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In Tripoli, ordinary life must go on

September 23, 2014 at 12:55 pm

As militia groups continue fighting over what is left of fragmented Libya, life in the country’s capital Tripoli struggles on, “There is this constant uneasiness here,” Khadija, a young former political science student, tells Middle East Monitor over Skype from the coastal city.

The Libyan capital has seen weeks of clashes between the coalition of militia groups making up the Libya Shield (largely considered pro-Islamist militia) and rival groups al-Qaaqaa and al-Sawaaq, violence which, according to a recent report issued by Human Rights Watch, may amount to war crimes. The clashes have destroyed the city’s airport and have had, what the UN has described as disastrous consequences for civilians. “Dozens of civilians were reportedly abducted in Tripoli and Benghazi solely for their actual or suspected tribal, family or religious affiliation, and have remained missing since the time of their abduction,” stated a recent report. While the diplomatic presence and United Nations employees have evacuated the country and the elected parliament members have moved to the remote eastern town of Tobruk, many Tripoli residents have, voluntarily or reluctantly, decided to stay in the capital.

“It has gotten worse and worse gradually,” explains 21 year-old Khadija from Tripoli. “Even as it has gone worse most people have expected it to get better soon, thinking we just need a bit of patience, but I think that now we’ve realised that we will need a little bit more than just patience,” she says.

Libya has since the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi experienced a state of chaos, which has turned the capital into a shadow of its former self. “Right now there is basically no life in Tripoli, even though there is a little bit more traffic now than a few weeks ago when the town was turned into a ghost town during Ramadan. People are slowly going out again but it is nothing like before. A lot of shops close early or don’t open at all due to all the power cuts. Most people are not working and just stay at home,” Khadija describes.

However, one place has become a respite for people: the beach. “When you go to the beach you just forget about everything else that is going on, it is probably the only place, ever since this happened, where people just smile and put everything aside.” Khadija describes how people go to the beach during the afternoons, especially when the power goes out and it gets unbearably hot to stay indoors. “On the weekends people go to the beach from early morning to late night, it is the only retreat for people in Tripoli,” she says and explains that life in Tripoli right now feels more or less safe but hearing the bombs and listening to what is happening in the country is exhausting, “There is a constant unease hanging over the capital and nobody is enthusiastic about doing anything.”

As the country is on the brink of becoming a failed state with two opposing governments claiming to rule and little police or army to speak of, ordinary Libyan citizens have no choice but to struggle on. “We go from day to day by studying, working and socializing with friends when possible,” explains Awisha Bashir. “In the beginning it was like a window of hope for something new, something better, a way to live and speak your mind without fear. We started to visualize what Libya could be like and become,” she explains but adds, “All that went down the drain pretty fast.”

Armed groups participating in the uprising against Gaddafi now fight each other for power. “If only it was for the sake of the country, but no it is for power and money and more power,” Bashir explains. When past months violence started to get too close Bashir and her family decided to seek refuge in the mountain areas. “A while back my family and I had to move to Jadu, a village in the mountains, because the bombings were getting far too near. The end of our street was bombed.” In addition, the country is struggling with constant power cuts making even the most basic daily tasks difficult. “We have had power cuts for over 35 hours straight. It has become a normal thing to have daily power cuts for at least 5 hours. The water has also been cut off. The only people who were safe were the ones who had wells.”

Bashir has a 20-month-old daughter and is trying to return to Britain. “The only reason I have stayed is because London won’t let my family leave,” she says. Bashir is a British citizen, married to a Libyan, but her daughter is still lacking a British passport. “Our lives are on hold. I have no work or sense of security. I am so upset and frustrated and honestly scared for where we are heading.”

Last Friday shocked the country when nine civil rights activists and army officers were killed in Benghazi in what local media dubbed “Black Friday.” Among the victims were youth activist and bloggers Tawfik Bensaud and Sami El-Kawafi. “When I first heard of it I was utterly shocked,” says Khadija. “What happened on Friday was like a wake up call – sitting back and condemning is not enough anymore, unless people are actively participating in making this transition work then we will not get anywhere, now people need to give all they’ve got.” Nobody has claimed responsibility for the assassinations but the victims were opponents to the Islamists and security troops supportive of General Khalifa Haftar’s campaign against Islamist militias.

Shortly before Bensaud was killed he was quoted saying that a military movement will not solve the crisis and Khadija agrees, “Like Bensaud said, we can not have a military solution to what is going on, it needs to be political, unless there is a strong social movement no military solution will help, it will only make things worse,” Khadija argues and sights, “Besides people in Tripoli are sick of military operations.”

To Khadija dialogue is key and civil society has an essential role to play in facilitating a discourse. “I think the most important thing is that people start listening to each other. A national dialogue needs to be taken seriously because Libyans really need to start speaking to each other.” However, one obstacle to a respectful exchange is the media, she argues. “The local media has to stop provoking people to using violence against each other.” Instead Khadija still believes in the international community, “I think the international community has an opportunity to bring stakeholders together, but only, and only if, they remain unbiased,” she says and adds, “the second they become biased they immediately lose the trust of the Libyan people. The civil society groups, on the other hand, have the ability to bring people together in an apolitical environment and I think that is key right now.”

But Khadija is afraid that people will ultimately give up, “My real fear is that we will stop trying because that is when we lose everything,” she says. However, she has never considered leaving, giving up on the revolution is not an option, the struggle has to go on.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.