By Heather Murdock
“God!” said Ali Fateeh Elfegi as the car in which he was traveling approached billowing metallic-smelling smoke.
The driver, Mohammad Basheer, pulled over and the two men jumped out to see the wreckage from the airstrike. The soldiers who had been inside the burning tank were already gone.
Minutes later, Ali leapt out of the car again at a nearby field hospital, shouting, “Where are they?” He had reason to believe that his brother, Abdulwahab, had been in the tank when it was struck.
More than four months into the battle for Tripoli, the death toll is nearing 1,100. World powers have declared there is “no military solution” to the conflict but the fighting continues. More than 100,000 people have fled their homes.
For Ali, there was relief when doctors told him that no one had died in the strike, and the injuries had already been treated. His brother had not been in the tank.
But this month alone, people in a hospital and a migrant detention center have been among the victims of the bombings, and while authorities debate the legitimacy of these places as military targets, the fact remains that at least 56 civilians were killed.
On Tuesday, several countries that had previously appeared to be on opposite sides of the Libyan conflict issued a joint statement, calling for a return to the U.N.-mediated peace talks that were disrupted in April when the conflict began.
“The governments of Egypt, France, Italy, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States of America reiterate their deep concern about ongoing hostilities in Tripoli, call for an immediate de-escalation and halt to the current fighting,” reads the statement.
The suburban battlefield
On the outskirts of the city, soldiers shoot at each other, fighting house to house in areas that have been abandoned by the people who lived there only months ago. Drones were targeting cars, Mohammed said, before deciding to drive anyway.
“If we get hit, we get hit,” he said, explaining the decision.
Soldiers supporting the Government of National Accord in the capital, Tripoli, say they are defending the city from Khalifa Haftar, the de-facto leader of eastern Libya, which operates a separate government.
In early April, Haftar announced that he would unite the country by taking Tripoli by force with his Libyan National Army. Both the LNA and the GNA’s armed forces were formed by consolidating multiple military groups that once vied for power among themselves, but Haftar said that Tripoli needed “liberation” from militias.
Since then, the fighting has mostly been confined to the suburbs, with close-quarters combat claiming many lives. Airstrikes pound deeper into the city as it becomes more crowded with displaced families sheltering among friends or family.
“If this war expands or escalates, it will be a disaster,” said Hussein Ben Atya, the mayor of Tajoura, the Tripoli suburb where at least 53 people were killed when airstrikes hit a migrant detention center early this month.”A big disaster.”
“I’m tired of the sand and bullets,” said Ali, as he joked about getting visas to Western countries and leaving Libya. Near a makeshift base, he pointed out logos on the military vehicles, trying to drive home the point that he and his compatriots were part of an army, not a militia, as Haftar had said.
On this side of the front line, soldiers fighting for the GNA see the war as a fight for Libya’s future. If Haftar wins Tripoli, they say, Libya will revert to the days of Moammar Gadhafi, and his four-decade-long dictatorship.
Haftar himself says he’s fighting terrorism, and continues to declare victory over Tripoli’s forces, despite setbacks and what often appears to be a bloody stalemate.
Both sides have international support and foreign weapons but the commitment of outside allies appears to be frail. Some countries, like the U.S. and France, have both recognized the GNA as the official government of Libya, and shown support for Haftar.
“The support is very weak,” said Mohammed Galaw, an operations commander for the GNA’s military, over the gunfire. “The war has gone on for months, and there is no no-fly zone, or protection of the government or the civilians in the capital from [the] international community.”
Less than an hour later, Ali and Mohammad drove off in their armored car, relieved that Abdulwahab had not been in the tank.
Ali then got into another vehicle to tow the burned tank off the road when another airstrike occurred, Mohammad said, hitting Ali directly and ending his life.
Heather Murdock – Middle East reporter for Voice of America. Formerly in Africa and currently moving between Iraq, Syria, Libya, Gaza, Turkey and other places.