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Libya's Derna engulfed in bloody battle

Mat Nashed
June 18, 2018

Forces loyal to strongman Khalifa Haftar are battling jihadists for control of the eastern city of Derna. Yet the international community remains mute as civilians bear the brunt of the fighting. Mat Nashed reports.

Two fighters in the Libyan town of Derna
Image: DW/S. Elnihum

The sound of rockets and gunfire echoed through the walls of Aya's home as she huddled with her parents, brothers, and baby nephews on the kitchen floor.  At the time, they were hiding from stray bullets as fighting escalated in Libya's eastern port city of Derna.

Since early May, Derna has been engulfed in a bloody battle between strongman Khalifa Haftar's self-described Libyan National Army (LNA), and a band of Islamists and jihadists that recently changed their name from the Derna Mujhadeen Shura Council to the Derna Protection Forces (DPF). By June, both sides were clashing outside Aya's doorstep.

"We were writing messages to the social media pages of the LNA and to news channels, pleading to provide us with safe exit from Derna," texted Aya, an alias to protect her real name, from the confines of her kitchen.

On June 9, Aya and her family finally managed to escape to a small town 80 kilometers (50 miles) away. By then, at least 2,183 families had been uprooted to surroundings areas, according to theInternational Organization for Migration (IOM). Rights groups say that dozens of people have also been killed, and fear that many more will die in the coming days.

A bombed-out school in Derna
A bombed-out school in Derna is just one stark reminder of the suffering civilians are experiencingImage: DW/S. Elnihum

World leaders, however, appear disinterested in preventing another tragedy in the country.  At the end of May, French President Emmanuel Macron hosted four rival Libyan leaders in Paris, including Haftar. During the conference, neither Macron, Libyan stakeholders, nor Haftar's rivals made any mention of the crisis in Derna.  

"Nobody cares about us," Aya told DW, just a day before she fled. "The international community doesn't care about civilians that it can't benefit from."

Indiscriminate fire

The LNA claims that it has captured more than 75 percent of Derna. Despite its gains, residents say that violence is escalating, with both sides showing little regard for civilian life.

Haftar has long portrayed the LNA as a benevolent army that is cleansing the country of terrorists, but the reality is more complicated. The LNA is less of an army and more of a loose alliance of militias and tribes that assembled under the authority of Haftar in 2014. Since then, the LNA has committed a myriad of war crimes, and now appears to be doing the same in Derna.

Earlier this month, a 60-year-old woman and her son drove to Derna's main vegetable market to pick up gas, food and water for their family. Moments after the son left the vehicle to grab the supplies, he heard a loud explosion behind him. Haftar's forces had just fired a missile at his car while his mother was still inside. 

"She suffered shrapnel wounds to her head, back and hands," said Fairouz, the grandniece of the injured woman. "The LNA ambulance rushed her to a hospital in the nearby city of Al-Bayda. She survived, but doctors said that they had to amputate her hand."

Fairouz is originally from Derna, but moved to a suburb with her family in 2014 to escape the rule of extremists, including the "Islamic State" (IS) group which had captured the city in November that year. Like herself, she claims that most people in Derna support the LNA despite besieging the city for two years.

A map of Libya

Others, however, fear an LNA takeover. One 32-year-old woman, who asked DW not to disclose her name, prompted a backlash for criticizing the LNA's reckless use of force over Facebook. The incident happened just days after Haftar announced the start of the operation to capture Derna in May. After seeing the post, her neighbors quickly warned her family to make her keep quiet.

"I'm generally against Islamic rule," she said. "But I know the LNA will arrest anyone who is against them [once they take over the city]."

Read moreLibya: Building trust in democracy

An oppressive 'army'

One video currently circulating over Facebook, and which DW could not substantiate, ostensibly shows Haftar's forces executing two unarmed men in the street. Despite the brutality, many people from Derna said they welcome the arrival of the LNA.

Yet Lidya Sizer, an expert on terrorist groups in Libya and a contributor to the Middle East Institute (MEI), warns that the LNA's deep suspicion of DPF cells and sympathizers could cause it to mistreat the population. 

"If the LNA mistreats the population in Derna due to its suspicion, then it would add to the risk of the DPF returning and reigniting the conflict," Sizer told DW. "It's also possible that if the DPF is completely destroyed then fighters could join IS [even though] the DPF fought against the extremist group three years ago."

Haftar's men, added Sizer, may also prevent families from returning to Derna due to a perception that only DPF supporters fled the city. But most people who fled told DW that they support Haftar, but escaped to rush an injured loved one to the hospital or evade heavy gun fire. Whatever the reason, many now worry that their houses could be looted or destroyed. The greater fear, of course, is that the violence will never end. 

"Most fighters [from DPF] won't surrender," Fairouz, the LNA supporter, told DW. "They believe Derna is their jihad."

Taher El-Sonni on Conflict Zone