Benghazi’s Liberation is Just the First Step: Post-Conflict Recovery and the Upcoming Challenges

It’s been a day years in the making. Over the sound of fireworks, car horns and people’s jubilant cheers, Benghazi is filled with the chants we’ve waited so long to finally say; Benghazi is liberated, the war is over!

Since the killing of the US ambassador Chris Steven in 2012, to the deteriorating security situation in the years after, up until the declaration of war on May 16, 2014 and subsequent battle on October 15th of that same year, these years have been one of the most destructive and traumatic since the Second World War. Hundreds of people were assassinated or killed in car bombs, terrorizing the city. According to UNHCR, there were at least 105,000 people displaced from their homes in Benghazi in 2015, with hundreds of them forced to find shelter in public schools. Schools and universities were stopped, the health sector collapsed and infrastructure was barely functioning. We lost heroes like Tawfik Bensaud and Salwa Bughaigis as civil society became a primary target, and the city turned into a ghost town.

Today, Benghazi is barely recognizable. Most businesses and public services have reopened or are planning to, most displaced people have returned home, and there is a very strong feeling of safety and security among the inhabitants. While the official declaration of liberation was made on July 5th, 2017, the city has already begun the recovery process. Key institutions were restructured and reactivated, giving East Libya some semblance of a state. But it is also unrecognizable in a less positive way. The liberated districts have been badly hit, with many buildings destroyed or burned. The social fabric has also been damaged, as differing ideologies have created a rift between families, friends and neighbours. More worryingly, there are new ideologies slowly creeping into state institutions, a cause for alarm in a city that just won a war against extremists.

People in Benghazi now are less naive today than they were in 2011 after the announcement of Libya’s “liberation” in 2011. We know that the state is weak, weaker than it’s ever been. We are also acutely aware that the next form of governance will most likely take the form of a quasi-dictatorship, although people are between ambivalent to hostile when it comes to concepts like democracy. The joy on July 5th was not happiness at being “liberated” but rather because the war itself is over, because the hostile groups who terrorized us for years have been defeated. Liberation is the relatively easy first step, but the recovery and reconstruction from the war will be insurmountably harder. The challenges we face today can be divided as:

  1. Physical Reconstruction: Schools, hospitals, administrative buildings, electricity, water, these are just a handful of the biggest urban issues that need to be addressed directly. Benghazi already suffers from bad urban planning, and reconstruction needs to address the existing underlying problems. Along with this, the environmental problems is also crucial, particularly the issue of mines and pollution.
  2. Social Rehabilitation: Post-traumatic stress disorder is on the rise, and everyone has been psychologically affected by the war to some degree. In particular, soldiers on the front line require intensive and long-term psychosocial care to help reintegrate them into society. As Libya barely has the technical expertise or infrastructure to deal with mental health issues, this will be a huge challenge.
  3. System of Governance: I mentioned before the establishment of military rule, although it is purportedly due to the current exceptional crisis situation. While this is understandable, civil society and civic actors must continue to push for the eventual transition into civil rule once again. With the increasing threats coming from groups like the Salafists and tribal actors, this is becoming more imperative.
  4. Corruption: This is probably the biggest challenge we’ll face in the next few years. Corruption has practically become part of our culture, and all eyes are now on the reconstruction plans for the city. Embezzlement and nepotism is expected to permeate this process. While it will be difficult to tackle this problem, having a strong independent media to blow the whistle on corruption, and strong NGOs and legal system to fight it, will be a step in the right direction.
  5. Reconciliation: It is now almost unanimously recognized by Libyans that the steps we took after the revolution (or rather lack of), with regards to reconciliation, was one of the main reasons why the country fell apart. We cannot repeat this mistake, and we can’t build a city or country by excluding and marginalizing anyone, even those we fundamentally disagree with. Benghazi needs to be the city that takes the first steps to reconcile between the different groups engaged in the conflict, and to ensure justice for all.

Of course, this is only a handful of the major challenges we face. There are others, such as inherently weak institutions, the continued collapsing economy, and the brewing hostility between East and West. But we have to start somewhere, and we have to start local. It’s said that Benghazi has always been the city that has influenced all of Libya, and its our responsibility to make sure that this influence is always for the good of the country.

 

Benghazi Comes Home

20170622_150551“Benghazi Comes Home”, emblazoned on gradiented green billboards, can be spotted around the city. Commissioned after the liberation of the Western front lines, this slogan has a powerful meaning for the million-strong city. For many families in Benghazi, tomorrow will be the first Eid they can celebrate at home after more than two years of war and displacement. And with the recent gains made in the city center, it seems that next year will be a homecoming for all of Benghazi.

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A damaged classroom in Guwarsha, Benghazi

However, the return is bittersweet. Once thriving districts have been reduced to disaster zones where rabid animals roam and the stench of gunpowder is still thick in the air. The distinct architectural details of Benghazi’s downtown are hardly recognizable now, heritage sites lost in piles of rubble. Cleaning up the districts and providing them with basic infrastructure services is slow work for the politically-fractured municipality. But IDPs, unable to cope with renting temporary homes or living with relatives, are returning anyways.

According to IOM’s Displacement Tracking Matrix, almost 250,000 Libyans have returned to their homes after being displaced, with 53% of this number constituting Benghazi residents. But returning home does not mean returning to stability. Many of these areas lack services, as public buildings such as schools, clinics and stores were destroyed during the fighting. A family that returns home to a suburban area will find themselves having to make a long commute daily just to drop their kids off at school or even do basic shopping.

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Preparation of food baskets for families in need

The unseen issues might be even more concerning. The effects of pollution in the area might take time to manifest, and the psychological implications of displacement and a shaky return are also a concern, as Libya lacks the psychiatric infrastructure to treat these cases. All in all, there needs to be more concentrated efforts to improve the return process for IDPs in Benghazi. The war has affected much more than just displaced families, though. According to the Benghazi Psychiatric Hospital, cases of post-traumatic stress disorder are rising fast, and the Kwaifia Respiratory Hospital has reported a spread of illnesses such as tuberculosis.

But the list of necessities and priorities and “why isn’t the government addressing this issue??” just gets longer as each issue goes ignored, and Benghazi’s citizens are once again left to help themselves out. Around the city, the signs of reconstruction and rehabilitation can be seen everywhere, despite the overbearing political and economic crisis dominating Libya. Family, friends and neighbours pool money to resolve critical needs, or unite together to pressure municipal services to act, and charity services have been in full swing this Ramadan. Benghazi has historically been built and tended to by its own people, and it will be reconstructed by them.

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Reconstruction of the civil engineering department of Benghazi University by its staff and students

Young Exodus

ـــ لماذا ندفن أنفسنا في هذه القرية المنسيّة.. المغبرّة؟”
ـــ ما رأيكم في السفر؟
ـــ إلى أين؟
ـــ العالم واسع.. ثمة آفاق دائماً
ـــ ألن يأكلنا الحنين؟
“ـــ الحنين لهذا القَفْر؟! للعجاج؟! لبلاد أهلها دائماً في عجلة من أمرهم ولا يفعلون شيئاً؟

ـــ أحمد يوسف عقيلة

You hear about the physical death in Libya, the accidental missile strikes or stray bullets, but you don’t hear about the little deaths, the prolonged withering of hope until nothing is left but abject, indifferent resignation. Libya has become a mass grave for the dreams of its young people.

It’s a conversation that comes up when talking about the state of the country. Those who can leave and have the means to have already packed up, three years back when it was apparent that things weren’t getting better anytime soon. Those who want to leave but are stopped by the multiple obstacles in their way (visa rejection, black market inflation) make up many of Libya’s youth today. I’ve heard too many stories from friends about multiple visa applications to study abroad (only to be rejected each time), of working two or three jobs to make the same living that one job could once achieve for you, of applying to any opportunity online that will give them a brief respite from the oppressive uncertainty and chaos. There’s not much left in Libya in the way of good education or promising job opportunities. Even those trying to create their own opportunities know that their success will always be limited by the situation.

Of course, these are the more privileged youth, those who received a decent education or have a supportive family encouraging them to seek their chances elsewhere. Then there are the young people from that section of society that is hidden and ignored, from poor families who have been hit hardest by the crisis (what poor families? say those in denial, those who still believe in the lie about the prosperous oil country). These young people, without enough “connections” to get them a job or scholarship, without any of the opportunities to give them a fighting chance, with a family that needs their support, will sacrifice their own futures for a chance to survive in increasingly impossible circumstances. Young men take up arms to fight in a war that makes no sense to them, young women married off to the highest bidder “to reduce the burden on the family.”

I remember one young fighter who said,  “We’re only fighting for our fallen friends; we know there’s nothing to look forward to when the battle is over.” This is the motivation that drives many Libyans to look for a way out. No notion of nationalism, or patriotic responsibility, is strong enough to keep people in a country that will take your best years and give you nothing in return. Those you know who’ve left call back to say, “Why are you still there? Get out while you can!”

Of course this phenomenon is not new; the country’s legacy of instability and war has always driven Libyans to find better prospects. The large diaspora abroad, disproportionate to the population, is a testament to that. But it’s never been this critical, the need to leave has never felt so urgent. Everything that has happened since the revolution has happened suddenly, so that even the imminent collapse of the country might strike us overnight. The past five years has taught us that it’s only going to get worse.

It’s easy to see Libya as a sinking ship that needs to be evacuated as soon as possible. But there are a few young people who are grappling with the issue through the lens of a moral dilemma. These youth, who rode the wave of hope following the revolution and achieved some level of success in their endeavors, are now wondering whether it would be right to leave. After all, wasn’t the point of the revolution to rebuild a new Libya? (it’s hard to remember what the point of the revolution really was though) If they leave, who will be left to help the country? But this group is a dwindling minority, as it becomes apparent that there isn’t much left to rebuild, that one person can’t change a society that remains steadfastly immobile. It’s a pessimistic and depressing view, but it’s also the reality now.

There’s a passage from Chimamanda Adichie’s “Americanah” that really gets to the core of the problem in any conflict country:

“…they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness. They would not understand why people like him who were raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real life happened in that somewhere else…”

But they know, to some extent, that leaving the country does not mean leaving behind also the burden of being a Libyan. In that ‘somewhere else’, you will go through the humiliation and struggle of being a refugee, that you will still have to work tirelessly to make ends meet (probably in a job less fulfilling than the one you left behind), that you will be plagued by longing and homesickness and the familiar comforts of your community. I know one young woman who was abroad when her father became very sick in Libya. If she left the country, she may not be able to come back, but if she didn’t return, she might never see him again. Even outside of Libya, you’re still in a prison of sorts. But right now, leaving is the only solution that one has any control over.

Every month or so, I say goodbye to more friends, who leave in search of choice and in escape of war. Every evening, I sit with those who’ve remained and repeat the same questions; stay and fight, or leave? will the country ever get better? if we don’t leave now, will we regret it later? And every night, we walk away without answers.

A Question of Morals

“Morality, too, is a question of time.” – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Libya’s civil society has never been popular. Since its prominent emergence in 2011, it has been one battle for survival after another. From government institutions accusing activists of fueling instability, to religious extremists targeting CSOs for “importing anti-Islamic ideals”, to average citizens decrying civil society as an unwanted byproduct of the February 17 revolution and subsequent collapse.

And yet, despite the obstacles and the threats, civil society has persisted in trying to make a difference, particularly in areas where no other formal institutions can operate. While the common notion is that of civic activists as privileged youth looking for a photo opportunity, it’s a mostly thankless job that requires an endless supply of patience as you navigate through the countless security procedures and arrangements to implement any kind of project. But it’s becoming increasingly difficult to implement anything openly these days without facing a torrent of hate, criticism and downright violence reactions.

I’ve chronicled the difficulties of being a civil society activist in Benghazi over the past few years, from the hope and invincibility we felt after the revolution to the crippling fear in the face of extremist groups. As Benghazi began to heal from the latest war, we felt again that glimmer of hope, only to have it extinguished just as brutally as last time. It seems that the pattern continues; no matter the ruler or dominant ideology, civil society is detested.

And what is it that civil society does that could warrant such repulsion? Last year, a group of grassroots organizations decided to hold a community get-together under the theme “Tea and Milk Unites Us.” Tea and milk is a common breakfast drink in Libya (with well-boiled black tea and condensed milk if you’re a purist like me), and the idea was to unite a society fragmented by war through a symbol enjoyed by everyone.

The backlash was swift; “Men are dying on the field while you hold these useless events!” “You have no respect for the war waging near you!” etc. etc. The general objection was that of holding any kind of event during a time of war, despite the fact that these events tried to help the general population heal and forget for a moment the trauma of war.

During the last Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, an art gallery was held, again in the Children’s Theater (we don’t have many venues because, again, war). And once again, the online reaction was saturated with vitriol. “Talking about violence against women while violence against our troops goes on?” “Look at these girls/how they’re dressed/outside their homes/etc.” The general rule seems to be that the more women appear in these kinds of events, the worse the reaction will be. Here we began to see the accusations of “immorality”. The objection became less about the war and more about what’s considered decent in our “conservative Muslim society.”

Cue yesterday’s Earth Hour celebration in Benghazi yesterday.  Held on the campus of the Faculty of Medicine, the event consisted of candles that filled the quad, the traditional one hour lights-off, and a concert. This time, the criticism was almost entirely focused on the offense to our cultural decency and morality as Libyans.

On the internet, it’s advised to never read the comments. Unfortunately, when it comes to Libya, I do read the comments. People will express things online that they’d never say in person, and it’s interesting to know what the general attitudes shaping public opinion are in a city like Benghazi. For this event, it appears that increasing conservatism is sweeping through society. Here the reactions ranged from, “pop songs have nothing to do with Earth Hour awareness” to “Look at these devil worshipers!”

It went one step further, with demands that those who organized the event should be arrested, a move reminiscent of the days when Ansar Shariah were targeting activists. These calls, along with recent orders restricting CSO activity in the East, is a worrying sign that once again, civil society isn’t safe.

But is civil society immoral? A concert, particularly one in which both men and women are on stage and singing English-language songs, isn’t entirely natural in Libya, but not entirely uncommon either. If we’re speaking of customs and traditions in Libya, conservatism is a relatively new concept. But if the issue is of what’s acceptable today, it becomes a more complicated discussion. Benghazi and the East opposed extremist ideology because of how violent it was, and more importantly, how foreign it seemed. And yet, people are quick to vilify these events as being against public decency, deaf to the fact that they sound very like the ideology they fought so vehemently against.

It’s a tricky issue, one that is being used by various groups to sway public opinion to the point where the definition of Libyan morality is being molded before our eyes (if we assume morality is subjective and not universal). And the victim in the middle, as usual, is civil society.

The East Libya Dilemma

Why would a city that rose up against dictatorship and oppression suddenly embrace totalitarianism once more, less than five years later? This is the question that many are speculating on these days, following the almost near total control of Eastern Libya by the Libyan National Army (LNA).

There have been many analyses and attempts to answer this question, especially now that military rule has permeated almost all aspects of life in the region. With the replacement of elected municipalities by military mayors and the daunting return of the omnipresent intelligence services, many are drawing parallels between the Gadhafi regime and what Khalifa Heftar is currently trying to achieve. But the folly of most of these analyses (I’m looking at you, clueless foreign Libya experts) is that they do not take into account the full picture and the causes that led to the current situation.

Before going in-depth, I need to make a disclaimer here; I do not, in principle, support military rule. As a person who believes wholeheartedly in civil society, I know that military might alone cannot build a country. But civil society will not be able to fulfill its purpose without the safety and security established by the rule of law, which, expediently, is enforced by security forces. It is not a choice between one and the other, but rather a balance that Libya needs during this transitional period. However, it would be naïve to deny that the country is undergoing incredibly exceptional circumstances, one that requires exceptional action.

I will not go over the five or so years of history that led to the appearance of Khalifa Heftar, as it needs much longer than a single post and I’ve already documented what I’ve witnessed ad naseum on this blog. Suffice to say that this situation in Benghazi drastically deteriorated after 2011 until the all-out war on October 15, 2014. It was this point that Benghazi had reached its lowest point in recent history. The city was crippled, a ghost town with barely functioning services. Almost half the population of the city was displaced, evacuated from their areas by the intense fighting.

Fast-forward two years. It is the beginning of 2017, and Benghazi has become almost unrecognizable from the ruin of a city it was. Bustling with life and renewed hope, the war here has reached its last leg, and reconstruction has already begun. But more noticeable than the physical changes to the city are the security changes. Military cars patrol the streets at all hours, the police are working at full capacity, and, most notably, the intelligence services are back in full swing. The mayor has been installed by the military ruler, and all civic services now have a large degree of oversight by the intelligence.

It is, for all intents and purposes, military rule. But ask the people of Benghazi how they feel about this, and you will get very positive reactions. There are no more street wars, no more assassinations, the judiciary has begun to function again, things are actually getting done.  That’s not to say the situation is perfect. There are still a number of IDPs who have not returned, and the reconstruction process will take years to complete. But the fear and terror is gone, those elements that had paralyzed the city for years.

Many people (mainly those who have never visited Benghazi) are decrying these developments. “Benghazi wants to return to the Gadhafi era!” they screech. “You have sacrificed your freedom for return to oppression; you will be once again under a dictator’s boot!” The only problem with these accusations is that we have never really experienced “freedom”. We went from oppression under one man to oppression under chaos.

And yeah, it’s not an ideal trade-off to go back to what we had. But it’s also pure stupidity to assume that the current situation in Libya will somehow evolve into a stable democracy on its own. The unity government solution has collapsed on itself, and our politicians, regardless of ideology, are all unfit to run a country. And yes, Heftar has ulterior motives, East Libyans are not deluded enough to believe that he noble ideals. But he presented a solution that achieved results, something no one else has been able to do.

To answer the initial question, it first needs to be reexamined. The current situation in East Libya is not the same as under Gadhafi, nor can it be called despotism in the traditional sense. East Libyans are not embracing dictatorship; they are embracing stability and a chance to live in peace for the first time in six years. The alternative is not freedom. It only takes one look into the harrowed face of a Benghazi resident to realize that they will support and defend this current peace no matter what accusations are hurled against the city.

And so what remains are the real questions that should be asked; Will East Libyans ever have faith in democracy again? In what direction will this military rule evolve? And if it does evolve into a Gadhafi-esque system, are Eastern Libyans prepared to give up the basic freedoms they regained in 2011? This is the dilemma that we’ll have to confront sooner or later, and one that might determine the future of the country.

Home

This is how I remember it: There were missiles coming down, and it was pitch black. It wasn’t the missiles that scared us, we were used to them. It was the darkness, mostly, not being able to see what happened if something did hit the house. It was also the emptiness, knowing that most of the neighbours had already left, that there would be no one to call out for help. The morbid anticipation of what could happen was one of the worst parts of the war.

We packed in the dark, consoling our fears with the plan that we’d leave at sun-up, that we couldn’t stay anymore. We had no idea where we would go and we didn’t care. We just had to go.

One thing I vividly remember is that we didn’t lock the doors of the rooms. My dad said, “If we lock them, they’ll break the doors down to get into the rooms.” He didn’t want them breaking our doors. We had accepted the fact that our house would be broken into, that there would be thieves who would try to get into our rooms, take our stuff, vandalize. We moved anything valuable to the roof’s stairwell, in case a rocket hit, in case the house went up in flames. We did this mechanically, matter-of-factly, like it wasn’t the most absolutely horrifying experience we had ever been through, that the idea of displacement, of being homeless, possibly losing our house forever, wasn’t so maddeningly awful that we wanted to drop to our knees and cry.

We left in the morning, with whatever we could fit in the car. I took one last walk around the house, the street, not really believing that we were going. The neighbourhood was dead. The stray cats and dogs we had been feeding were walking around aimlessly, brushing against my ankles. We were one of the only families left in the area, and there was no one else to feed them.

That feeling of disbelief stayed with me for a while, as we moved from house to house, country to country, living out of suitcases. Surely we’d be back in a few months. It can’t go on this long forever. We read every news story, every rumor, desperate for any shred of information. We scanned countless pictures on countless social media pages to see if we could recognize our house. Months turned into years, and we settled uncomfortably into the fact that we weren’t going back anytime soon. We sought out the stories of families who eventually went back to their homes, listening with hope to the stories of those who found their houses untouched, listening with poorly disguised misery to the stories of houses found in ruins, houses robbed of everything, even the windows, even the doors. I thought of our doors, and how my dad was afraid that they would be broken.

Fear turned into anger, and anger turned to depression. I had a recurring dream where I would drive into the neighbourhood and go back to our house. Sometimes it would be destroyed, sometimes there would be a mound of dirt preventing me from entering, sometimes I would find people living in it, zombies, bodies of dead soldiers. I would stand on the roof of the rubble and look at the burned trees and red sky and feel helpless. And then I would wake up.

I was always angry when I read the stories of displaced families. “They packed their belongings and left in a rush,” “100,000 families fled,” “They traveled to look for a new life and a safe place.” Families don’t leave everything behind in a rush, the thought is there in the back of their mind as soon as the fighting breaks out, they think it over a million times, even in the space of a day. You can’t just leave your old life behind, you can’t just forcibly start over. They never talk about that in the news stories, they never talk about the dreams and the constant feeling of disorientation. Every aspect of our lives was on hold, every plan put off, because we were waiting. We didn’t know what we were waiting for, we didn’t know what we’d find after the guns dropped and the smoke cleared. But we couldn’t move on, bound with thousands of other families in the excruciating wait.

Every meeting with neighbours ended in tears and sighs. Every time someone asked me, “Have you seen your house yet?” made me want to scream, to tell them that I didn’t know because of the fighting, how could I know?

The backdrop to this personal struggle was the war, the city exhausted by all the fighting and death and chaos. A bullet broke through the window of a house in one of the neighbourhoods we were staying in, killing a young girl. Her sister found her sprawled on the floor of her bedroom in a pool of blood soaking the textbook she was reading. A missile fell onto the living room of another house, destroying everything. No one was in the room at the time. Hearing these stories while you’re in your own home is one thing, you are able (to some extent) to dismiss it and create your own reality inside those four walls. But when you’re floating, un-anchored, there’s a sickening feeling of vulnerability.

I feel almost guilty talking about such a material thing, but there’s no way around it. Our house wasn’t just the place we lived, it was my sanctuary. I longed for my bed, my books, my old familiar comforts. Before this house, we had never lived in one place for longer than a year. I grew up unanchored, but at least that was something we did willingly. This house was the first place that belonged to us. The bedroom was mine, it was built for me, the garden was made for us to run in, every inch of the house was designed for my family’s use. Knowing that I could go anywhere, and this place would always be there when I came back, was my comfort. Having that comfort unexpectedly taken away was one of the worst feelings I have ever experienced. My relationships with friends outside this context because strained. What could I say to them outside of the reality that consumed me? One friend got married, another got her Masters’ degree, one started a new job he was passionate about. Me? Homeless, aimless, waiting.

The most maddening thing was not knowing. If we knew what had happened to the house, at least we would have some peace of mind. Even if it was destroyed, even if there was nothing left, we would know, we’d have some closure and could start planning for what comes after. But the guessing and speculating and being told to expect the worst took a toll on our psyche.

I applied for a job outside the country, because I had to break out, but mostly because I couldn’t wander in my city anymore. The idea that my home was a few neighbourhoods away but completely inaccessible to me filled me with impotent rage. I was already an expert in the suitcase life, it was just a matter of putting some distance between me and the misery. My parents didn’t protest, knowing that there were no good argument they could come up with for my staying. So I moved and tried to forget. But I still scanned the news and the pictures every day, still asked around for any new updates.

Last month, after the area was finally freed, my dad was allowed to enter. He went alone because they would only allow one person from each family. He came back, his face drawn. The pictures he took on his phone showed our rooms in shambles, everything taken out of the drawers and dumped on the floor, holes in the wall from the bullets, glass shards from the windows strewing the floor. But it was standing. It had survived the war, even though we barely did. My mom sent me the pictures, and I let out the first breath of relief in two years. The only thing my dad brought back from that first visit was a textbook from his library that he needed for a course he was teaching. I guess the shock had made him revert to that matter-of-fact mechanism.

He went back a few more times, bringing out more stuff, but when the fighting escalated in the nearby neighbourhood they wouldn’t let him back in. It was enough though, enough to give us a new dose of hope. Around us, the city is healing.

76 Hours in Tripoli

 

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Near the Tajourian seaside

For all my aggressively pro-Benghazi sentiment, there’s a special place in my heart for Libya’s capital city. Large, loud, bustling, with excellent coffee that almost makes up for the traffic congestion, the indifferent enormity and beauty of Tripoli is like a haughty love interest. I enjoy glimpsing a shadow of Benghazi in the Italian facades of downtown Tripoli, or the pedestrians walking down the seaside. But the accent of the passersby shatters that illusion; hearing ‘halba‘ instead of ‘wajed‘, or seeing the black shenna atop the heads of old men on street corners, instead of the distinct crimson of the East, reminds me of where I actually am.

No Libyan will admit this, in our long-standing tradition of stubbornness, but we love visiting other regions and cities. It’s that feeling of being not-quite-away from home, but far enough that you notice the small differences, which I think we find endearing. My Libya travels have been contained to the East, which makes the rare trips to the capital all the more exciting. West Libya is an entirely foreign place to me, while the South is still more of a mystery. (I’ve still unsuccessfully been able to visit Fezzan, but it hasn’t stopped me from continuing to try)

This trip was marred by the Libyan conflict, as everything is nowadays. “Are you sure it’s safe to go?” “I heard they kidnap Shergawis.” “Tripoli is not what it used to be, don’t be surprised when you arrive.”

The airport was bigger than I expected, and knowing that there wasn’t a three-hour car ride ahead of me (a la Labrag) was enough to keep me in high spirits. Driving around the city, I picked up on the familiar patches of the skyline, re-learning the architecture. There were more bullet holes in Tripoli then when I last arrived over two years ago, and the people a bit more forlorn. But there was also a lot of life, a persistent need to keep going, an unwillingness to succumb to the situation. The ugly rumors online about how terrifying Tripoli had become are as unfounded as the reports of Benghazi’s complete destruction. But people persist in these rumors, because we have developed a hideous sense of victory when we hear of a rival city’s demise, as though this failure justifies our petty political beliefs.

“There’s Bou Sita, if you look hard you can see the boat that Sarraj sailed in on.” It’s a new joke, but there’s nothing funny about the very serious armoured cars guarding the naval base. Around the city, you can spot stenciled graffiti in support of the GNA, but it’s not convincing. Real graffiti is not that meticulous, not that earnest in its message. These suspicions were confirmed by people I spoke with. “We had hope in them at first, but not anymore. What have they achieved?”

It was hard to get used to hearing from people in Tripoli that some of the militias are keeping the peace. Militias are all bad, aren’t they? We uncompromisingly rejected them in Benghazi,  a decision whose consequences we’re still facing. But it’s all for the ultimate greater good. Isn’t it? But Tripoli isn’t Benghazi, and their situation is not our situation. In Benghazi we don’t have tens of thousands of IDPs from other cities all seeking refuge, we don’t have the debilitating political expectations from unseen outside forces. When situations go to their extreme, we lean on one another. But in Tripoli, it’s every man for himself. Which is why I have to accept that, whatever my feelings are, my opinions are irrelevant to this city. اهل مكة ادرى بشعابها, as they say.

Another thing about Tripoli that is both endearing and embarrassing is that I’ve never spent a dinar there. I go from friend to friend, being hosted in that famed Libyan hospitality, and fights over the bill always end up with me losing to the argument of “You’re our guest!” Even when buying fruit at a kiosk, the vendor dismissed me with a wave of his hand as I try to pay, saying “Next time,  المرة الجاية.” I unconvincingly tell friends, “I’ll be hosting you when you visit me in Benghazi soon,” both of us knowing that they won’t be visiting Benghazi soon, that I don’t even want them to see Benghazi when it’s like this, with its rubble and its anger.

You don’t have to go far to find Benghazi anger though. Tripoli hosts thousands of Benghazi families who have fled the East, some unable to return because their neighbourhood still isn’t under LNA control, and some because it is. For the latter, it’s a self-imposed exile, a decision that hasn’t been taken without some measure of bitterness. I’m acutely aware that being able to travel freely between cities and regions in Libya has become something of a luxury.

In the morning of my departure, I bought an early-morning cup of coffee from a nearby kiosk. In Benghazi, as a woman, I could never stand in a line with a group of sleepy-eyed Libyan men at a coffee kiosk. But my visitor status to the city affords me this brazen opportunity. I walk around for a bit taking in the morning air, forgetting for a brief moment the war, the hatred, the divided country, and enjoyed being a regular citizen visiting the capital city of her country.

Tripoli is also where I first met Tawfik Bensaoud, during that last trip two years ago, ironic considering that we’re both from Benghazi. We had our first real conversation waiting at the airport gate for our flight back. I don’t remember what we talked about, probably politics or civil society, but I remember being content. Tawfik is gone, and the airport is gone, but Tripoli is still here, Benghazi is still here. We can only go forward now.