The City as Barracks: Militarization of Benghazi’s Urban Space

The earliest memory I have of visiting the building site that would become our family home in Benghazi is the road; the long stretch of the Tripoli highway road seemed unending to a 14 year old, and the idea of living on the edge of the city was foreboding. But what caught my attention was the double row of concrete walls framing the road.

I would later learn that we lived near the ‘April 7th’ military camp, later renamed the ‘February 17’ military camp when it was taken over by armed protesters in 2011 and renamed once more after the 2014 civil war. I don’t know what the new name is, everyone in the city still knows is as the Feb 17 camp. Across from it is the Garyounis base, the site of Gadhafi’s historic radio announcement in which he declared a coup d’état against the kingdom.

Benghazi today is the site of numerous military camps. Those constructed under the Gadhafi regime during the time of his military paranoia and weapons stockpiling were placed in the peripheries of the city; Garyounis, Bu’Atni, Venecia. But the city has rapidly grown since then, swallowing the military camps and placing them in the middle of residential districts. The only exception was the Fatheel Bu’mar base near the city center, a re-purposed relic of Italian colonization (which in its time was also in the city’s periphery).

We no longer live at the ‘edge’ of the city, but the features of a once-peripheral neighbourhood are still there, from the military camps to the lack of phone lines. And it was these camps that led to our displacement in the war, along with the displacement of every neighbourhood that had barracks of some sort in them.

After the 2011 revolution/war, the military bases scattered throughout the city became the most strategically important sites, and the plethora of armed groups that emerged from the conflict all grabbed what they could. From then on, the sound of gunfire and explosions from training were ubiquitous in my neighbourhood, marking an era of militarization of the city.

But there weren’t enough military bases to go around, and several public buildings were taken over by armed groups as their headquarters. Where public buildings weren’t available, large tracts of land were purchased or taken by force. The old soap factory in Kuwaifya became the camp for the Libya Shield militia, Gadhafi’s farmland in Hawari turned into the infamous Rafallah S’hati barrack, run by a militia allied to extremist groups. These places did not become passive military camps like the days of Gadhafi but were sites of violence, inflicted terror on the neighbourhoods they were in; those living near Rafallah S’hati would find the decapitated bodies of victims of the militia group, the Libya Shield base was the site of frequent violent confrontations between the militia and protesters who wanted them out of the city.

After the outbreak of the 2014 war, the front lines were drawn around the barracks. Military tactics in the city revolved around capturing bases in order to gain weapons and ammunition, as well as free prisoners. These tactics led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people and paralyzed life in the city. Four years later, the city is “liberated” but the bases remain.

The army’s “Military Investment Authority” is now radically changing the layout of the city. The Juliana beachside has been taken over by force in order to create a new military base. But the land grabbing is not limited to military aspirations alone, as houses and land in affluent neighbourhoods have also been purchased or taken over by force to make way for new developments, such as a mall that is being constructed in the already congested Bel’oun district. Focus is now being cast on the Benghazi bosco, one of the largest parks in the city. With the country still in a period of extreme volatility, now is the best time to establish control over land.

Citizens are trying to fight back, launching campaigns online and invoking Libyan land laws. Surprisingly there is a fear by armed groups of social media backlash, and for now sites like the bosco remains untouched. But demands for the dismantling of military bases continue to be futile. Our neighbourhood representatives – prompted by the incident of a stray bullet breaking through glass into a house – attempted to negotiate with the current management of the Garyounis base to at least reduce the military training that goes on, but with little success.

These bases are extending throughout the city, turning Benghazi into a military town, and similar phenomena is felt in Tripoli, Sirte, Ajdabiya and elsewhere. As long as the conflict between opposing groups in Libya continues, the bases won’t go away, as all parties wait in anticipation of the next war.

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Benghazi’s Neighbourhoods and Their Ideologies

Most big cities around the world are organized based on a system of streets and districts. Neighbourhoods are often formed on the periphery of busy commercial centers, in quiet residential areas where familiarity between people doesn’t extend beyond physical recognition and a formal head-nod.

But of course, Benghazi breaks that tradition. Rather than adopting big city idiosyncrasies (impersonal, enormous, chaotic), it has instead developed a hybrid of urban culture and small town quirks.

Take, for example, the layout of the city. Benghazi’s core is its downtown, located on a jut of land overlooking the Mediterranean, since the city’s economy was historically dependent on its sea port and salt trade. Later, Greek town planner C.A.Doxiadis drafted a vision for the city to promote a concentric-circle plan, with the downtown being the core. The concentric circle design is a standard template in urban planning, and is beneficial for cities experiencing rapid growth.

But while Benghazi’s downtown is (or, was) a commercial center, it never quite shook off the neighbourhoods that had existed in the area. These include El-Sabri, Sidi Khraibeesh and Souq El-Hoot, districts that once housed Benghazi’s oldest families and contained a medley of architecture styles and landmarks that extend as far back as the Ottomans. (If you notice a switch in my use of present and past tenses, I still have trouble reconciling the fact that we’ve ostensibly lost our downtown in this war).

Most of the old families had long moved out of these areas, but the buildings they left behind still bore their names. The Kanoun building, the Benkato mosque, the Kikhia house, etc. all form a downtown that is familiar in the minds and hearts of Benghazi’s older generation. My favorite part of walking through the downtown with my parents is hearing them reminisce on old memories. My father riding his bike around the Silphium plaza or haggling with Jewish merchants in Souq El-Jareed, my mother studying in the Manar Palace (temporarily used by the university) and eating lunch with her friends beneath the horseshoe arches of the terrace.

Benghazi expanded to the North, South and West, but the traits that made up the old neighbourhoods did not dissipate. Instead, they moved with the families, creating neighbourhoods across the city where people know each other intimately, where strangers asking for directions are invited inside for food and tea, where a wedding or funeral tent is set up in the middle of the street and no one complains, because the neighbourhood celebrates and mourns together. Some say that, because the people who came to Benghazi broke away from their tribes and became part of the diverse social fabric of the city, they recreated the tribal system they were familiar with. In Benghazi, there isn’t much that separates family, friends and neighbours.

Today, the neighbourhoods in Benghazi can roughly be described as “upper” or “lower” class, although the description isn’t universally accurate. Gadhafi’s systematic destruction of the city created an even playing field, economically speaking. That is to say, lower class ‘sha3biya’ areas can house university professors and other intellectuals, while many upper class areas have no working sewage system.

El-Wahayshi is considered Benghazi’s “slum”. Containing mostly old housing developments, the area has a high drug-trafficking rate, and many immigrants coming from impoverished countries live there. Tabalino, on the other hand, is considered a “rich suburb”. A relatively new area, most of the houses are impressive marble-encased villas surrounded by high walls. But aside from the houses, the districts are almost imperceptible from one another. Both have the same small shops selling vegetables, cigarette kiosks and mobile phone stores. Both have public schools with the same architecture and the same level of education. Both have potholes that fill with rain water in the winter.

I remember reading an article that described the Hadayek area as “affluent” and laughing at the description. Hadayek is a relatively nice area, paved streets and sidewalks and trees (the name translates to ‘the Gardens’), but it doesn’t contain any features that make it particularly affluent, or distinguishes it from ‘less affluent’ areas. I guess maybe it’s because I’ve lived here for so long, but the shabby facades and accumulated dust and debris from years of neglect have made all the districts in Benghazi similar to me.

The neighbourhood mindset has had a certain degree of effect in the current war. I’ve seen many articles analyzing the political, cultural and economic factors that have come into play, but I have rarely – if ever – read an analysis that including the anomaly of Benghazi’s urban composition.

For example, when the war begin, one of the first districts to be liberated was El-Selmani. Selmani is an old, high-density area comprised of a maze of narrow streets. It isn’t so much a large swath of houses as much as it’s one house, with children and women and men walking the narrow streets like hallways to play or borrow ingredients or just to stand on the corner and chat. You’d be hard pressed to find someone in Selmani who didn’t know their neighbours in at least a four street radius. And so, when the war began and the extremists began fighting army members for access to various districts, the people of Selmani instinctively knew who was whom. And due to the Selmani residents’ overwhelming support for the army, the extremists were weeded out and fighting stopped in the area after three days.

But in Laithi it was the opposite. Laithi is another old neighbourhood, expanding across much of West Benghazi and containing a mix of new and old buildings. Before the war, the district was humorously referred to as “Laithi-stan” due to the overwhelming number of people who were pro-Ansar Shariah (dark humor, I know). When the war began, the men of the area closed off the main streets, snipers were positioned in key locations and those who supported the army inconspicuously left. When the fighting began, all their strategizing was put in motion and it remains a site of continuous battle to this day.

Now, what makes a neighbourhood predominately pro-Ansar or pro-Army? It’s obviously not just a coincidence that people with similar ideologies happened to live near each other. As mentioned previously, neighbours are akin to family for many people. People who grow up next to each other are bound to have their beliefs influence one another. What’s become apparent in this war is that many families with those who have a member in the fight will ferociously defend that side, and so the same seems to go with neighbours.

Another anomaly in the war is the fact that we have military bases located in residential neighbourhoods. The February 17th militia base is across from the university quarters and the Rafallah Sahati militia base is in Hawari. Not surprisingly, these areas have been evacuated (or people were forced to leave under threat of violence). The number of displaced families has reached a little over 46,000 registered IDP families, and the relocation and humanitarian assistance for these families has proven to be one of the biggest problems in the crisis. The psychological damage of the displacement is probably the worst. There are fears also that the ideological reasons for the war and the tribal elements are tearing apart the social fabric of the city.

It’s this humble (sort of) blogger’s opinion that this last fear is not as worrying as it would be if we were talking about a city other than Benghazi. Our society is, if not many other things, at least resilient. This is not the first war or the first crisis that we have ever faced, and while tensions may be high now, I don’t believe (or hope, at any rate) that we’ll see any lasting damages.