By Fritz Schaap & Mirco Keilberth
The civil war in Libya between the militias from the east and fighters from the west is escalating and keeps on drawing in foreign powers. One commander has been fighting for eight years — and sees no end in sight.
On a hot Friday afternoon in late June, Jamal Al-Aweeb is standing in an unfinished building at the front line in Wadi ar-Rabia, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) southeast of the heart of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, contemplating the beginnings of the war.
On the eastern side of the front, 50 of his men from Misrata are hunkered down, the 134th brigade of the al-Bunyan al-Marsous militia.
A few hundred meters away, on the other side, are militiamen from the city of Tarhunah. “It’s like in 2011, when the Tarhunans were on Gadhafi’s side and we fought them in Misrata,” says Aweeb, a short wiry man with alert gray eyes.
He’s been at war for eight years, first against Gadhafi, then against the Islamic State (IS) and now against self-proclaimed field marshal Khalifa Haftar, whose Libyan National Army (LNA) controls large parts of the country – and which launched its attack on Tripoli in April. “We killed hundreds of Tarhunans back then.
They can’t forgive us for that,” says Aweeb. A distant explosion can be heard to the south.
Old conflicts have erupted again — between west and east, between cities and tribes. “The war reproduces itself over and over again,” says Aweeb, “it’s an infernal cycle.”
Aweeb appears weary on this blistering day and older than his 58 years. Peering through a hole in the wall, three men observe the movements of Haftar’s units.
The area’s inhabitants have almost all fled. The streets are lined with bullet-ridden houses, with dark squares where windows used to be. The rubble crunches under the soles of Aweeb’s boots.
“The land is being run into the ground so badly,” he says, “that in the end, even the devil will be hailed as a savior.” As always, a muscle twitches beside his right eye when he speaks.
He hardly eats or sleeps. The war is not only destroying Libya, it is destroying him as well: “From the inside,” says Aweeb. Short wars, they say, change governments, but long wars change people.
Barely eight years after Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi was toppled and the militias in Misrata put his corpse on display in a butcher’s fridge, the country is in the throes of a third civil war.
According to the United Nations, around 1,000 people have been killed and 5,000 injured in the fighting south of Tripoli. More than 100,000 residents have been forced to flee their homes.
A Divided Country
Libya now has two governments and has long since ceased to be a state. One in the east, in Tobruk, supports Haftar, a 75-year-old former colonel who once helped Gadhafi organize the coup that brought him to power.
After falling out of favor with Gadhafi, Haftar lived in the United States for nearly two decades and is rumored to have occasionally worked for the CIA. After Gadhafi’s fall, Haftar returned to Libya and since 2016 has given himself the title of field marshal.
The rival government in the west, the Government of National Accord (GNA), is led by Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj in Tripoli. It’s recognized by the United Nations and the European Union, but not by the elected parliament, which has fled to the east.
The GNA is largely powerless, relying on the support of the militias, who are the de facto rulers of Tripoli.
Amid all this chaos, thousands of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa are stranded here on their long trek to Europe. Many have been interned by the militias in brutal torture camps, kept in slave-like dependency and are in some cases conscripted into military service.
More than 50 people died during an air raid on a refugee prison in Tripoli on July 3.
It is the tragedy of a country that could be the richest on the continent, with the world’s ninth largest oil deposits.
But after Gadhafi bled the country dry for 42 years, he left behind a power vacuum that imploded after he was killed, and an ongoing struggle erupted among cities, tribes and their militias over power and access to wealth.
“To hell with Sarraj, to hell with Haftar!” Aweeb says. Sweating profusely, he lights another cigarette and exclaims: “The militias do whatever they want.
When one of the key militia leaders wants something from Sarraj, he doesn’t knock on the door, he kicks it in and says: ‘Sign here, I need 400 million dinars.'”
Aweeb doesn’t have a very high regard for the government that he has come to rescue. “If Haftar hadn’t marched on Tripoli, we would have eventually done it,” he claims. The web of loyalties, interests and alliances of convenience is complex in Libya.
Already in December 2011, in a bid to secure its power base, the interim transitional government had begun to pay the militias that had helped to overthrow the dictator.
Many more paramilitary groups ended up on the government payroll. It was the most fatal error of the post-Gadhafi era. The groups rapidly proliferated. When oil production stabilized in 2012, billions of government dollars were diverted to the militias.
If they received too little or the money came too late, they set up roadblocks in front of ministries or stormed offices. Many of them still control key ministries and banks.
On the other side of the front too, there are militias: Haftar’s LNA is a loose alliance of tribes and cities, mainly from the east and south.
‘To Hell with Sarraj, To Hell with Haftar!’
Aweeb stands before seven of his fighters – weary men, their eyes red, their rifles in hand.
Russian antitank rocket launchers lie strewn on the floor, and an off-road vehicle with a mounted 105mm gun is parked in a corner of the building in front of a passageway knocked through the wall.
“If Haftar takes Tripoli, he’ll move on to Misrata and wipe us all out,” Aweeb tells his men.
It’s another reason why the militias from Misrata deployed their forces to the capital in April to support Sarraj’s GNA in the fight against Haftar: They are also defending the interests of their hometown here in Tripoli.
After over three months of fighting for control of the Libyan capital, the situation escalated.
On the ground, Haftar’s LNA found itself on the defensive, but now has increasingly relied on airstrikes and state-of-the-art weaponry it receives from its allies.
“I feel no sense of satisfaction when we push back our enemies a few kilometers,” says Aweeb. “On both sides, young Libyans who should be rebuilding their country are dying.”
Aweeb says he never intended to join the military. Since he was one of the top students at his school, the Gadhafi regime sent him to an elite military academy.
After four months, he fled to Malta, then to Germany, where he studied engineering for seven years. He wanted to help build a new Libya.
After a few minutes, the men on watch report movement: 10 armored vehicles are approaching their sector of the front. Aweeb darts across an area that is open to the enemy line of fire and takes cover behind a building.
A drone buzzes in the sky overhead. Aweeb jumps into an SUV, the driver guns the engine and heads for headquarters, followed by two pick-ups with anti-aircraft guns mounted on their truck beds.
Aweeb’s vehicle skids in the deep sand, then finds cover again behind a wall, half destroyed by heavy machine gun bullets. In the distance, he hears a mortar shell detonate. “We’ve lost six commanders over the past seven days,” he says.
Two days ago, he says, his best friend died. A mortar shell exploded on his car, ripping apart the vehicle and the man inside. He and Aweeb had fought together since 2011, and they were together in 2016 when Libyan forces took the stronghold of Sirte, which had been occupied by Islamic State.
“He was stubborn,” Aweeb says, his eyes filling with tears, “until the day before yesterday.”
While his convoy threads its way through the narrow sandy streets of a deserted small town just behind the front, his phone rings. Power outages in Tripoli last up to 15 hours these days, causing the mobile phone networks to go down quickly.
But now they’re up and running again. A doctor tells him on the phone that his deputy, who had to have both legs amputated two days earlier after they were torn up by a mortar shell, needs blood — group A+.
Aweeb shouts into his radio, recalling all of his men who aren’t needed at the front. They race to Jisr Hospital in Tripoli to donate blood.
The Logic of the Gun
On the way to downtown Tripoli, away from the front, normal, everyday life continues. The coastal road is lined with small amusement parks.
Merry-go-rounds, slides and cotton candy stands, colorfully lit every night. Traffic is backed up on the main streets and backgammon players gather in the cafes on Algeria Square in the evenings.
Paralyzed by the heat and almost indifferent, people listen to the detonations on the front lines, the heavy, dull explosions from the air raids and the mortar shells.
Local residents don’t run into the streets and take up arms. It’s as if they do not care who rules the country, just as long as some semblance of peace eventually returns to their lives.
“It was like that back in 2011,” says Aweeb, adding: “The day before the liberation by the revolutionaries, the city was full of Gadhafi flags, but 24 hours after he fled, the revolutionary flag hung everywhere.”
Unlike Benghazi, located a thousand kilometers to the east, the Libyan capital doesn’t have a homogenous demographic structure. During more than 40 years under Gadhafi’s rule, many residents of small towns in western Libya moved to the burgeoning city, which now boasts a population of over 2 million people.
Many militias in the capital have two headquarters — one in Tripoli and another in their hometowns, such as Zaviya and Zlitan.
But the tribes and cities of the east have been hostile to the western part of the country ever since the Italian occupation over 100 years ago.
The colonial rulers interned between 100,000 and 120,000 civilians in camps in the eastern part of the country. Western Libyan troops helped the Italians with the occupation.
With Haftar’s offensive, Libya’s old east-west conflict has reemerged.
“The oil,” says Aweeb, “finances the entire war. The money is funneled to both sides, east and west, through the central bank in Tripoli.”
A period of hope had followed Gadhafi’s death, but after the first free parliamentary election, the country became increasingly fragmented. To this day, the conflict is attracting countries that are waging a proxy war in Libya.
Most Western countries back the unity government under Sarraj, which reportedly receives weapons from Qatar and Turkey.
Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt are apparently supplying Haftar with weapons, in violation of the 2011 UN arms embargo. Saudi Arabia and Russia also support the LNA.
French special forces have collaborated with Haftar on attacks against suspected terror groups in the Sahara. And in late June, weapons were found in one of the warlord’s camps that the U.S. had earlier sold to France, fueling suspicions that Paris may have resold them to Haftar.
U.S. President Donald Trump has also verbally sided with Haftar and spoke with him on the phone as recently as April.
If you talk to his supporters in Tripoli — doctors, businessmen and police officers – for them the lesser evil is a military strong man. Wherever Haftar is in control, says a doctor who works with the UN Development Program in the south of the country, crime has gone down.
Haftar is also intent, the doctor says, on breaking up the centralism that was cultivated under Gadhafi. The east has never received much of the country’s oil revenues.
The Libyans, a businessman in Tripoli says, only understand the use of force, and only a strong hand can keep the country together. “If you don’t bring a solution with the gun, there will be no solution,” he says.
Many of Haftar’s supporters consider it impracticable to conduct elections under the current militia-based rule, citing the need for stability before Libyans can go to the polls.
Haftar styles himself as a secular bulwark against Islamism — but he has welcomed many Madkhali Salafists into the ranks of his LNA.
Military governors reign in all areas that he controls. It is a return to the militarization of the state, to the police state of the Gadhafi era.
Many Libyans, out of sheer desperation, would prefer this to war and anarchy. Standing on the roof of a hotel in Tripoli, a former revolutionary fighter from 2011 says, with a deep sigh: “Maybe our people just need a dictator.”
After he leaves the hospital, Aweeb drives to a hotel. The doctor refused to let him into the intensive care unit, but informed him that his friend’s condition was stable.
Every night, Aweeb receives a call from his wife in Misrata, who tries to comfort him. His 89-year-old mother has been trying for a long time to persuade him to take a proper job, like when he was in charge of the port of Misrata. “I can’t abandon my men and my country,” he says.
‘An Indelible Mark on Our Souls’
His phone rings with more bad news. One of his fighters has died. “Tomorrow another will die, and perhaps me the day after.
You’re sitting with a friend over a cup of coffee and after five minutes a phone rings and someone else has died. The war is crippling our country.”
And it has crippled him. When Aweeb was stationed in southern Libya for several months in 2015, he says he worked a checkpoint separating the militias of two tribes.
A car approached not responding to repeated warning shots. Aweeb witnessed more than a dozen attacks by IS suicide-bombers in the battle over Sirte.
He grabbed an antitank rocket launcher and fired. In the remnants of the burnt-out VW Golf, he found the charred bodies of a family of five. He will never be able to forget that night, he says.
“The war leaves an indelible mark on our souls. Some of my men spent their youth in a world of bombs and grenades. I don’t know if they’ll ever be able to lead a normal life again.”
The next day, he drives to his headquarters, when he passes by a branch of the Aman Bank, where many people are standing in line. “The militias from Tripoli also control the banks.
They’re getting rich with a simple trick. They make their money on illegal currency exchanges and lug suitcases full of cash to the cash exchanges.” That explains the long lines in front of the banks and the lack of cash in circulation.
“The interior minister has tried to rein in the militias, but with the new war his efforts have suffered a huge setback.”
Aweeb, so he says, receives no salary at all. His militia is subordinate to the weak Libyan army and thus to Sarraj, but they have received no regular pay for over a year, he says. “Two weeks ago, we received a one-time payment of 1,500 dinars.
That’s 300 euros ($338) on the black market. A kilo of mutton costs 40 dinars. How are we supposed to make ends meet?” His wife, who works as a teacher in Misrata, earns 850 dinars a month, and somehow manages to keep the family above water on this meager salary.
“Every militia has more of a say than Sarraj,” says Aweeb, adding: “He knows nothing about politics. First, Haftar has to go. Then Sarraj and the militias. Then we intend to liberate Tripoli.”
A few days later, he is driving back from the front line, through the slow-moving traffic of Tripoli’s Gorji district, when his phone rings. The sun is low and shines on his face.
The longer he listens, the farther his head sinks forward, until it almost touches his knees. “There is no God but God,” he says three times in rapid succession and starts to sob.
He puts down the phone and shouts: “No, no, no!” Then he tosses the phone at the gearshift. “He’s dead,” he says. Muftah, his deputy, has died in the hospital. Muftah with his curly hair and his boyish grin.
Aweeb reaches for his pack of cigarettes. It’s empty. The driver stops at a store at the side of the road. The commander gazes at the traffic and at a boy who is leisurely smoking a water pipe in front of a shop.
With contempt in his voice, he says: “Look at them, sitting here and enjoying life. We’re dying for them.”
Despite all the misery and suffering, he hopes that everything will be better after this war — that the militias from Misrata will gain control over the local militias, that there will be a constitution, elections and, yes, even peace.
Haftar’s attack on the city has united the deeply divided militias of western Libya. This is a ray of hope, but how long will the alliance hold? Will the militiamen from Misrata turn around and behave like the militias who now rule Tripoli?
Aweeb hopes not, but he is worn down by the war, weary, exhausted. “Sometimes, when my wife sends me out shopping, I start walking and forget where I’m going and what I’m supposed to be doing, for an hour or two.” He just keeps going.
Like the war.
Fritz Schaap – a reporter for Spiegel, Zeit, SZ-Magazin, NZZ and many more. For his reportages, he was awarded the CNN Award, the German Journalism Prize and the Prelate Hungarian Prize, as well as the Media Prize of the Kindernothilfe.
Mirco Keilberth reports as a Libyan correspondent for various German media, such as the magazine SPIEGEL, the daily paper (taz) and the German wave.