By Francesca Mannocchi
As foreign arms fuel the conflict for control of Libya’s western capital, the mood in Tripoli is one of defiance – and resignation.
At the frontline
It is May, and five weeks have passed since the beginning of the offensive against the Government of National Accord in Tripoli by the troops of Haftar, head of the Libyan armed forces (LNA).
Fighting has reached the southern part of the city, Ain Zara, Khalat al Ferjan, Salhaeddine, Yarmouk camp and the area of the old international airport destroyed in 2014.
There have been more than four hundred people killed, two thousand injured. Sixty thousand displaced.
There are many front lines, each more fluid than the last. Daily advances and daily retreats. More than fighting, it’s a cat and mouse game under mortar fire.
Travelling with the Misurata brigades, we reach the Ain Zara district, 15km south of the city – one of the crucial sectors of the battle. Our armoured vehicle is driven by a young boy from Misurata, who navigates his way through the ghostly suburb.
The shops remain as they were when abandoned. The fruit and vegetables still stand outside, now covered with sand and rubble dust. Mosques are used as sniper positions.
Taking the road through Ain Zara means risking being attacked by snipers and bombs. Along the way there are signs of the Haftar bombs.
“They have latest-generation tanks, drones, Grad rockets, airplanes and helicopters,” says Yasin Salama from Misrata. “We are trained, but on the ground it’s easy. If the enemy bombs, you can’t do anything. You can just pray.”
An experienced veteran, Yasin explains that soldiers cannot advance indiscriminately. “We must think of civilians.
First of all, we have to save lives.
Where are our allies?
Why don’t they send drones, while we live with the fear of Emirati bombs?”
At the entrance to Ain Zara is a paper factory destroyed by bombs. The sound of the stacks of sheet metal waving in the wind mixes with the sound of gunshots getting closer and closer.
Along the road comes a car loaded with boxes and bags. It stops on the side of the road, followed by an ambulance. Osama Oshah is the last resident to leave the neighbourhood, with his wife and two young children.
“The destruction of Ain Zara is nothing compared to Benghazi and Derna. What Haftar calls an army is a band of savage mercenaries, Sudanese, Chadians. Those called terrorists to justify his war are political opponents.
Dictators do this, they play with words, they call it a war on terror to justify their brutality,” he tells us.
The ambulance carries a man – skeletal, he seems not to have eaten for days. For weeks it was not possible to evacuate him. The soldiers look at the sky.
Every noise is the threat of a drone, of a sudden bomb.
Khaled Mansour, one of the soldiers of the brigade, is from Misrata. He keeps his face covered by a balaclava because part of his family still lives in Benghazi, and even on the front line it’s better not to trust anyone, he explains.
The previous week, two men arrived waving a white flag, saying they were soldiers of Haftar, that they wanted to surrender and desert.
But it was an ambush and they were attacked on both sides by Haftar soldiers. He lost three of his men.
A few hundred metres separate the snipers: Libyans on one side, Libyans on the other. The frontline is haphazardly organised, with sandbags, and piles of sand used as barriers against the enemy’s vehicles.
We are in a house on the front line. The commander carries an AK-47 and quickly climbs three flights of stairs, one of his men releasing a burst of machine gun fire.
The brigade are seasoned fighters who also fought in 2016 with Bunyar al Marsous, the coalition of military forces of Misrata that defeated ISIS in Sirte, in a war that lasted six months and left 700 dead and 3,000 wounded.
“I cannot accept being described as a terrorist by an aspiring dictator puppet of other dictators. If there is someone who fought jihadists in Libya, those are soldiers of Misrata,” says the commander.
Churn of alliances
To read the Tripoli front it is necessary to observe who is not fighting almost as much as who is. The forces in the field are mainly from Misrata – the most numerous fighters, the most experienced.
The Misrata troops are the best equipped; they are here to protect the capital but also to protect themselves. Haftar considers the city a stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood, and they know that if Tripoli falls he will move directly to Misrata.
There are brigades of Zawhia and Zuwara, the Amazighs, the men of Janzour, but the majority of the Tripoli militias are missing.
The great absentees are the Salafi militants of the Rada militia, the Deterrence Forces which count 1,500 people and control the Mitiga airport and the prison.
These powerful Salafis are supported by Riyadh, and it is with them that Haftar’s emissaries seem to have talked in recent years, through the Salafist Madkhalist groups that support him in Cyrenaica, the eastern coastal region of Libya. They could tip the scale today.
Atiya is around twenty, wearing shorts and a camouflage jacket. He always smiles. “It is my war,” he says. “I am not afraid of being a martyr if it’s useful to protect the capital from the invader.”
He fights in the area of the old international airport, one of the most dangerous fronts, the most disputed. It is open countryside, and advances are fought among farms.
The armoured vehicles move south, in reconnaissance. The radio transmits the positions: “Zone 17, here we are, debbaba, debbaba, tank, tank.” An enemy tank has been spotted.
The voice on the other side responds: “We will die if necessary, we do not move until further notice. We will show who we are. Allahu Akbar.”
Being on the Tripoli front line today means moving seemingly at random. The soldiers who preside over Airport Road conquer the road metre by metre, under mortar fire, because Haftar’s men are on the right and left.
Suddenly a rocket propelled grenade hits our armoured car, followed by a barrage of bullets. The dull round sound of the shots going out is interspersed with the repeated hissing sound of the shots coming in.
Then the shooting stops.
“It is the fourth war in eight years,” says Atiya. “[There was] the revolution, the civil war, then the September war, militias against militias marching on Tripoli, and now the Haftar war. Yesterday’s enemies are today’s allies. And today’s allies can become tomorrow’s enemies.”
The rapid pace of conflict and ally-shifting explains why the soldiers are not only exhausted but also demoralised. They know that if they defeat the General of Cyrenaica, as in all previous conflicts those who fought most tenaciously will present their bill, asking for political positions, personal laws, money, refineries, oil.
It is hard to imagine the Misrata soldiers now fighting to defend Tripoli leaving their positions in the case of victory. And again, today’s allies will be tomorrow’s enemies.
“It is the opportunism that killed the spirit of the revolution,” says Atiya. “The young died for freedom and the old stole the loot.”
During the revolution Atiya lost his father, a rebel, “a martyr of 2011”, he says as he looks out at blocks of damaged or destroyed homes from the window of the armoured vehicle. But he can’t stop believing in the spirit of February 17, in the watchwords of the revolution.
He says it is difficult to kill, because these are Libyans like him. But: “If I don’t shoot first, I’m the first to die.” He shouts “Hurria, Hurria – freedom, freedom,” as he gets out of the vehicle. “I can’t stop believing in freedom.”
But Atiya’s view is endangered. The risk of ceasing to believe in freedom, today in Tripoli, is the surrender to the fatigue and passivity which opens the way to a new dictatorship.
This fatigue, deep under the skin of Tripoli’s people and the soldiers guarding the city, is one of the reasons Haftar felt confident enough to enter the capital.
Francesca Mannocchi is an Italian journalist who has worked for Italian television for many years and has written for a range of international and Italian magazines including Focus, L’Espresso, Al Jazeera English, El periodico de cataluna, Gente and Sette (courier della sera).