Benghazi’s displaced: a litmus test for Libya

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With two brothers in jail, the family house gone and her papers lost in the battle for Benghazi, Fatma is finding it hard to restart her life at the other end of Libya but impossible to imagine going back.

The 26-year-old is one of around 185,000 Libyans the United Nations has recorded as displaced by the turmoil in the North African country, living in Tripoli and barred from her eastern home city, where a rival administration holds sway.

Former Benghazi residents are not the only ones driven from their homes: fighting turned the six million strong country into a patchwork of rival fiefdoms after Muammar Gaddafi was ousted by a pro-democracy uprising in 2011.

They make up a large proportion of the displaced and their fate is central to the future stability of Libya and the wider region, where al Qaeda and Islamic State exploit political alienation.

The Benghazi displaced consist of radical and more moderate Islamists and other opponents of Khalifa Haftar, a commander who controls much of eastern Libya and has an eye on the rest.

They are all labelled terrorists by Haftar and his supporters, complicating reconciliation the United Nations hopes to advance by helping Libya hold elections this year.
“My family was in opposition to Haftar so it got too dangerous for us,” Fatma said, asking, like others interviewed, to be cited by her first name only, fearing reprisals.

Haftar turned against Gaddafi along with Islamist and allied fighters and once Gaddafi was gone, expelled his former allies, some who viewed him as a throwback to one-man rule.

More than 100,000 people were displaced, according to UN estimates, in fighting between the former allies starting in 2014 and destroying entire neighbourhoods before it ended last July, when Haftar declared victory.

He now leads a government in competition with a UN-backed administration in Tripoli and is weighing whether to run for president if and when elections are held.

He is backed by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who also has military roots. Sisi has cracked down on Islamists, who he brands terrorists, and faces growing attacks, claimed by Islamic State, on soldiers and civilians in Sinai.

NIGHT FLIGHT

Fatma fled in 2014 with her parents and siblings, driving through the night to Misrata, some 800 km away which supported Islamists opposing Haftar and where some Benghazi business people have roots.

One of her brothers was arrested as he was a member of Ansar al-Shariya, an Islamist militant group which fought Haftar and which Washington says was behind the 2012 Benghazi attack that killed the US ambassador.

Many Ansar Shariya members ended up with Islamic State but the battle for Benghazi also drew in non-Islamists or more moderate forces opposed to Haftar. Western diplomats say this group might be radicalised if denied the right to return.
“If the Benghazi displaced do not find a ‘political home’ they will become a source of new dissent,” a diplomat said.

Haftar presents himself to foreign powers as a bulwark against terrorism and is popular in eastern Libya where he us credited with ending a rise in Islamist militancy.

Opponents accuse him of resurrecting an authoritarian state in the east, where he controls the OPEC member’s key oil export ports.

Fatma’s family rushed to sell her house to a neighbour; the Tripoli-based council of displaced from Benghazi says other homes were taken by the families of forces linked to Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA).

Mustafa Sagizly, a former IT entrepreneur and Haftar critic who left Benghazi in June 2014, was among them. “My villa is now inhabited by four families,” he said from Geneva, sharing pictures of his sprawling former home and saying he had not been back for fear of arrest.

Hanan Salah, senior Libya researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), said the scale of property seizures “appeared to be substantial”.
“Families or individuals perceived to oppose the LNA paid dearly and were hunted; scores remain detained, were disappeared, tortured or even killed and their properties confiscated,” she said.

Ahmed Mismari, spokesman for Haftar’s LNA, denied houses were seized. Residents loyal to Haftar said some houses abandoned by people they described as terrorists were now inhabited by families whose own homes had been destroyed.
“Families who run away from Benghazi, their sons were from terrorist groups,” said Mismari. “Their sons carried out acts of kidnapping, killing, assassination, explosions, and destroyed families.”

He said displaced families could come back as part of national reconciliation provided their cases were settled from a legal point of view involving community elders.

RECONCILIATION?

Haftar threatened severe consequences for refusing to return houses to their owners, but critics say he is unable to control all LNA forces, a mixture of soldiers, tribesmen and youth.
“I don’t have a problem with Haftar but I fear going back because in Benghazi everyone who left in 2014 is seen as ‘Daesh’ (Islamic State),” said an oil engineer called Mahmoud who hails from the same tribe as Haftar.

He did not join Islamists but left for Tripoli in 2014 when fighting hit his district. “My house was destroyed by an air strike and I also have an apartment which some people have occupied.”

The United Nations has begun meetings to bring together rival communities in various parts of Libya and pave the way for presidential and parliamentary votes it hopes will be held soon.

Tarek Orafi, head of the Benghazi municipal council replaced by a military governor, said only a few families who fled the city in 2014 had gone back. A UN-led group of aid agencies involved in protection of civilians in Libya put the number of people still displaced from Benghazi inside Libya at 27,000 but Orafi said others had gone abroad like Sagizly, many to Turkey.

The council registered some 13,000 displaced families but members said the number was higher asmany people did not want to add their names, fearing reprisals.

Reuters met some Benghazi residents living in Tripoli who travel home without being questioned.

Orafi said those arriving in western Libya find themselves in legal limbo. The east refuses to send documents such as birth certificates, often citing ongoing security investigations, and officials in western Libya will not issue new ones without them.
“I couldn’t enrol at Tripoli university,” said Fatma. “I lost my university documents.”

Her father was unable to get his public salary routed from his Benghazi account, now inaccessible, to a new one in Tripoli, a problem reported by other displaced people. Another brother could not marry as his civil registry is in Benghazi, a problem also described by others.

Parts of western Libya became less welcoming after Islamist suicide bombings began in 2015 — another of Fatma’s brothers was detained in Misrata after a video surfaced where he voiced support for Ansar al-Shariya, she said.



Alongside the legal struggle is the trauma of being cut off from a home city only a one-hour flight from the capital.
“I had to restart my life in Tripoli from zero,” said a 26-year female friend of Fatma who gave her family name, Saghili. She fled with her mother and sisters in 2014 after her home was destroyed in an air strike.
“We manage financially but I miss my friends in Benghazi, my house and my bed,” she said. “But I fear going back.”