By Francesca Mannocchi
Increasing numbers of Libyans are breaking a long-standing taboo and fleeing across the Mediterranean. Four Libyans explain why seven years after the revolution they must find a way out even if it means using smugglers.
Every morning in Tripoli, before first light, long lines of people start to form in front of the banks. There have been no working ATMs in the Libyan capital for years, so the only way to get cash is to wait your turn at the bank.
With more than 30 people in front of him, Khaled knows he may be waiting in vain. Even if he does reach the front, his maximum allowance is 250 dinars per month. At the official exchange rate, you can buy a U.S. dollar for 1.3 dinars.
On the black market, which is the only money exchange you can access, the rate is 7 to 1 or higher. “You can understand, 250 dinars is nothing,” says Khaled.
The banks of Tripoli are controlled by the three most powerful militias in the capital: the Nawasi; Rada forces loyal to the Salafist, Abdulrauf Kara; and the militia of the young warlord Haitam Tajouri. Each bank branch is controlled by armed men. Someone takes names, makes a list and manages those waiting, often forlornly.
The cash crisis is partly down to a collapse in deposits and partly the effect of hyperinflation. A chasm has opened between the official exchange rate and the black market, enabling those with the right connections to buy hard currency at one rate and sell it on the black market for a vast profit. This profiteering effectively cannibalizes the Libyan economy.
‘They Deserve a Future Better Than This Daily Fear’
Khaled has none of these connections. He is a fisherman, and from the steps of the bank he can see the fishing port. To its left lies the marina and the offices of Libya’s prime minister Fayez al-Serraj. Nearby is the base of Nawasi militia.
“The city is in the hands of these armed boys,” says Khaled. “Corruption is the true owner of Tripoli. The militia asks a bribe from those who are waiting here. This means that you enter, after so much waiting and so much effort, to take some of your savings trying to live in dignity and when you go out the armed guys ask you for a part of that money.”
Last month, one of the gunmen told Khaled he would need to give him 50 dinars per visit, without complaint, or he would not be allowed in again. Extortion also takes other forms. Khaled has told his daughter, who was studying to be a pharmacist, to stop attending university. One of her classmates was kidnapped, and the kidnappers demanded a ransom.
“She’s not back home yet, and I know for sure that the family has already paid a ransom. Everyday life in Tripoli is like that, I want my daughter and son to get out, but they cannot get a visa. They deserve a future better than this daily fear.”
‘The Honest Libyans Are Tired and Resigned’
Fathi moves like a man convinced he is being watched. Arriving at a cafe in Libya’s capital, Tripoli, the human rights activist admits he can no longer continue his work. “I would like to reveal the Libya that cannot be seen. But I cannot because I am afraid.”
His last effort to document deteriorating economic conditions and the scarcity of cash ended with threats from men with guns.
In front of a bank, a member of the Nawasi militia warned him off and told him it would be more serious next time. Many of the 26-year-old’s fellow activists have fled to Tunisia.
“I fought in the revolution with my brother, during the siege of Misrata,” says Fathi. “We were there, full of hope and we saw the revolution as the chance for a better future.”
These hopes are now gone. The walls of Tripoli are still daubed with bawdy graffiti from 2011 depicting Gadhafi as a donkey, a monster or a beaten child. But today when Fathi looks at the murals he feels like the revolution has been lost. His parents have begun to talk of the Gadhafi era as a time when there was electricity and security.
“When I listen to my mother, nostalgic for Gadhafi, I feel like crying. Because I fought, I risked my life for nothing. I would like to leave.”
But leaving is not so simple.
“I go to the consulate, to the embassy, to the public offices, asking for a visa. Denied. I apply again. Denied. I ask why. That answer is also denied.”
Without connections to the competing corrupt networks who now run Libya there is no legal way out. The only option is to try and contact a smuggler and pay to cross the Mediterranean.
“We, the honest Libyans, the ones who fought, are tired and resigned. We contact the smugglers because there is no other way to leave this country.”
The Only Way Out
Some 410 Libyans have made the dangerous sea crossing to Italy so far this year, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency, UNHCR. These numbers are still small but represent the breaking of a long-standing taboo among Libyans who feel humiliated to have to smuggle themselves out of their own country.
On March 19, the Proactiva Open Arms, a rescue ship operated by a Spanish NGO, intercepted a dinghy carrying three Libyan brothers. They had made the desperate journey to get treatment for their 14-year-old brother, Allah, who is suffering from leukemia.
“They are heroes,” says Oscar Camps, founder of Proactiva. “They had 200 liters of gasoline and went to sea to give him a chance of receiving proper treatment.”
In April, the U.N. Human Rights Office reported that armed groups in Libya are holding thousands of people in arbitrary detention, where torture is rife. Some 2,600 are being held in a single detention center near the Mitiga airport, subjecting them to torture and constant abuses.
Among the militia named in the report are those affiliated to the internationally recognized government, as well as those connected to the E.U.-backed Libyan coast guards.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, has raised the alarm on the unchecked power of the militias who have been tasked with guaranteeing security in return for wages, equipment and uniforms, or, in other words, legitimacy.
From fuel smuggling to kidnapping, human trafficking and the management of prisons, the militias have free rein, the report found. They have been co-opted into the institutions.
Militias control the banks, control the daily life of the Libyans, determine the black market. They also administer corrupt public offices, such as the authority that provides visas to Libyans.
‘We Are Political Opponents, Not Terrorists’
Ali Adani was once a wealthy man with a lucrative estate in Libya’s second city, Benghazi. Today his family are hunkered down in Al-Aman, a converted holiday resort between Tajoura and Misrata where 144 families live in the shadow of eviction.
In times past, the little white houses were seaside getaways for affluent residents of Tripoli and Misrata. Now they function as a makeshift camp for those who fled the fighting in Benghazi.
“Benghazi is unrecognizable,” he says. “I lost everything: my house, my belongings, my work, I was a wealthy man, like many others here, we were the middle class of Benghazi. We are here with nothing to do and with the risk of being evicted in few weeks.
We cannot use our savings, the Libyan Central Bank does not move our money and we are scared to move from here, because we have no documents and are afraid of being captured. And this situation is humiliating all of us. We cannot even work, because of documents.”
According to UNHCR, leaders of internally displaced communities met with the central bank in Libya in April to discuss gaining access to their savings. The central bank has instructed all banks in Libya to facilitate access. But the IDPs themselves say nothing has changed.
“The institutions of Misrata are pressuring us to return to Benghazi; they say they we must respect the will of the Tripoli government, which claims that the security situation in Benghazi has improved, but we have news of relatives who are disappearing – people murdered on the roadside,” Adani said. “One of my cousins decided to return to Benghazi a month ago. He disappeared the next day.”
General Khalifa Haftar, whose forces are the most powerful in Eastern Libya, claims they are only detaining Islamists and members of terror groups such as ISIS. But there is no due process, and even the suspicion of a connection to rival militias is enough to see you detained or killed, Adani says.
“We are not terrorists,” he says. “We do not want a military dictatorship back in this country. We are political opponents, not terrorists. And if we cannot move freely or in Benghazi or here in Misrata we just have to cross the sea and escape to Europe.”
‘It is Better to Die As Free Men’
Those who have fled Benghazi are reluctant to share detailed information on their exact location or numbers because they fear the militias or reprisals in Benghazi against family members. The lack of this detailed information has hindered U.N. aid efforts.
Mahmoud, a professor who does not want to provide his family name for security reasons, finds himself guilty by association. The 45-year-old’s brother was a known member of the now defunct Islamic militia, Ansar al-Sharia.
“I am not one of them, and I escaped [Benghazi] in 2014 due to the unstable situation in the city and now I would like to go back to my home, but I am a relative of a man who is considered a terrorist, so for Haftar and his men, I’m a terrorist too.”
Mahmoud finds himself in what he calls a “ridiculous” situation. Trapped in his own country, unable to access the documents he needs to renew his passport. Authorities in Misrata insist he must apply from Benghazi.
“They know that if we go back to Benghazi Haftar will arrest us. I have only one chance to leave the country: paying a smuggler.”
“I am ashamed because I have three children and I am worried about their future. I am ashamed because we are Libya and we know who the smugglers are, we know better than anybody else what can happen at sea. But what can I do? I have no options.”
Mahmoud says that he cannot force his family to continue living in this way, in fear of arrest. “We need documents. The local institutions deny us the documents and tell us to go back to a place that represents certain death. If we have to die, it is better to do so as free men, at sea.”
Some of the individuals in this article gave assumed names for reasons of security.
Francesca Mannocchi is a freelance journalist. She contributes to Italian TV, including RAI-3, La7, Skytg24 and international newspapers such as L’Espresso, Al Jazeera English, MEE and Stern.