Tripoli under siege and the real cost of the Libyan war
By Rebecca Murray
As Haftar’s latest assault on the Libya capital enters a new phase, many Libyans have been killed, displaced and left mentally traumatised by a conflict which grinds on with no end in sight.
On 12 December Khalifa Haftar, the head of the eastern-based self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), again announced a “zero hour” in his latest attempt to conquer Tripoli.
He branded the city a “den of criminals” and disparaged the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) based there.
This latest phase of the civil war, now in its ninth month, is exacting a heavy toll on both exhausted fighters allied to the GNA and weary civilians alike.
The military offensive, according to a damning report by the United Nations Panel of Experts, has “inhibited the nationwide Libyan political process, stalled reform and contributed to overall instability throughout the country.”
For many Libyans, however, the effects of the conflicts since the overthrow of Gaddafi manifest themselves more immediately as chronic psychological problems.
Hassan, a GNA fighter in his early 20s from the coastal city of Misrata, was one of many impressionable young men caught up in the Gaddafi regime’s brutal siege there in 2011.
Five years later he was once again among those who witnessed first-hand the city’s battle against ISIS militants in nearby Sirte.
Hassan was studying law when Haftar attacked Tripoli on 4 April earlier this year, but he says that now he is unable to focus on anything other than the fight. “Life is a disaster from one day to the next.”
He has since taken up arms once more, and had recently just returned home on a break from the frontline outside Tripoli.
Fighting both emotion and exhaustion, he struggled to maintain his composure when describing to relatives and friends the devastation wrought by LNA air strikes, frequently carried out by UAE supplied Chinese Wing Loong drones.
These attacks had decapitated his fellow fighters.
“We were in a dark house with binoculars and could hear the sound of drones overhead,” Hassan recalls. “We saw a rocket, then a blast with orange light. Five of our men were hit, one was killed instantly.
Then everything fell silent. I remember screaming: ‘Where is everyone?’”
During the ensuing chaos, Hassan rushed to tend to those wounded. “Half my buddies were crying out: ‘I’m going to die’.” But when a Toyota pickup truck drove up to retrieve them, a rocket hit that too.
This technique, known as a ‘double tap’, is intended to maximise the body count by targeting those aiding casualties of an initial strike. Immediately after the strike, Hassan helped to bury a 27-year old man who had cooked spaghetti for them just hours before.
“I dreamt about him last night,” he says: “And I woke up with my leg shaking uncontrollably.”
The UN has documented well over 800 of such airstrikes by the LNA, while the GNA has conducted an estimated 230 airstrikes.
The April offensive has resulted in the deaths of over 2,200, many of whom are civilians, and an estimated 146,000 have been displaced, many for months on end.
These figures represent only the latest round of conflicts in Libya in which thousands of fighters have been killed and injured, leaving families with absent fathers, husbands and sons, and the task of caring for survivors who are not only physically maimed but also mentally traumatised.
The use of drones is particularly psychologically damaging explains Frederic Wehrey, a senior fellow with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who has recently returned from Libya. “They cause a lot of stress and exhaustion with their threat of death from the sky.”
While Wehrey emphasises many casualties are actually caused by more conventional weapons such as mortar shrapnel and snipers.
“The LNA seem to have an endless supply of mortars. So there is grinding exhaustion, and very few shelters in which to hunker down.
Many of these men had fought in Misrata during the 2011 revolution – known as the ‘Stalingrad’ of Libya – and they say this is a lot tougher.”
Although the LNA’s deployment of the UAE’s Chinese-made Wing Loong drones is evidence of foreign involvement in Libya, there are signs that the battle for Tripoli has escalated beyond a proxy war.
In violation of the UN arms embargo, foreign states are now actively intervening on the ground with men and weapons, especially on the side of the LNA which has received an injection of foreign fighters into its ranks, from Sudanese and Chadian rebels to Russian soldiers.
Haftar’s LNA counts the UAE, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and France among its military and political backers, while the GNA relies on Turkey, other EU countries, and to a lesser extent Qatar.
“Haftar is prepared to kill us. So there is no reason to prevent us from arming ourselves because we have to defend our families and children,” says Misrata-born Fathi Bashagha, the GNA Minister of Interior who has requested military support from Turkey, one of the region’s fastest growing drone powers, to counter Haftar’s foreign backers.
The prospect of a peaceful resolution to the conflict emerging latest round of international negotiations called the ‘Berlin Process” looks increasingly remote.
Ghassan Salamé, the UN political representative for Libya (UNSMIL), warned in Rome on 7 December of a bloodbath in Tripoli if action not taken to stop the fighting. “What keeps me awake at night is if this fight gets into dense urban areas – it will be a whole other level of casualties.
We’ve met the UN Security Council 15 times and can’t get members to agree on a ceasefire.”
As for Abdullah, an anaesthesiologist working along the everchanging frontline, his mind is focused on the daily struggle to rescue the injured fighters and civilians.
He had just operated on four victims of sniper fire in chaotic circumstances as his fatigued medical team constantly moves from warehouse to warehouse to avoid detection by LNA aircraft above.
“We get warnings about drones and aircraft over the radio, and at night we make sure there are no lights.” The medics are extremely wary of sharing their coordinates, for fear that the LNA will target them on purpose.
On 26 October, the UN recorded 58 attacks against medical facilities, ambulances, doctors and medics.
One former fighter hangs out at a popular seaside café in Tripoli, which has been long been frequented by the city’s youth in need of respite.
The café itself has recently been targeted by the Salafist militia called the Special Deterrence Force (SDF), to stop single men and women socialising together.
He describes how fighters frequently resort to tramadol, ecstasy, hashish and homebrew, and often exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome once they leave the battlefield.
He says: “Some people get hooked on adrenaline of war, and believe they don’t have a useful role to play, they only know how to fight. The problem in this country is no one knows how to deal with them.”
Mohamed volunteers with the Tripoli Psychosocial Support Team when he’s not working as a local radio DJ. One of his friends committed suicide at age 20 after leaving the battlefield in 2011.
He says: “During the first days of fighting you get used to blood. Its only later you’ll get affected by what you’ve witnessed.”
Captured fighters are often subjected to torture and rape to “break their pride” say other support staff, a phenomenon not talked about due to shame.
But it’s not only the fighters that are bearing the brunt of war. After nine months, many of those displaced by the fighting have outstayed their welcome at relatives’ homes, and municipalities are concerned that they will be unable to house and support them.
For Hala, a diabetic 38-year-old mother with a husband and three children camped out in a shelter for displaced persons, the future is extremely uncertain.
They fled from the shelling around their makeshift home, a shipping container near the old Tripoli International Airport. When they returned everything had been stolen.
Hala said they now live in extreme anxiety – where to get insulin, their next meal, and how to adequately care for their family.
One of Hala’s children, however, 12-year-old Noora, sees optimism in the sky which has brought many dread. She dreams one day of becoming a pilot.
Rebecca Murray has reported from Lebanon, Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and Liberia for Al Jazeera English and Inter Press Service (IPS).
(Some names have been changed to protect the identity of interviewees.)