Libyans trapped in cycle of conflict, upheaval
TRIPOLI: The line at the bank was two blocks long and Abdul bin Naji was again praying for the doors to open. He desperately needed his $60 (R795).
With Libya in the throes of a currency crisis, that was the weekly limit for withdrawals. For the past month, though, the bank hasn’t had any cash. At 10am, the bank still hadn’t opened.
“Thirty-two days and no money,” he sighed.
Excruciatingly long bank lines are the latest misfortune for Libyans trapped in a cycle of war and economic upheaval.
Six years after the revolution that toppled dictator Muammar Gaddafi, the mood in the volatile capital is a mix of hopelessness and gloom. International diplomatic and military efforts have failed to stabilise the nation; its denouement remains far from clear. Most Libyans sense that the worst is yet to come.
Increasingly, decisions that were once mundane are potentially life-altering. Is it safe to visit parents in a neighbourhood across the city? Which car will kidnappers be less likely to notice? Will a $60 bank withdrawal stretch until the next one is available?
“Every day, our future is getting darker and darker,” said Naji, 57, leaning against an ATM that hasn’t worked in years.
Under Gaddafi, oil-producing Libya was once one of the world’s wealthiest nations. Even as the economy struggled in his last years, Libyans enjoyed free health care, education and other benefits under the strongman’s brand of socialism.
The insecurity that followed his death has ripped apart the country. Rival governments and an array of armed groups compete for influence and territory. The economy is on the verge of collapse. Criminal gangs prey on the vulnerable.
In Tripoli, parliament and other buildings are concrete carcasses, shattered by heavy artillery fire, rocket-propelled grenades and tank shells. Clashes often erupt suddenly, trapping residents in their homes and creating new no-go zones.
In the southern Tripoli district of Salaheddin, a main thoroughfare bustles during the day but is deserted at night.
Once a typical middle-class enclave, it has become a focal point of the contest to control the capital. On one side of the street, militiamen aligned with a self-declared, Islamist-leaning government run checkpoints. The other side is controlled by fighters loyal to a UN-installed unity government.
By 9pm many residents have locked themselves inside their homes. Gunfire usually starts around that time, residents said. Those who dare to venture out are careful not to bring any valuables.
“I leave my iPhone and carry a cheap Nokia,” said Ibrahim El Worfali, 31, a shop owner. “All these guys have guns and they can do anything they want to you.”
At the western entrance to the city, fighters with the Knights of Janzour, a militia aligned with the unity government, stop and search cars for weapons being funnelled to their rivals.
“It’s obvious they want to control the capital,” said Mohammed Bazzaa, 29, the militia’s thickset commander, who wore tan camouflage fatigues.
One of the militia’s biggest rivals is a group led by General Khalifa Hifter, whose army controls much of eastern Libya. Hifter, who lived in exile in Northern Virginia for two decades, is aligned with a third government in the east.
“He’s another Gaddafi,” said Bazzaa, who fought in the revolution.
But the militia’s primary threat, Bazzaa said, were the fighters from a rival tribe controlling an enclave less than 3km down the main highway between Tripoli and the city of Zawiyah. “They are motivated only by money,” Bazzaa said.
Posters against General Khalifa Hifter in Martyrs’ Square in Tripoli. Hifter’s army controls much of eastern Libya. PICTURE: LORENZO TUGNOLI FOR THE WASHINGTON POST