By: Taha Zargoun
Driven from their homes by fighting in 2011 and then again this year, displaced Sirte residents face dire need even as their city is recaptured from militants.
Displaced Libyan father of three Mohmed wants to return to his home in the coastal city of Sirte, but the destruction wrought by two fierce battles that drove him to flee twice is too complete.
Pounded by shellfire, mortars and rockets in 2011 and then again this year in brutal street fighting, much of the once-thriving city of 100,000 people lies in ruins, the streets littered with unexploded bombs, with key services and vital infrastructure smashed. “It’s a stricken and demolished city,” says Mohmed. “If all the mines and explosives are not cleared, a lot of lives will be lost. We also need help to rebuild the infrastructure of the city.” More than five years of violent upheaval in Libya began with the uprising that removed ruler Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Current estimates of the number of men, women and children uprooted by the turmoil are at around 313,000, although the residents of Sirte like Mohmed have had it tougher than most.
The first wave of destruction to engulf the city of wide boulevards, plush hotels, conference centres and apartment blocks, was unleashed in 2011 as rebel militias fought street by street to oust Gaddafi, who was from the city and made his bloody last stand there.
Sirte’s gradual recovery stalled in June last year when extremists taking advantage of Libya’s instability, seized the city. Eleven months later, militias loyal to the UN-backed unity government in Tripoli launched an all-out assault with artillery and air support, finally retaking the city in the past week.
This time around, residents and authorities in Sirte, which lies on the Mediterranean coast, midway between Tripoli and Benghazi, say destruction is worse and displacement greater.
According to the city council, some 19,000 families have fled since June 2015 alone. Residents are now scattered to 18 cities around the country – the majority in Tarhona, Bani Walid, and Misrata, while 4,000 families are now living in Tripoli, many in dire conditions.
“It’s really tragic. You leave to another city as a displaced person, and then rent and expenses are really difficult,” says a state employee Taher, who escaped Sirte with his wife and young daughter amid “random shelling,” and now struggles to pay rent on an apartment in the Libyan capital.
Many uprooted Sirte residents live with family members, often in overcrowded conditions. Among them is Mokhtar, who says he and his family also faced public ridicule for submitting to the rule of the extremists in Sirte, many of them foreigners from Syria and Iraq. “We had to escape,” he says. “We knew it was better to face insults from people here than facing war and death.”
With little or no help from authorities, some residents saw no option but to return home to the outskirts of the stricken city, even as pro-government militia pounded extremists with artillery and fought house to house for control of the centre.
“The families in the outskirts are suffering from an acute lack of medical care, gasoline, cooking gas, and have no money coming in, which is a national crisis,” said Mohamed Al Amien, a member of Sirte’s local council.
Al Amien also said that the council is mobilizing medical convoys to aid the returned families with supplies from Misrata, a city that lies 250 kilometres to the west of Sirte.
“We are preparing for meetings with international organizations to get help with fast repairs to schools, hospitals and government buildings once the war is over,” he said in a recent interview.
For twice displaced residents like Mohmed, with no means to support their families and dependent on their relatives, that help cannot come soon enough.
“We need immediate assistance,” he says. “I think that the international community should help us in these demands because the Libyan state is incapable of doing this now.”
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is particularly concerned about the deteriorating prospects for thousands of families uprooted by the ongoing conflict in Sirte, some of them forcibly displaced several times. “As time goes on, the protection needs of these families are becoming more critical,” said Samer Hadaddin, UNHCR Chief of Mission in Libya. “The cost of rent for Libyans displaced in their own country continues to rise, combined with hyperinflation and liquidity of Libyan banks. At the same time, opportunities for employment are scarce for everyone. Life is getting more and more difficult for people in Libya.”
With partner Mercy Corps, UNHCR is currently undertaking a rapid needs assessment in Sirte in order to identify the needs of internally displaced and returning families. As explosive remnants and improvised explosive devices render much of Sirte inaccessible and hinder reconstruction, the most pressing priority remains demining.
Over the summer months, UNHCR, together with Libaid, distributed blankets, jerry cans, solar lamps and kitchen sets to over 3,000 people displaced from Sirte to Benghazi. The 500 families targeted were amongst the most vulnerable, having no family links in their area of displacement and living in makeshift accommodation.
Taha Zargoun, Free Lance Journalist
Report from UN High Commissioner for Refugees