Much of Libya’s coastal eastern city lies in ruins and fear remains, even though extremist groups have been eliminated.
Ten years after the September 11 attacks on the American diplomatic compound in Libya’s eastern city of Benghazi, which killed US ambassador J Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, the embassy building remains empty and deserted, despite its restoration.
The building, in the central Beloun neighbourhood, is a witness to a city living with the scars of 10 years of violence. “It was a quiet night,” Ibrahim Zaidan, 54, who lives near the embassy building, recalled.
“Suddenly, armed clashes erupted and my children were screaming in fear. We ran to help but only found bodies lying on the ground and a big fire in the embassy building,” he told The National.
“I did not realise at the time the extent of the danger that was to come. Today, after years of wars, destruction, killing and terror, I realised that the attack was a declaration of the control of terrorist groups over the city.”
The Al Qaeda-aligned group Ansar Al Sharia launched the attack on the American diplomatic compound at 9.40 pm on September 11, 2012, killing Stephens and US Foreign Service Information Management Officer Sean Smith.
Hours later, at 4 am, the group attacked a nearby CIA compound with mortars, killing two CIA contractors, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, and wounding 10 others.
The attacks, coming a year after the overthrow of dictator Muammar Qaddafi in a popular uprising that began in Benghazi, came amid a general increase in lawlessness across Libya as rival groups and militias battled for power. The country remains divided between power centres in the east and west despite UN-led peace efforts.
Muhammad Al Warfali, 37, is one of many residents who left Beloun, a centre for international organisations and diplomatic missions, after the attack, fearing more violence.
“When I saw the building burning, I decided to move, especially after my wife was hit by shrapnel,” he said. “I feared that my family would be injured or killed in similar attacks by terrorist groups, especially since my house was close to the headquarters of international organisations that may be targeted in the future,” he told The National.
“The attack was the beginning of a new phase of killing, vandalism and destruction that swept the city for years, as families were displaced and many innocents were killed,” said Shim Boufaneh, a Libyan researcher and political activist.
“Terrorist groups took control of the city after that attack, but hundreds of people demonstrated against their presence.”
The attacks announced the start of a wave of violence that would engulf the city for years until its liberation in 2017 by the Libyan National Army under the command of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.
For Khadija Al Tajouri, 34, the attack cost her the chance to study abroad.
“It destroyed my future,” said Ms Al Tajouri, now a graduate student at the University of Benghazi’s Faculty of Law.
“I was one of 14 students applying to study abroad in 2012, in the US, UK and Malaysia, but procedures stopped completely and I was unable to obtain a visa because of that attack.”
The impact of the attacks on travel was not short-lived, Ms Boufaneh said. “Young people and businessmen were the most affected, especially when in 2017 many were prevented from returning to the US because of the Donald Trump administration travel ban on Libyans.”
Ms Al Tajouri is one of many young Libyans who suffered economically and socially from the political repercussions, despite being opposed to the violence.
Ms Boufaneh said that once terrorist groups took control of Benghazi after the 2012 attack, they tried to recruit residents with money but were unsuccessful. “Hundreds took to the streets against them,” she said.
Destroyed by war
Libya is still suffering from conflict and war. Benghazi has lived in relative security after its liberation from extremist groups in 2017, but its streets still witness occasional fighting between security forces and armed criminal gangs, and residents live with the fear of new conflicts.
According to the Benghazi Security Directorate, terrorist activity has been almost eliminated, although there is a level of violence by criminals.
However, thousands of residents who had to flee the city during military operations against terrorist groups between 2014 and 2017 are still waiting to return to their homes.
Entire neighbourhoods that were completely destroyed in the fighting have yet to be rebuilt. According to the Benghazi municipality, 6,666 housing units were destroyed, especially in the central Al Sabri area and in Ikhrbish, and more than 28,000 families are internally displaced in the city.
“Most Libyans aspire to the rule of law and state institutions for which the 2011 revolution took place,” Mr Al Warfali said. “I want our children to see our country prosperous, safe and stable.”
“In the western region of the country, armed militias abound, unlike in the cities in the east, which now enjoy security. I look forward to the day when weapons are withdrawn from the hands of armed militias, and when the state imposes its control over the whole country,” the former Beloun resident said.
Slain US ambassador to Libya’s legacy lives on in youth initiative
Stevens Initiative honours ambassador killed in attack on compound in Benghazi in 2012.
Ten years after Christopher Stevens, the US ambassador to Libya, was killed in an attack on a compound in Benghazi, his legacy lives on through the Stevens Initiative, a project that brings together young people from across the US, the Middle East and North Africa.
The attack, instigated by members of the militant group Ansar Al Sharia, left four Americans dead. The incident shocked the world and had long-lasting effects on US politics and policies in the Middle East.
As the anniversary of the attack approaches, Stevens’s family have chosen not to focus on his death but on the qualities that made him such a beloved figure and to continue his legacy by helping young people learn about the world around them.
From an early age, Stevens loved meeting new people and diving headfirst into new cultures.
“He was an adventurer,” said his sister, Anne Stevens. “My mother used to say he had sand in his shoes.”
It was on a high school trip to Spain that made him want to set off on a life of travel and purpose.
“He came back fluent in Spanish,” Ms Stevens remembered fondly. “He went to Bilbao and spent the summer on the beach, having a great time making paella and drinking wine and making friends and that just gave him a taste for how fun it can be out in the world and learning about an entirely new culture.”
After graduating from the University of California-Berkeley in 1982, he joined the Peace Corps and spent three years teaching in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, igniting a lifelong love of the Middle East, where he would spend much of his professional career in the US Foreign Service.
His family has spent much of the past decade trying to help foster his love of travel, cultures and people in others.
“I would like the world to see him as an example of how important it is to enter into foreign places, foreign cultures, with people you don’t know, with people you might not understand with wide eyes, with interest, listening, enjoying and having the full expectation that this is going to be a new a new world for us that this is going to be beneficial and this is going to be fun,” Ms Stevens told The National.
In 2015, Ms Stevens helped launch the Stevens Initiative, which brings together young people from around the US and across the Mena to help build common understanding.
The project, which has received funding from the US government as well as the governments of the UAE and Morocco and the Bezos Foundation, is part of the Aspen Institute.
The initiative operates in 17 countries across the region, including in the UAE, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco and Egypt.
It facilitates virtual exchanges through which young people are able to use “everyday technology”, including videoconferencing applications such as Zoom and Skype, to connect with other youths to learn first-hand about each other’s cultures.
“He believed in building common understanding with people, forming friendships and relationships with people who were different, and from a different culture and from different places,” said Christine Shiau, executive director of the Stevens Initiative.
Ms Shiau estimates that, by the end of 2023, the initiative will have affected more than 70,000 people, including 3,000 in the UAE.
The initiative also aims to help young people find employment by fostering an understanding and appreciation for the world around them.
“In order for them be successful in whatever step they want to take, whether we’re talking about young people in high school, or young people who are finishing up university, they will probably need to have these really important intercultural competencies, communication perspective taking, understanding different perspectives,” Ms Shiau told The National.
Every now and then, Ms Stevens finds herself wondering what her brother would think of the initiative that bears his name and carries on his legacy of adventure and cultural exploration.
“He would be delighted in what we’ve accomplished, knowing that we’re connecting young people in the US to young people in Egypt, Morocco, Libya, all over the world and he would be so happy that we’re creating an experience for young people that have brought so much satisfaction and enrichment to his own life,” she said with a smile.