Benghazi’s Reconstruction: Memory, Identity and the Future of the City Center

.”بعد الافطار في حمأة ليال رمضان أتمشى ، في مدينتي بنغازي ، من حى البركة ، حيث أسكن ، مخترقا شارع جمال عبدالناصر ؛ الاستقلال سابقا ، حتى ميدان الشجرة ؛ شجرة الأرز ـ التي ماتت ـ ما حمل الميدان اسمها فبقي الأسم رغم موت المدلول ، في ركنه ثمة نخيلة عجفاء تحتاج لمسبار لتتبين وجودها. في هذا الميدان محل أحذية يقف أمامه صاحبه مثل شجرة ، منذ تجرأت في مقتبل العمر وخالفت الوالد وزحفت من حى الصابري نحو قلب المدينة النابض المتلألئ”

– احمد الفيتوري, سيرة بني غازي

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Benghazi’s ‘Plaza of the Tree’ in 2018 after the end of the armed combat

In downtown Benghazi a few weeks ago, the historic Jumhouria Hospital witnessed the demolition of one of its damaged buildings, as part of the municipality’s attempt to begin reconstruction in the war-torn city’s central Al-Sabri district. This act was met with widespread outcries by many of the city’s residents, who believe that historic buildings should be renovated rather than demolished and rebuilt. It is the latest incident in the reconstruction debate that has divided the city since the end of the conflict.

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‘Plaza of the Tree’ renovated in 2019 by a local organization through volunteer efforts and donations (Picture source: https://www.facebook.com/benghazi.alamal.foundation/)

Al-Sabri is one of the areas that was hit hardest by the fighting during the 2014 conflict, and has only been accessible to civilians for the past year. Mines and unexploded ordinances concealed in the rubble of destroyed buildings still pose a threat to displaced residents  who are trying to return to the area, and the sheer extent of the destruction to buildings and infrastructure has slowed the pace of recovery. For the municipality, the renovation of Jumhouria Hospital will not only bring a crucial health center back to service, but will also revive the district.

But unlike Benghazi’s other health centers, Jumhouria holds significant historic sentiment for the city. Initially built as a military hospital under Italian colonization during the early 1900s, it became a civilian hospital post-independence and has served all of East Libya, offering a number of crucial services such as pediatrics, gynecology, psychiatry and radiology. The Jumhouria complex consists of several buildings, making it one of the largest hospitals in the Eastern region. Ask any Benghazi resident where they were born and the answer will most probably be Jumhouria.

It is perhaps for this reason why there has been such a strong vocal response to its demolition. Many are worried that the historic colonial design of the building will be lost. Others fear that corruption is involved, as rebuilding costs significantly more than renovation. It is also a process that will take more time to complete, leaving Benghazi’s other tertiary health centers under continued strain. The main fear is that the hospital, once demolished, will never be rebuilt, following the legacy of other incomplete construction projects across Libya. Another legacy, that of the destruction of heritage sites – both under the Gadhafi regime and most recently by extremist groups – underpins these fears, and residents fear that Benghazi will not be left with any of its historic landmarks.

However, many people have spoken out in favour of the demolition, including the hospital staff. Taking to social media, proponents of the rebuilding have said that the hospital has been neglected for years and was in disrepair before the war, due to its age and lack of constant maintenance. The damage caused by the conflict, they say, has given the institution a chance to completely refurbish and bring the hospital up to the latest standards. They also brought up the permission granted by the Historic City Authority (HCA), which is responsible for all construction and demolition permits in downtown Benghazi. After inspecting the buildings, the HCA consented to the demolition of the most damaged structures, provided that the “historic architectural integrity” of the hospital complex isn’t affected.

This debate has been playing out on different levels since the end of the conflict, and is part of the most pressing question in post-war cities; should we rebuild to preserve what had existed or use the destruction as an opportunity to forge a new vision? Cities such as Aleppo, Mosul and San’aa face a similar challenge, in politically-charged environments where deciding what counts as “historic” is hotly contested.

One of the catalysts of this debate is the lack of definition of this ephemeral ‘Benghazi identity’. Is the identity of the city preserved in the historic buildings, reflections of the city’s past, with Arab-Islamic buildings sitting next to Ottoman-era houses next to Italian apartment blocks, each infused with elements of a Libyan localism – from the ‘boukhoukha’ doors to the religious talismans written on the facade? Many people speak of the memory of living in the downtown, before Benghazi’s rapid urbanization, or the memory they inherited from their parents, a memory captured in time. But can a city thrive in the stagnation of memory alone?

For its part, the Benghazi municipality sees the downtown area – with its strategic seaside location – as a lucrative investment opportunity. There has been notable foreign interest in the reconstruction process, including by Solidere, the company notoriously responsible for reconstructing downtown Beirut after the Lebanese civil war. But this type of profit-driven reconstruction – absent of a vision that preserves the heritage of the downtown – poses a major concern for the Historic City Authority and the people of Benghazi.

This latest act of destruction-for-reconstruction has undoubtedly sparked a panic over what will be lost in the process of rebuilding Benghazi – which can be seen in the current activity around the cathedral and lighthouse – but it has also started a dialogue on preserving Benghazi’s cultural heritage and identity; a topic that would have been impossible to discuss a year ago when the city was still reeling from the aftermath of the conflict. Civil society groups have already mobilized volunteers and are leading grassroots efforts to revive the downtown, utilizing the narrative of Benghazi’s city center as an intrinsic part of the city’s identity. To ensure the protection of this identity, all these different circuits of repair should converge to ensure a holistic reconstruction process.

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