Life in the embattled city of Benghazi | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 26.03.2015
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Life in the embattled city of Benghazi

Benghazi, the birthplace of Libya's revolution, has borne the brunt of the ongoing conflict in the country. Life for civilians remains difficult, as Marine Olivesi reports from a rare trip to the embattled city.

Like every Friday afternoon after prayer, dozens of people gather at a Benghazi square, holding flags and banners. A group of women sing the praise of army commanders battling radical militants in the city. "No to dialogue," the women chant.

The Islamist militia fighters on the other side of the frontline don't seem interested in dialogue, either.

An explosion blasts through the air. At first, the crowd cheers, thinking it's an outgoing rocket fired by the army. Panic sets in when a plume of smoke billows out just a block away. The projectile was incoming, and probably aimed at the protesters. Army vehicles rush to the point of impact.

The mortar was fired from one of the last remaining Islamist-held neighborhoods in the city. The Libyan army pushed into Benghazi last fall, and the militants are now limited to a few districts. But fighting continues.

Endless violence

"From the moment you open your eyes [in the morning] to the moment you close your eyes, there's a bullet being fired," says Muftah Shwedi, a soldier, describing life on the frontline. "And that's if you get to close your eyes."

Muftah was shot a few days earlier and is now recovering in one of only two hospitals operating in Benghazi.

Man lies in hospital bed

Muftar Shwedi was wounded in a battle with Islamic fighters

He says Islamist forces have been weakened, but they are still dangerous and continue to control Benghazi's western suburbs and a stretch along the coast. Other Islamist groups supply them with ammunition and weapons.

Next to Muftah, another soldier screams in agony. He was shot and one of the bullets went right through his leg. Medics bandage the wound to stop the bleeding.

1,471 people died in Benghazi last year according to Libya Body Count, an independent monitoring group. That's half of Libya's overall death toll in 2014.

Most of the casualties were soldiers and Islamist militants killed in action. While the shelling sometimes spills over into civilian-packed areas, the fighting is mostly contained. But there are also civilian casualties. Earlier this week, 12 civilians were killed in a series of car bomb attacks.

And the Libyan army is coming out of the battle with new pride and glory. Strolling along a boulevard in what looks like a victory lap, Major Mohamed Hijazi receives ample demonstration of civilians' support. Kids run after him while parents line up to take pictures. Others offer food and coffee.

"I think it's evidence of people's love for the army, not for me," Hijazi says. "Because they see me as a face for the army. By greeting me they are greeting the Libyan army."

Hijazi is the spokesperson of General Khalifa Hiftar, the man who launched the so-called "Operation Dignity" against Islamist militias last May.

Polarized country

Hiftar's forces have since taken control of about three-quarters of Benghazi. But his campaign has deeply polarized the country.

Hiftar initially went on the offensive without authorization from the authorities in Tripoli. His own brand of a "war on terror" deepened Libya's political fault lines, and ushered a split between pro and anti-Islamist forces.

Local people greet a man in a Libyan army uniform.

The Libyan army is held in high esteem by many people in Benghazi for fighting the rebels, says Hijazi

The General has since garnered the support of an array of tribes and towns and secured the backing of Libya's House of Representatives, the parliament based in Tobruk that was elected in June 2014 and has been recognized by the international community. Earlier this month, they promoted Hiftar commander in chief of the army.

Libya's rival government in Tripoli has stood in fierce opposition to Hiftar's campaign. Their Islamist-leaning forces, called Fajr Libya, are battling the army on various frontlines across the country.

Hiftar says Fajr Libya is allied with the extremist militias that have created havoc in Benghazi since 2012. The most prominent group, Ansar al-Shariah, is believed to be responsible for the killing of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens in 2012, along with hundreds of army officers, judges and activists.

"A lot of the people see the Libyan army as those who have saved them from a real terror," Major Hizaji explains. "All the suicide attacks, the car bombs, those are things no other city apart from Benghazi has really seen."

Four years ago, Benghazi, the birthplace of Libya's revolution, was the first major city to be liberated from Moammar Gadhafi’s forces. Benghazi went through the revolution largely unscathed, but has since borne the brunt of the unrest that has derailed Libya's transition process.

Demonstration against Islamist radicals in Benghazi

People gather at a square to protest against Islamist radicals

Hijazi says Libyans elsewhere haven't been through such violence, and that's why they aren't cheering for the army the way locals here do.

But Hiftar's past has also made many Libyans skeptical of his intentions. Hiftar originally helped Gadhafi come to power and only defected after he was captured in Chad in the 1980's in one of Gadhafi's infamous wars. Hiftar then moved on to live in the US for two decades. Hiftar's critics say he's old guard angling for power in the new Libya.

But in Benghazi, locals say what matters is what Hiftar and the army are doing for their city now: They see him as the man who faced up to radical Islamists and turned things around.

Tens of thousands displaced

Massoud, an oil engineer and a father of three, believes the worst of the violence is behind them after two years of life on the edge.

"In this street, there were at least three car bombs. Even children were killed. When going out with my kids and driving around, the thought would cross my mind at every traffic light: What if the car next to me suddenly explodes?" Massoud told DW. He said that in the past, he often decided to stay inside with his family for safety reasons.

"Hopefully now the situation is changing and Benghazi will move forward for the better."

But moving forward is still not an option for many people in the city. The conflict forced some 90,000 local residents to leave their homes, according to estimates reported by the UNHCR in January.

Abdallah left his house near Benghazi airport in June. It has been a war zone ever since, and the family can't go back. They now live in one of the 14 schools in the city that have been turned into shelters for displaced people.

Man seen from the back leading two girls towards a building.

Abdallah's family of eight currently live in a former school. His children would like to go back home soon

"Playtime is great, because it's a couple of hours when they can forget about everything," says Abdallah, watching his three older children run around the schoolyard.

"But when you bring them back inside, obviously my wife and I start talking about the situation, we talk about home, and then all the questions start again: Daddy, when are we going home? It's very difficult."

Abdallah's wife had just delivered triplets when the family had to flee their home. The eight of them now live in a single classroom.

While other refugees at the school say they support the Army's war against radical militias whatever the cost, Abdallah isn't so sure either side cares for families like his.

"If you want the truth, I think all of what is going in all of Libya is just a fight for power - every group wants to keep itself in power and in control."

That hunger for power, Abdallah added, has robbed his kids of their rights to a
normal childhood - one where a classroom is where they study in the day, not a place where they sleep at night.

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