Tripoli and Bayda—Omar 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.