Libyans trapped in cy­cle of con­flict, up­heaval

The Star Early Edition - - WORLD -

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

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