By Mathieu Galtier
Mahmoud Emsameen eases off the gas as he rolls toward the rubble and wrecked vehicles that sit near what had been a checkpoint on the road into this war-ravaged city’s downtown manned by Islamic State militants.
A year has gone by since the six-month-long, American-led air campaign pounded the jihadis out of Sirte, a city nestled on the Mediterranean that was once known as a favorite hideaway of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
While the violence has subsided, Sirte’s broad avenues and narrow alleyways lay in ruins. Posters hanging almost everywhere warn about the danger of unexploded ordnance beneath the rubble.
But there are flashes of hope. Children dart in and out of gutted buildings, and Mr. Emsameen, a native of the city who has worked with those displaced by years of conflict, said residents are coming back and looking toward the future.
“It shows that people want to revive Sirte, even if it means that families have to live in half-destroyed buildings,” said Mr. Emsameen, who fled the city when Islamic State took over in early 2015. He estimated that 70 percent of those who fled have returned to pick up the pieces and rebuild.
Sirte is famous in Libya as the birthplace and hometown of Gadhafi and was the backdrop of several dramatic battles of the Libyan revolution.
Gadhafi, who ruled Libya for 42 years, was killed in 2011 in the city that reared him.
Sirte was battered badly by those battles, and reconstruction was slow going during the years that immediately followed. Without a unified government to provide assistance, residents took to the task themselves, clearing away rubble and using their fingers to fill bullet holes with cement.
Amid the chaos from 2011 to 2014, prolonged sparring among militias in Tripoli and an elected parliament in Tobruk left Sirte, which is situated along a vast stretch of coastline between those cities, vulnerable to attacks by jihadis.
In May 2015, the city fell to the Islamic State, whose operatives quickly set about imposing their extreme interpretation of Islam on residents. The severity of what Islamic State did to the city is underscored by what the terrorist group left behind when its fighters fled a year ago.
Walking through Sirte’s streets, many shops remain tagged with the black logo of Islamic State — proof that the shops’ owners had paid their Islamic taxes. But where fear once reigned supreme, many say they are embracing their regained freedom.
Ahmed Akhdhar, a businessman, relishes in the fact that he can now sell articles of clothing other than the black robes once mandated by Islamic State. “Look how colorful the showcase is,” he said with pride, pointing at ornately decorated dresses in the shop’s window display.
Such clothes were forbidden under the jihadis. Nevertheless, customers were scarce on a recent day because residents are strapped for cash in Sirte, as is the case across Libya.
A fragile peace
While the reopening of a few oil fields has put the nation’s gross domestic product back into the black for the first time in four years, inflation stands at about 30 percent, severely diminishing Libyans’ purchasing power, according to the World Bank.
Abdallah Bouiazia, 21, is one retailer who has benefited from the nominal uptick in prosperity. His fish market along Sirte’s coastal road is one of the few city buildings not in ruins.
Mr. Bouiazia said he once took up arms against Islamic State when they ruled the city, and he still keeps a Kalashnikov in his shop just in case the violence returns.
Battles against Islamic State followers continue to rage just 150 miles south of Sirte, and authorities say the terrorist group still has cells nearby.
In Tripoli, about 280 miles west of Sirte, Libya’s U.N.-backed Government of National Accord is also remains fragile. Its authority has been challenged by a rival administration in the east run by military strongman Khalifa Haftar.
With that as a backdrop, various militias are still battling in parts of the country. On Dec. 17, the mayor of Misrata — a city between Sirte and Tripoli — was abducted and killed by unknown assailants, according to reports.
But such developments haven’t stopped merchants in Sirte from seeing a silver lining. “My brothers and I are the only fishmongers in Sirte,” said Mr. Bouiazia. “Clients come all the way from Misrata to buy our sea bream.”
‘Sirte is back’
Students in Sirte are also beginning to see futures for themselves. During Islamic State’s rule, most of the city’s 12,000 students and professors fled to universities elsewhere in Libya.
But feelings of pride for the city run deep. Many who managed to graduate from other institutions during the occupation had their diplomas stamped with Sirte’s local seal.
“It was vital not to completely forget the [pride and unity] that we lost after 2011,” said Mohamed Shaaban, who once managed university affairs in Sirte. “We were internally displaced persons, but we were still Sirte people.”
Sirte University reopened its doors to students and professors in October after local business leaders agreed to finance its reconstruction.
Elsewhere, residents are trying to return to normal daily life despite reminders on all sides of the chaos that had gripped the city.
Less than a year ago, sheep grazed on a soccer field that was once home to Sirte’s local team, al-Khalij, which means “The Bay” in Arabic. The field had become so riddled with potholes that it took a feat of imagination to envision the smooth green patch that once lay there.
But now it’s coming back, and spectators are happy to stretch their imaginations toward how great things could become.
“When we came back to Sirte, we were depressed by how destroyed it was,” said Ali Saleh, 32, the owner of a gym. “But watching and doing sport have lifted our spirits.”
Fadhel Aguilah, 26, said he revels in the progress the city has made. “I lived as a displaced man for more than a year in Tripoli,” Mr. Aguilah said. “Now, I’m watching my football team in my own town. After the game, I’m going to eat in a restaurant with friends.
“Sirte is back,” he said. “Sirte is back.”
Mathieu Galtier – Correspondent for the French daily Libération in Tunis, formerly a freelance journalist in Libya.