Tripoli: On the Frontline
It’s a day like any other in Tripoli. The city is waking up in the early hours of the morning before the humid July heat becomes unbearable. About five kilometres from the centre, a cloud of black smoke is rising, not visible because of the blanket of humidity and smog. It’s the war which wants to let you know it’s there. As if nothing has happened, the traffic is moving normally, the restaurants and bars are opening and welcoming lots of people who are sipping an espresso or smoking a water pipe.
The city is trying to live normally, but it is swamped by many problems: no electricity and drinking water or fuel. The face of a capital which is desperately trying to disregard the fact that it is under siege, which is what is happening a few kilometres away from its historic centre, in the war-torn suburbs. Derelict houses, craters in the asphalt created by the bombing, bullet-riddled buildings with the windows blown out and mounds of sand with containers serving as roadblocks or to impede passage. Day and night.
Many months have gone by since the beginning of the besiegement of the city by the forces of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar who, on 4 April, decided to strike the fatal blow of his “operation dignity”, relied upon by him to unify Libya and “combat Islamic radicalism in the country” and advanced by his armed forces under the name of the Libyan National Army (LNA). An army made of up fighters with very little experience, foreign troops and mercenaries led by former officers of the Rais. But it has come up against strong resistance from the militias which, on account of economic interests and power, defend the Government of National Accord, established in 2015 and recognised by the international community.
The Tripoli front, divided into around 8 urban fronts (without counting the external zones like Gharyan, a town of strategic importance still being fought over today which is about 80 kilometres from the capital and located on a hill) seems more like a war of attrition than an open conflict. A slow battle, which is split into violent clashes and very often nothing happens.
The militias defending the areas controlled by the GNA mainly come from Misrata (considered by Libyans as “tipping the balance” in the conflict given their military and economic power acquired during the 8 years following the end of the Jamahiriya government). They believe more in money than in the defence of an apparently democratic government. According to various sources, each solider will receive the sum of around 2,000 Libyan dinars per day (about 450 euros).
To gain access to the GNA front lines, simply change district and go through the various checkpoints located at the start of the off-limits area. The war zone. From there, the city becomes a ghost town. The rubbish increases together with the deafening silence punctuated only by the sound of military vehicles.
The commander of the 21st Misrata brigade, Hashim Ahamd Abbriah, pulls up in his Toyota 4×4 at the last checkpoint in the district of Salah Ad-Din, south of the capital. “We have reconquered the area and we currently find ourselves in a defensive position ready to repel any enemy attack, aerial, cannon fire or bombing. We’ve also had to evacuate civilians because of the bombing”. A peculiar thing is the fact that civilians who have fled their homes and have poured into the city centre, making it overcrowded, can return to their homes in the middle of the battle. Together with the military vehicles, after the checkpoints, you see civilian vehicles regularly hurtling along returning to check the state of their homes or to pick up something they’ve forgotten.
Hashim takes us to the general district of the brigade, located at a military base next to the Wardak front line in the firing line. His men are resting in two small rooms and relieving the soldiers holding the line. When there’s electricity they also have air conditioning, TV and a refrigerator next to the many rifles, bulletproof vests and ammunition. The check Facebook when they are relaxing, even if the connection is weak.
Hashim hands over command to Walid, a soldier who’s 40ish, to head towards the Yarmuk line. As they leave the base, the 4×4s wind their way through the soft sand dunes and mounds of shattered asphalt, speeding past the abandoned houses and derelict villages, made from grey bricks, all the same colour, in order to avoid being tracked by the Haftar drones, supported by the UAE and Egyptian air forces.
The vehicles reach the front line and hide under some maritime pine trees. The odours given off mingle with the scent of the Mediterranean and remind you more of a holiday resort than a battlefront.
Hashim’s soldiers are actually in an abandoned villa. In the lounge, which doesn’t have walls any more because of a round of heavy artillery fire which caused an enormous hole, the soldiers relax on missile launchers, machine guns and ammunition. They hide, stretched out on mattresses, with sniper rifles trained on enemy lines stationed a few hundred metres away. When Walid arrives, he looks through binoculars for any movement and then grabs the machine gun and shoots at the enemy barking instructions.
Hassan, on the other hand, is sitting behind the house, sheltered from the aircraft. Sheikh Hassan, as he’s called. “He’s the sheikh of the revolution,” says Walid. Hassan is a former fighter of Gadaffi’s army. “Where are the international forces to support us? Where are our Italian friends?” he shouts in an ironic, but serious, tone, while he tries to modify a missile to put into one of the missile launchers on his beige 4×4 using a file. “We’re fighting because a few kilometres away a dictator like Muammar wants to create a new regime. Look at the sort of armies we’re fighting against. They have the United Arab Emirates air force and American weapons behind them”. After a few moments, Hassan loads the missile into its launcher and sets off quickly venturing a hundred metres from the building on the left. He takes aim before moving the vehicle a few metres back. To Walid’s cry of “Allahu Akbar,” he launches the device which triggers an explosion and creates a cloud of smoke, dust and sand, while the earth shakes.
On the Ain Zara frontline, next to Yarmuk. the situation is the same. A group of boys control the front from a rooftop, singing “we love war and death”. They are laughing, having fun. They are aiming and firing some bullets when they detect movement from the other side. But the time drags so they get bored and smoke hashish. Neither side is gaining any ground. In spite of this the GNA militiamen are galvanised: “Haftar, son of a bitch, will never manage to capture Tripoli shouts a wounded soldier. The young boys are sure that the morale of the enemy soldiers is shattered and they have no strength to counter-attack.
The front line near the international airport, on the other hand, is different. A less inhabited area so there are open spaces. The international airport has been firmly in the hands of the LNA for some months now and it’s difficult to overcome this situation. A symbolic place for the Libyan civil war. The GNA soldiers are stationed at the extreme ends, creating fronts with mounds of sand to protect against the open spaces. “On the other side, about 400 metres away, the enemy is stationed – observes Mohamed, taking shelter from the sun under a tree and a tent built specially to rest in on some mats – The enemy is in a weak position. It’s not difficult to defend here because they cannot attack us but the danger is their aircraft which strike us every night. But on the ground, we’re winning”.
Like Mohammad, the majority of the soldiers are civilians. Ahmad, a nuclear engineer, juggles his working life and the front line to lend support. “I do a bit of everything here, I help with logistics, I fight. It’s the responsibility of all Libyans to fight against the dictator and defend democracy and the establishment of a civilian government. That’s why we had the revolution in 2011. In these years I’ve always fought and gone back to work. When the siege began I was in Vienna at a nuclear conference and I came home straight away to defend what I believe in”.
But if many people say they want to fight for democracy and unity, many people claim that the GNA stands for exactly the opposite. This is what Mahmoud, a young lawyer, who works as a waiter in a restaurant says: “The militias are only fighting for power, money and oil. Not for democracy. Here in Tripoli, over 80% of the population wants Haftar to get in but only whoever wins will fight him. To give an example, a bus driver was beaten on the head with sticks, and died, just for having listed to the national Libyan army anthem. If that’s freedom”. People agree with Mahmoud’s words but no one wants to be quoted for fear of retaliation and violence against their families.
Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between. It’s actually in Tripoli where life goes on despite the suffering. Friday afternoon, when the sun starts to go down, in Martyrs’ Square (formerly known as Green Square under the Gadaffi regime), the pigeons overrun the area to the side of the vendors of toys made in China and stalls of candy floss, which bring joy to the families and children out for a stroll. It’s like nothing is happening when the missiles fall on their abandoned homes in the suburbs. But nothing is happening. Everything is “Mia bil mia” (100%).
Translation by Ruth Lebens