Much of central Benghazi looked like a ghost town on Thursday as residents feared gunmen loyal to Muammar Gaddafi were still at large five days after a failed assault on the rebel-held city. Most banks and shops remained shut, despite rebel officials’ appeals for them to open again. In the souk, or market, where gold merchants and jewellers usually ply their trade, nearly all the shutters remained firmly closed.
“There is no gold in the shops. They have taken it to their homes,” said Mohamed Mohamed, a 24-year-old medical student, who was trying to earn some extra income by working as a money changer. Many people were frightened gunmen still loyal to the Libyan leader may have stayed behind to cause trouble, he added.
Still more shops and restaurants were shut because their owners and kitchen staff, many from Syria and Egypt, went home after the uprising against Gaddafi turned violent last month. “A lot of them are run by Egyptians or have Egyptian workers, and they all left town,” said Ahmed Mohamed, a 56-year-old retiree. He also mentioned the fear of pro-Gaddafi gunmen as a factor preventing life from returning to normal.
Mohamed Bashir, 15, was helping look after his father’s vegetable shop, as the Egyptian workers had left. “I am not missing school. It is closed,” he said. On Saturday, forces loyal to Gaddafi bombarded the eastern city, which has become the de facto capital of the rebels seeking to oust him, but fighting has since shifted towards Ajdabiyah about 150 km (90 miles) to the south. A few bakeries and grocery stores were open, as were a couple of barber shops where men were getting their beards trimmed, and there appeared to be plenty of bread and other food in the shops that were open.
But most stores in the once-elegant port city, heavily bombarded during World War Two, remained shut. Gaddafi’s attack spurred many people to flee Benghazi, a city of 670,000 now littered with crumbling buildings, broken roads and half-finished construction projects. It seemed many had not yet returned. Ali Saleh, 65, said the rebel authorities were still helping out, distributing bread and rice, helping some residents get by.
“Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad,” he said.