all day but have nothing to do,” Mohamed said.

Yet despite the blow he “100 percent” supports Haftar’s operation.

Hamed Bilkhayir, the head of First Brigade in Benghazi and a close Haftar ally, told IRIN its fighters try to avoid civilian casualties. “We can’t bomb every building they have snipers on because it [would] mean destroying family homes. We prioritise our targets.”

Business on the rocks

Since last spring, instead of students, Abubaker-Razi High School welcomes displaced families like Khadija Mabruk’s. The septuagenarian grandmother spends most of her day lying on a mattress since she fled advancing Islamists. “We left without taking anything. We have nothing now. Above all, we left the 5,000 dinar (about $3,550) worth of jewelry I bought for my son to marry his wife,” she says.

Saïd Amaami, head of local NGO Benghazi is our Family, estimates that between 1,000 and 1,250 families live in the 61 schools used for the displaced. In Abubaker-Razi school, one room is for children to play in. “When they use [Lego], they build tanks or military planes. The eldest spend the day fighting each other while others prefer to sit alone crying,” Mohamed Amer, a volunteer from the NGO, says.

Business, too, has been disrupted. Where the main market used to be is now on the frontline, so it moved north, into the outskirts of the city. Most produce is imported from Egypt and prices have risen significantly.

Ibrahim Ahmed, a Sudanese market trader, now shares a room with four other men near the new market.

“Before, I used to earn about 40 dinars ($29) a day, now it is about 15 dinars ($11). There are fewer and fewer customers,” he says.

Those with the money to do so survive through escapism – searching out safe havens from the chaos outside.

Back in Lavazza café, Saïd puts down his cup and suggests a restaurant to eat. There they serve excellent kebabs. The chefs, Saïd points out, are some of the best in the country and used to work in the city's best hotels. Now they are all closed.

  • Many of the names in this story have been changed while the author's name has been withheld for security reasons.