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The War in Libya and the Battle for Tripoli

How people in Tripoli experience the battle for Libya's capital

The War in Libya and the Battle for Tripoli
Photograph: Alessio Romenzi

As foreign arms fuel the conflict for control of Libya’s western capital, the mood in Tripoli is one of defiance – and resignation.

"A lie makes you drink once, but it doesn't make you drink the second time." So says Abdullah as he walks in Martyrs’ Square, looking at banners and flags. "We have already overthrown a dictator, we celebrated his end; we will not let another enter the capital,” he adds, pointing to an image of General Khalifa Haftar on a banner hanging on the wall.


Haftar’s face is covered with an X and an inscription at the bottom says: Leave us alone.


Abdullah is twenty-nine years old, and for most of his life this was Green Square, named after the philosophy of the guardian of a different revolution: Muammar Gaddafi, the Bedouin born in a tent.


It is Friday, the usual day of demonstration and celebration and the day on which, since the beginning of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s offensive, the citizens of Tripoli take to the streets to demand an end to hostilities. Abdullah recalls the large demonstrations in support of the Gaddafi regime: on 2 March to celebrate Jamahiriya, the declaration of Gaddafi’s Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (people’s republic); and on 1 September, for al Fateh, the day of the revolution.


From this square, at the beginning of the protests on February 25, 2011, Gaddafi shouted to his supporters: “Life without dignity has no value, life without green flags has no value, so sing and dance! Those who do not support me will die.”


A few months later there were revolutionaries dancing in the square. The posters celebrating the Raʾīs, the leader, were torn to the ground in defiance of the regime, to claim victory and take possession of the place that for decades had been the symbol of the Colonel's power. To rename it Martyrs’ Square.


In this new time of crisis, as Haftar’s shells rain down on the city, the square is full again, men and children on one side, women on the other. A huge flag is dragged around the entire perimeter by boys shouting, “No to another dictator! No to Haftar, the war criminal!” A billboard stands out in front of the sea: “No to the militarisation of Libya.” But Libya is already militarised. There are five million people and twenty million weapons.


An elderly man sits on a stool reciting a poem, an ode to the desert and to the courage and heroes of Libya, first of all Omar al Mukhtar, who led the anti-colonial resistance against the Italians in the 1920s. He cites his words: "I will not leave this place until I have achieved one of the two highest levels: martyrdom or victory.


Al Mukhtar did not win; he was captured and tried in the Littorio Palace in Benghazi. He was sentenced to death and hanged in the square in front of twenty thousand people.


These days, other dead are commemorated in the square. They will be called the martyrs of the Haftar offensive. All around, people shout: “Allahu Akbar!” And: “We will win!”


The walls are covered with images of Haftar and his allies. There is Saudi crown prince Bin Salman, Egyptian president Al Sisi, Russian President Putin and crown prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. There are also many images of French president Macron. Each face has been erased by a red mark.


The posters in Martyrs’ Square are the mirror of how this latest war in Libya has already become a proxy war rather than a civil war. Both sides rely on arms from foreign powers to conduct their offenses or defensive campaigns. Tripoli residents are asking foreign allies to supply weapons, just as Haftar's powerful allies are supplying him with the latest T72 tanks, drones, Grad rockets, planes and helicopters.


One of the missiles used by Haftar on Tripoli is the Chinese LJ-7, fired from Chinese Wing Loong unarmed aerial vehicles, which have been sold to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt. An LJ-7 was used by the Saudi-led coalition to assassinate the president of Houthi Supreme Political Council Saleh Ali al-Sammad in Yemen.


Among these countries, the UAE stands out. According to the United Nations, it has supplied Haftar with aircraft and around 100 armoured vehicles, and has allocated $200m to support his military campaign.


In Martyrs’ Square, the people repeat: “Tripoli will not become a new Benghazi, a new Derna, razed to the ground by Haftar bombs.”


But looking at the walls of the square, Tripoli feels like it is already becoming a new Syria. A girl is holding a banner: “The UN is destroying the country.” She explains: “Nobody trusts Gassan Salamé anymore here, the UN has lost credibility, they have been talking about negotiations for years, but they are accomplices too. They know that you can't deal with criminals and yet they insist on talking to Haftar. Our patience is over, the time for negotiation is over.”


Another woman, Salma, approaches with a rose. She is twenty-five years old, her face covered by the niqab. "No to the military government, yes to the civil government" says the manifesto she holds in her hand. “Libyans are brothers, they are not enemies.”


Part of her family lives in Benghazi, in the area of the country controlled by Haftar. Benghazi, where the revolution began. Salma says the only army she recognises is the one of February 17.


“The revolution is not over,” she says. “There are so many people with whom we can still sit and talk, negotiate, make agreements. Libyans of the east are no enemies, they are brothers, Libyans like us. They are welcome, but in peace. Haftar has destroyed the efforts made so far with his military advance. Therefore I still believe that there is a diplomatic solution, but only if he is excluded from the negotiations.”


As Abdullah walks away from the square – it is almost evening – someone donates sweets and baryoush, croissant-shaped brioches popular in Tripoli. Someone intones more protest songs – “Haftar, Tripoli will not let you in.”


Others, speaking low, describe the tiredness of the city. “It is not about being optimistic or pessimistic about the end of the war, but being lucid and admitting that the choice is between militias and dictatorship," says an old man wearing the white jalabiya. “Part of those filling the square until a month ago complained about the abuses of the militias, they evoked the times of security, they regretted the past, when the regime guaranteed everyone at least housing, work and electricity. We are tired, and many of those who fill this square would have been ready only a few weeks ago to welcome Haftar.”


The tiredness of Tripoli is in its queues for petrol, the banks controlled by militias, the electricity blackouts during the heat of summer. The tiredness of Tripoli can be read in its contradictions: the largest oil reserves on the African continent, ninth largest in the world. With 48 billion barrels of crude oil and 1.5 trillion cubic metres of natural gas reserves, Libya could be a market force for a century.


This is an economy based on oil – 95% of government revenues, 96% of export value, average turnover of $24bn – where citizens can pay $4 for a full tank of gas. But people queue for hours at petrol stations, cars full of cans to fill. Because everything, including refineries, is the hostage of the militias.


A very rich country, in which there is no cash. Because even the banks are in the hands of armed groups.


Haftar wanted to use this tiredness to build consensus, but he overestimated his support in the city and dared too much, too fast. He wanted to enter as a hero, repeating the rhetoric with which he led the Benghazi war: clean the capital of militias and Islamists.


But he cannot be accepted as an invader. “Haftar said it in 2014: Libya is not ready for democracy. And [he] has now presented his strategy to conquer it: a dictatorship disguised as a release from terrorists,” says Abdullah.


At the frontline


It is May, and five weeks have passed since the beginning of the offensive against the Government of National Accord in Tripoli by the troops of Haftar, head of the Libyan armed forces (LNA). Fighting has reached the southern part of the city, Ain Zara, Khalat al Ferjan, Salhaeddine, Yarmouk camp and the area of the old international airport destroyed in 2014. There have been more than four hundred people killed, two thousand injured. Sixty thousand displaced.


There are many front lines, each more fluid than the last. Daily advances and daily retreats. More than fighting, it’s a cat and mouse game under mortar fire.


Travelling with the Misurata brigades, we reach the Ain Zara district, 15km south of the city – one of the crucial sectors of the battle. Our armoured vehicle is driven by a young boy from Misurata, who navigates his way through the ghostly suburb. The shops remain as they were when abandoned. The fruit and vegetables still stand outside, now covered with sand and rubble dust. Mosques are used as sniper positions.


Taking the road through Ain Zara means risking being attacked by snipers and bombs. Along the way there are signs of the Haftar bombs.


"They have latest-generation tanks, drones, Grad rockets, airplanes and helicopters," says Yasin Salama from Misrata. "We are trained, but on the ground it's easy. If the enemy bombs, you can't do anything. You can just pray."


An experienced veteran, Yasin explains that soldiers cannot advance indiscriminately. “We must think of civilians. First of all, we have to save lives. Where are our allies? Why don't they send drones, while we live with the fear of Emirati bombs?"


At the entrance to Ain Zara is a paper factory destroyed by bombs. The sound of the stacks of sheet metal waving in the wind mixes with the sound of gunshots getting closer and closer.


Along the road comes a car loaded with boxes and bags. It stops on the side of the road, followed by an ambulance. Osama Oshah is the last resident to leave the neighbourhood, with his wife and two young children. “The destruction of Ain Zara is nothing compared to Benghazi and Derna. What Haftar calls an army is a band of savage mercenaries, Sudanese, Chadians. Those called terrorists to justify his war are political opponents. Dictators do this, they play with words, they call it a war on terror to justify their brutality,” he tells us.


The ambulance carries a man – skeletal, he seems not to have eaten for days. For weeks it was not possible to evacuate him. The soldiers look at the sky. Every noise is the threat of a drone, of a sudden bomb.


Khaled Mansour, one of the soldiers of the brigade, is from Misrata. He keeps his face covered by a balaclava because part of his family still lives in Benghazi, and even on the front line it’s better not to trust anyone, he explains. The previous week, two men arrived waving a white flag, saying they were soldiers of Haftar, that they wanted to surrender and desert.


But it was an ambush and they were attacked on both sides by Haftar soldiers. He lost three of his men.


A few hundred metres separate the snipers: Libyans on one side, Libyans on the other. The frontline is haphazardly organised, with sandbags, and piles of sand used as barriers against the enemy’s vehicles.


We are in a house on the front line. The commander carries an AK-47 and quickly climbs three flights of stairs, one of his men releasing a burst of machine gun fire.


The brigade are seasoned fighters who also fought in 2016 with Bunyar al Marsous, the coalition of military forces of Misrata that defeated ISIS in Sirte, in a war that lasted six months and left 700 dead and 3,000 wounded.


"I cannot accept being described as a terrorist by an aspiring dictator puppet of other dictators. If there is someone who fought jihadists in Libya, those are soldiers of Misrata," says the commander.


Churn of alliances


To read the Tripoli front it is necessary to observe who is not fighting almost as much as who is. The forces in the field are mainly from Misrata – the most numerous fighters, the most experienced. The Misrata troops are the best equipped; they are here to protect the capital but also to protect themselves. Haftar considers the city a stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood, and they know that if Tripoli falls he will move directly to Misrata.


There are brigades of Zawhia and Zuwara, the Amazighs, the men of Janzour, but the majority of the Tripoli militias are missing. The great absentees are the Salafi militants of the Rada militia, the Deterrence Forces which count 1,500 people and control the Mitiga airport and the prison.


These powerful Salafis are supported by Riyadh, and it is with them that Haftar's emissaries seem to have talked in recent years, through the Salafist Madkhalist groups that support him in Cyrenaica, the eastern coastal region of Libya. They could tip the scale today.


Atiya is around twenty, wearing shorts and a camouflage jacket. He always smiles. "It is my war," he says. "I am not afraid of being a martyr if it’s useful to protect the capital from the invader."


He fights in the area of the old international airport, one of the most dangerous fronts, the most disputed. It is open countryside, and advances are fought among farms.


The armoured vehicles move south, in reconnaissance. The radio transmits the positions: “Zone 17, here we are, debbaba, debbaba, tank, tank.” An enemy tank has been spotted.
The voice on the other side responds: “We will die if necessary, we do not move until further notice. We will show who we are. Allahu Akbar.”


Being on the Tripoli front line today means moving seemingly at random. The soldiers who preside over Airport Road conquer the road metre by metre, under mortar fire, because Haftar's men are on the right and left.
Suddenly a rocket propelled grenade hits our armoured car, followed by a barrage of bullets. The dull round sound of the shots going out is interspersed with the repeated hissing sound of the shots coming in.


Then the shooting stops.


"It is the fourth war in eight years,” says Atiya. “[There was] the revolution, the civil war, then the September war, militias against militias marching on Tripoli, and now the Haftar war. Yesterday's enemies are today's allies. And today's allies can become tomorrow's enemies."


The rapid pace of conflict and ally-shifting explains why the soldiers are not only exhausted but also demoralised. They know that if they defeat the General of Cyrenaica, as in all previous conflicts those who fought most tenaciously will present their bill, asking for political positions, personal laws, money, refineries, oil.


It is hard to imagine the Misrata soldiers now fighting to defend Tripoli leaving their positions in the case of victory. And again, today's allies will be tomorrow's enemies. "It is the opportunism that killed the spirit of the revolution," says Atiya. “The young died for freedom and the old stole the loot.”


During the revolution Atiya lost his father, a rebel, "a martyr of 2011", he says as he looks out at blocks of damaged or destroyed homes from the window of the armoured vehicle.
But he can't stop believing in the spirit of February 17, in the watchwords of the revolution.


He says it is difficult to kill, because these are Libyans like him. But: "If I don't shoot first, I'm the first to die." He shouts "Hurria, Hurria – freedom, freedom,” as he gets out of the vehicle. "I can't stop believing in freedom."


But Atiya’s view is endangered. The risk of ceasing to believe in freedom, today in Tripoli, is the surrender to the fatigue and passivity which opens the way to a new dictatorship. This fatigue, deep under the skin of Tripoli’s people and the soldiers guarding the city, is one of the reasons Haftar felt confident enough to enter the capital.

Francesca Mannocchi