By Sean Stephens
Hannan al-Mubaraak was celebrating the birth of her youngest son when gunfire rang out.
“It happened so fast,” said the mother of six. “On the first day, the sounds were far away so we thought it might reach us in a week which would’ve given us time to sort things out. Suddenly, there were clashes in every direction.”
Seemingly overnight, Hannan’s home in the Tripoli suburb of Ain Zara became the front lines of Libya’s bloody civil war.
“It was scary. We could hear the bombing. The children were crying,” she told VICE News. “Bullets were flying everywhere.”
Fighting broke out in early April when the Libyan National Army, headed by warlord Khalifa Haftar, launched an offensive to capture the capital city from the UN-backed, internationally-recognized government.
Since then, his men have made quick gains, capturing towns surrounding Tripoli and drawing more civilians into the line of fire.
It’s the latest land grab by the 76-year-old warlord, who served under former dictator Muammar Gaddafi. He’s backed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt.
He’s even received a boost from President Trump, who, in an apparent reversal of US policy, praised the warlord by phone just as his troops were launching an offensive on Tripoli. And he’s used their support as a carte blanche to move steadily and decisively from his base in Tobruk in the east across the country, taking Benghazi in 2017 and Derna, in 2018.
But Haftar’s march toward Tripoli has come at a bloody cost: more than 510 people have been killed and upwards of 2,400 injured since fighting broke out on April 4. The UN says that as many as 1.5 million people have been affected already.
VICE News met Hannan and her family at one of nearly 30 schools in Tripoli now home to those displaced by the fighting. The International Organization of Migration estimates that since Haftar’s offensive began, more than 75,000 have been forced to flee their homes.
Hannan said her primary concern was getting her children to safety. They made their escape within a week of the offensive, during a brief lull in fighting. “The streets were deserted. We were desperate to see other humans and finally we found some other people in cars,” she said. “They were all waiting for someone to drive ahead first.”
Now, Hannan is hoping to get out of the country completely. “My goal is to leave Libya’, she said tearily. “It’s the first time we’ve thought about it. We want to live in peace but instead of planning our children’s future, we’re just thinking of how to survive. When your only concern is to survive, you can’t have a normal life.”
Others are simply trying to escape their homes.
Moath, a teacher, is still trapped with his family in Ain Zara. They’re just a few hundred feet from heavy clashes, forced to take shelter in their basement. “We’re living in horror, between bullets and rockets,” he told VICE News by phone. “There’s no electricity, no water, no supplies. We can’t even move outside the house.”
Moath and his extended family — his parents, his brothers and their families — all live in one home, or what’s left of it. “The second floor of my home is completely destroyed,” he said. ”The furniture, the windows, the walls. All destroyed.”
Desperate to get his three children, all under five, to safety, he attempted to flee in early April but had to turn back due to the violence. “There’s no solution but to stay at home and wait.“
Haftar has been framing his offensive as a campaign to rid Tripoli of terrorists. The UN, meanwhile, has called it a coup — but the LNA’s initial gains highlight just how vulnerable the central government in Tripoli is.
The warlord’s latest land-grab is the biggest threat to the legitimacy of the country since the Arab Spring. And the front lines in the southern suburbs have quickly become entrenched — indicating a long-running battle for the city is in store.
For government minister Muhannad Younis, Libya’s problems go far beyond the warlord. He said Haftar’s powerful international backers also bear responsibility for this current conflict.
“The Libyan people do not concern those countries who support him,” he told VICE News. ‘If they truly did, they wouldn’t have supplied him with rockets, while they see him bombing civilians everyday with artillery and airstrikes. Everyday, tens of civilians die as a result of these countries’ support.”
Sean Stephens – Senior Field Producer at HBO’s ‘VICE News Tonight’