By Maryline Dumas
Cafes, art and shopping are returning to birthplace of Libyan revolution, even as fighting continues to rage only streets away. For the members of Tanarout arts club, culture is a way to help rebuild the city.
Music and laughter fill the air, paintings and calligraphies are displayed on walls. The Tanarout arts club, which opened in 2015, is an unlikely space in north-east Benghazi, a city still struggling with violence. And indeed it is a symbol of a people determined to get on with life. Dozens of members meet here regularly.
Schiffa, 20, had discovered the club a few months before. The self-taught painter wanted to improve her technique. “But I learned a lot of other things, too,” she told Middle East Eye, “about philosophy and calligraphy, for example.”
The founders of the club, Hassan al-Thini and Mohamed Tarhouni, say that Tanarout is only the first step.
“There must be roughly 100 terrorists or so spread out over three zones – Souk al-Hout, Sabri and a block of buildings in Ganfouda,” said Ahmed Mismari, a spokesman for the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA) uniting revolutionary fighters and armed forces of the former Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.
The generic term, as used by the general, encompasses the militias of Ansar al-Sharia, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State – groups that are indeed listed as terrorist organisations by the UN.
But it also targets the Muslim Brotherhood and conservative revolutionary brigades with ties to Fajr Libya, the Libyan Dawn movement militia that held Tripoli from 2014 to 2016. In short, a heterogeneous alliance united to combat a common adversary: Khalifa Haftar and the LNA.
At the time of writing, the LNA is fighting to win back the south-western district of Ganfouda, where a block of buildings is still under militants’ control. Haftar’s forces are reluctant to make a straight-out attack, however.
“We don’t want to destroy the homes,” Mohamed Manfour, the head of the Benina air force base, told MEE. “They use ambulances and stolen UN vehicles. They have civilian prisoners too. We can’t just go around bombing left, right, and centre.”
Hence, although a good part of Ganfouda is now under LNA control, it is impossible for civilians to return home. The entire district has to be inspected with a fine-toothed comb, house by house, street by street, to make sure it is clear of mines.
MEE witnessed this first-hand: while touring the area accompanied by the LNA, an explosive device was detected in a rubble-strewn street next to the putrefying corpse of a dog. Makeshift cemeteries have also been discovered on the grounds of private homes, from which not all of the bodies have been removed.
As soon as the military forces give the green light, security in the former combat zone will be turned over to the police, who have already set up office in their recently renovated headquarters. Good news for this city where, before Operation Dignity, the armed forces were reluctant to patrol in uniform for fear of being attacked by militants.
A police station in Ganfouda reopens (Maryline Dumas / MEE)
In much of Benghazi, life has returned to normalcy. The birthplace of the revolution is whole once more, no longer a succession of districts and streets cut off by blockades and buffer zones, as it was in 2015.
“I’d say that things started to improve around June 2015. From then on, it was much easier to get around. Before, we mainly stayed home, only going out if absolutely necessary. And we had to get back before dark. It was really scary,” she said.
On 3 February, the district of Garyounes in southwest Benghazi was reopened to civilians. Members of the LNA celebrated loudly. A few groups of armed men in pickup trucks enthusiastically waved the Libyan flag, holding two fingers up in a victory sign.
“The war has been so terrible. The doors and windows in my apartment are all gone. The living room is totally destroyed. The entire place was covered with empty shells.”
The families forced to flee their homes because of fighting are often faced with serious economic difficulty. Many of these displaced residents are struggling to pay rent in their new accommodations. To make matters worse, the country is currently suffering from a liquidity shortage linked to inflation.
In these difficult circumstances, and despite the reopening of stores like Mango and Marks & Spencers, businesses are struggling to recover. A cafe employee named Ahmed says he has lost lots of customers.
To cope with the cash flow crisis, the country’s Trade and Development Bank put an SMS payment system in place.
When buying, clients send a text message to the bank which then, after checking their account, sends an approval code to the merchant. The latter can present the code at any bank branch to recover the amount owed.
Mohamed Ben Dardaf, the managing director of the men’s clothing store Septemus, is happy with the system.
Maryline Dumas is a French journalist. Based in Tunis, she lived for three years (2012-2015) in Tripoli, Libya. She collaborates with various French media such as Le Figaro, Afrique Magazine, Ebra Group …