Libya’s Humanitarian Catastrophe

Libya’s Humanitarian Catastrophe

With growing food, fuel and power shortages, civilians struggle to survive in a country torn apart by warring militias.


Tripoli and BaydaOmar al-Gibali is trying to make life appear normal for his three young children. The 41-year-old electrical engineer is standing outside a classroom at a girls’ elementary school in Bayda, a city nestled in Libya’s eastern Green Mountains. An icy cold wind whips into the courtyard, where a group of children kicking around a deflated soccer ball are absorbed with play and heedless of the chill in the air.

Gibali and his family have been living in the school for the past seven months, after fleeing Benghazi last summer. They came to escape the bombardment that enveloped their neighborhood and made life at home unlivable.

“The bombs were falling down in my backyard,” Gibali says. He is powerfully built, with a thick shock of curly hair and a trimmed beard. “They are fighting about money and who will rule this country. They are not fighting about any other thing.”

The family fled with one small bag of belongings, and have since struggled to forge some sense of an ordinary life out of their displacement. Gibali tells his daughter and two sons, ages 2, 4 and 7, that the classroom where they now sleep is their house, that the school’s concrete courtyard is their backyard and that the other families in the school are their next-door neighbors.

Inside the classroom is a typical portrait of refugee life: donated mattresses on the floor, a portable hot plate for a kitchen and few comforts. On the blackboard, the words “apple,” “ant” and “arrow” are written in neat script. Gibali tries to teach the children three English words each morning before venturing out into the city to look for work.

Gibali’s wife, Amina Mansouri, wakes up every day at dawn to access the little running water available. Thirteen families share the school’s two bathrooms. They rely on donations of food and other supplies to survive. And there is the constant battle against the bitter cold that envelops the mountains in winter.

“We have hope every day that we will go back home,” Mansouri says. The power goes out as she speaks, as it does every day for hours at a time. “The kids ask every day when they will go back and see their toys.”

When asked if she ever thought she would be in such a situation, involuntary tears well up in her eyes and she cannot answer. Her 4-year-old son tugs playfully at her dress, unaware of her sorrow.

In 2011, Libyans revolted against the dictatorship of Muammar el-Qaddafi, looking to end his forty-two-year grip on the country. After a bloody civil war, he was toppled by NATO-backed rebels. Four years later, the country is still at war with itself, with civilians bearing the brunt of the suffering in a conflict that shows little signs of abating. For over six months, two rival coalitions, each with its own government and parliament and backed by a loose federation of militias, have been engaged in a bitter power struggle that is engulfing the country.

After a weeks-long battle for Tripoli over the summer, the internationally recognized government fled to the eastern city of Bayda under the protection of Khalifa Hifter, a renegade general who heads a coalition dubbed Operation Dignity. Meanwhile, the self-declared government in the capital is backed by a group of militias calling itself Libya Dawn.

In Benghazi, the birthplace of the 2011 revolt, fierce fighting has raged since May between Operation Dignity and Islamist militias. The conflict there and in other regions has brought Libya to the brink of collapse. Radical groups have taken advantage of the chaos to gain a foothold across the country, with Libya’s affiliate of the Islamic State seizing control of Derna and Sirte.

Libyans now find themselves living in a torn stretch of land, forced to negotiate a minefield of regional, political and tribal conflicts in order to survive. Dysfunction has become a way of life, a burden to bear as the conflict tears away the last vestiges of normalcy.

Traveling from one side of the country to the other is an arduous undertaking. Airport delays can take days. Driving is rife with danger and uncertainty, with various armed groups manning checkpoints on the highways. You can be kidnapped or killed simply because you come from the wrong city or tribe.

Bakr Magariaf, a young driver from Ajdabiya, puts it succinctly: “In the east they assume I’m Dawn, in Derna they want to behead me and in the west they think I’m Dignity. I don’t have a relationship with any of them.”

The displaced are everywhere. They come in waves, the violence encroaching on neighborhoods with the inevitability of lava pouring down the sides of a volcano, steady and unstoppable. Many have been forced to flee two or three times. The United Nations estimated that the number of internally displaced people between May and November 2014 alone was 400,000—the equivalent of one out of fifteen Libyans.

Bayda, a city of just 250,000, is struggling to cope with the influx. Some 2,600 displaced families are now living there—roughly 14,000 men, women and children, the vast majority of them from Benghazi but some also from nearby Derna.

“Bayda is overwhelmed,” says Idriss Juweir, the head of a local city council committee for refugees. “We are not a big economic or trading capital. What we have here is not enough.”

Rents have gone up, and so have the prices of ordinary goods. There are food shortages at local markets. Electricity cuts can last up to twelve hours a day and petrol can suddenly become scarce. With no power, residents go backwards in time, scavenging wood and building small fires, desperate for some warmth against the bitter winter cold.

Outside a gas station on Orouba Street, a main thoroughfare in the heart of the city, a row of cars stretches for three blocks. It is early evening and the gas station is closed, but drivers must stake out a place early to secure a chance at the pump when it opens hours later. Fuel crises can hit the city without warning. This time, truck drivers who distribute petrol have gone on strike after dozens of their colleagues were kidnapped on the perilous highways linking Libyan towns and cities.

Akram Hadad has been waiting for two hours in his car. The 26-year-old had to close his clothing shop early to get in line. “We are waiting for something and we don’t even know if it will come or not,” he says. “It affects everything—my business, my daily life. The country is not stable.”

Discontent in Bayda is growing. On one recent afternoon, several dozen men marched through the streets in protest against the government that has taken the city for its headquarters. They gathered outside the agricultural research building that has been converted into the cabinet’s offices and chanted against Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni, calling on him to leave. When the minister of services tried to exit the building, he was assaulted and beaten by the demonstrators.

Bayda’s growing humanitarian burden can be felt most acutely at the local hospital. Inside the kidney-treatment wing, the number of patients in need of dialysis has tripled. Due to a lack of equipment, the hospital is forced to ration treatment. Patients get dialysis two times a week instead of three, not enough to properly reduce the level of toxins in their blood.

“The lifespan for the patient will be reduced,” says Dr. Massoud Mohamed, a dialysis technician. He is standing next to a woman hooked up to a dialysis machine, who sits in resigned silence, with a forlorn look on her face. “I have to speak in English because if the patient hears, this is a problem and will have a psychological effect on her,” he says.

The hospital is lacking the tubes that connect to the machines, which must be replaced for every patient. Because of the chaos, it no longer has access to the German supplier; instead, the hospital is forced to borrow tubes from facilities in the neighboring city of Marj. Patients are often told to buy their own medical supplies.

Mohamed’s own baby niece died because of the tube shortage. She was born with jaundice and needed a blood transfusion to save her life. They got the blood but they couldn’t find the right tube for the transfusion. His brother looked in vain in nearby cities. “He traveled nearly half of Libya searching for it,” Mohamed says. The girl died before they could name her.

“People have to stop fighting so things can get better, especially for the patients. I don’t know what they are thinking,” he says. “They are destroying the whole country.”

* * *

Though the battle for Tripoli ended months ago, the capital does not feel secure. At night the streets are largely deserted and controlled by masked gunmen at makeshift checkpoints. Journalists and civil society activists have fled. Kidnappings are increasingly common and assassinations are on the rise. Intissar al-Hasseri, an activist who had taken part in protests against militants, was found stuffed in the trunk of a car last month, shot dead along with her aunt.

Meanwhile, extremist groups—including the Libyan affiliate of the Islamic State—have staged bold attacks on hotels and embassies. Last month, Italy closed its embassy and repatriated its staff, the last Western power to do so.

At Tripoli’s international airport, twisted metal beams and the charred shell of a building are all that remain. Sunlight pours in through the missing roof of what used to be the main arrival and departure hall. The tarmac has been transformed into an airplane graveyard, with the crumpled fuselages and skeletal remains of bombed-out planes scattered awkwardly on the runway. Nearby trenches and sand embankments are littered with bullet casings and spent artillery shells. Destroyed in a weeks-long battle between rival militias last summer, the airport now stands as a symbol of the conflict that is destroying the entire country.

“You can always rebuild the airport, but you can’t rebuild Libya,” says Ali Muftah, a first lieutenant in aviator sunglasses and army camouflage. He fought with the Libya Dawn coalition that took control of Tripoli in August and is now stationed at the airport. He blames the destruction entirely on his rivals—militias from the western town of Zintan that are allied with Operation Dignity—a common theme in Libya’s polarized narratives. “I fought in 2011, but this battle was harder for me. I never expected I would be fighting four years later.”

Mitiga, Tripoli’s second airport, is now the main hub. Passengers crowd inside the small, chaotic terminal, scrambling to get a seat on a flight.

Abdel Rahmi Ebedi has been coming to Mitiga for two days, trying to catch a flight east. The 45-year-old mechanical engineer is a refugee from Benghazi. He fled the city several weeks earlier, embarking on an arduous car trip to Tripoli, where he now lives with his wife. They are trying to return home to attend the funeral of Ebeidi’s nephew, 20-year-old Islam, who was shot in the head by a sniper in Benghazi. Ebeidi shows pictures on his phone of a handsome young man, posing variously in sunglasses, atop a 4Runner, smiling in the sun. The last photo is of his corpse, a lifeless face peeking out of the shroud.

“I lost one of my relatives, I lost my job,” he says. “I lost everything.”

Ebeidi, who sees no future in Libya, applied for a visa to Italy but was denied despite having previously lived there for over a decade. Most Libyans who want to leave the country have found that the world has rejected them.

“Europe doesn’t accept us as immigrants now,” Ebeidi says. His passport is also recently expired, and with the state bureaucracy crumbling, he has been unable to get it renewed. “Nothing is functioning here,” he says.

The bitter polarization that has divided Libya has created rifts within Ebeidi’s own family. His brother-in-law is totally opposed to Operation Dignity, the coalition that is battling Islamist militias in Benghazi, while his mother and brother support it. Some relatives cannot discuss politics with one another.

Ebeidi and his wife wait patiently for nine hours before boarding a flight to Labraq, after which they must make the three-hour drive to Benghazi, which has not had a functioning airport since last June. “Look at our situation; it’s horrible!” he says. “Why is this happening?”

* * *

In western Libya, entire towns have been displaced.

Last October, powerful militias from Zintan allied with Hifter’s Operation Dignity laid siege to Kikla and Galaa, two towns in the Nafusa Mountains, where they claimed fighters allied with the rival Libya Dawn coalition were based. Schools, hospitals and homes were shelled and the residents fled en masse, leaving the towns almost entirely emptied of civilians. By the end of November, over 5,700 families had been displaced, the majority of them women and children, according to the United Nations.

Some 200 families sought refuge at a coastal tourist resort in Janzur, several miles west of Tripoli. Once a popular vacation destination for Libyan families, the compound has been transformed into a refugee camp. Small villas are scattered among dilapidated tennis courts and wind-swept palm trees. The streets are silent save for the sound of waves crashing on the beach.

Tayib Grada fled Galaa with his family on October 11. The 57-year-old says the shelling by Zintan militias was indiscriminate, leaving many civilians dead, including his nephew. They left at dawn carrying young children and little belongings. His wife, Fatma, stands beside him cradling her 3-month-old granddaughter—she was just 15 days old when they fled.

They stayed with relatives in Tripoli before moving to the tourist compound in November. Three families now live in a three-bedroom, two-story villa. The spacious room on the ground floor has almost no furniture save for a few carpets and mattresses. All their belongings and food are donated by charities that run the compound.

“Why have we been dragged into this conflict?” asks Grada’s son-in-law, Mohamed Salem. The family is Amazigh, Libya’s Berber minority. “We should be left alone. Why are they doing this to us?”

Galaa is now under siege, with the main routes leading to the town closed off by the Zintan militias. “The problem is not those who fled, but those remaining in the town,” Mohamed says. “There is no life, no food, no water. It’s very difficult to get in and out.”

Tayib and Fatma’s son, 30-year-old Hussein, was left behind, unable to flee. They say he is accused of being a fighter with Libya Dawn and will be killed if caught trying to leave. “I wish I could see him now,” Fatma says. “We just want to go home. If there were a safe road back, we would go tomorrow. What have we done to be in this miserable situation?”

“It looks like a gradual descent into the abyss,” says Hanan Salah, the Libya researcher for Human Rights Watch. “I’m hoping that there is a way out, but from everything that I’m seeing, that I’m hearing—no one is backing down, everyone is accelerating, everyone is becoming more territorial, more positioned on their issues. Everything indicates that it’s heading toward disaster.”

This reporting made possible with support from the Puffin West Foundation. Special thanks to Nizar Sarieldin.

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