Ruin and rubble in Benghazi
Benghazi - The old courthouse in central Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city and the birthplace of the uprising against Muammar Qaddafi, is a shelled-out ruin — a testimony to the destruction and chaos that permeate this North African country four years after the civil war that ousted the longtime dictator.
The building is steeped in symbolism. It was here that the rallying cry first came against Qaddafi’s 42-year rule. It was here that pro-democracy protesters and rebels first raised the tri-coloured Libyan flag, replacing Qaddafi’s green banner.
Now, the courthouse is rubble, like much of the rest of Benghazi.
Libya is bitterly divided between an elected parliament and government that are cornered in the country’s east with little power on the ground and an Islamist militia-backed government in the west. Hundreds of militias are aligned with either side or on their own, battling for power and turf.
UN-backed talks between rival factions have not managed to strike a power-sharing deal. Meanwhile, Libya’s Islamic State (ISIS) affiliate is fighting on different fronts, losing ground in its eastern stronghold of Derna while expanding along the country’s central northern coastline.
For Benghazi, the past year was the worst. Near-daily street fighting has pitted militias made up of a myriad of al-Qaeda-linked militants, ISIS extremists and former anti-Qaddafi rebels against soldiers loyal to the internationally recognised government and their militia allies.
Once known for its mix of architectural styles left behind by Arab, Ottoman and Italian rule, Benghazi — shaped like a crescent moon, hugging the Mediterranean on one side and sheltered by the Green Mountain on the other — has lost the flair of times past.
Many landmarks have been destroyed, including much of the Old City, with its Moorish arches and Italian façades. The Benghazi University, its archives and department buildings hollowed-out, is occupied by militiamen who put snipers on rooftops and turned the campus into a warzone.
Charred and wrecked cars, piles of twisted metal and debris act as front-line demarcations between warring factions. In many neighbourhoods, Libyan soldiers have blown up buildings to clear snipers’ nests or search for tunnels used for smuggling weapons.
Schools are closed, few hospitals remain open and wheat and fuel shortages force residents to queue up for hours every day outside bakeries and petrol stations. Many neighbourhoods have been emptied out by fleeing residents, only to be looted and torched by marauding militias.
More than one-fifth of Benghazi’s population of 630,000 has been forced out of their homes. Those with money fled abroad. The rest sought refuge in other Libyan towns and cities or crowded into Benghazi’s makeshift camps and schools turned into shelters.
The overall number of displaced within Libya has almost doubled from an estimated 230,000 in September 2014 to more than 434,000 amid escalating fighting, according to a UN report.
Benghazi resident Hamid al-Idrissi says he and his family fled their war-torn Gawarsha neighbourhood under heavy shelling. His extended family had a total of 45 houses there, built on a vast swath of land owned by his late grandfather, he said.
“Houses were first looted, then burned down. We lost everything,” Idrissi said as he and his relatives huddled in a school turned into a shelter.
Civilians in the city live against the backdrop of gunshots and ambulance sirens that fill the night. In May, more than 27 civilians were killed, including 12 members of one family who were preparing for a wedding party when a rocket hit their house.
The groom and five children were among the dead.
The city’s residents also fear abductions at the hands of militiamen from the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries, an umbrella group of hard-line militias that includes Ansar al-Sharia, which the United States blames for the September 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Benghazi’s descent into all-out war started in May 2014, when Libyan General Khalifa Haftar, once Qaddafi’s army chief who later joined the opposition, launched an offensive against the militias blamed for a series of assassinations of the city’s army officers, policemen, judges and journalists. He soon formally joined ranks with Libya’s elected government and, since then, Haftar’s forces have taken back parts of Benghazi.
Essam al-Hamali, a member of the Benghazi Crisis Committee, said there are 140,000 displaced individuals in the city.
“Most of these families left their homes in a hurry, taking whatever they could grab,” he said. “Some only had the clothes they were wearing when the fighting began.”
Over the past five months, his committee received a one-time voucher of about $100 per person for 481 families living in one Benghazi school.
In March, it got about 7,000 food parcels from international donors through the Libyan Aid Agency — less than 1% of what is needed. It was promised $20 million to $40 million in aid but the government only delivered $5 million.
“We have declared Benghazi a disaster zone,” Hamali said. “But it seems that no one cares.”