It has been besieged since 2016. Now the Libyan general's forces are attacking Derna once again and residents say they feel terrorised
The death toll in Derna continues to climb as food and medical supplies run short, weeks after Libyan general Khalifa Haftar launched his offensive to seize the long-besieged Libyan city, the last stronghold of opposition to his forces in the country’s east.
At least 27 people have been killed, including six civilians, in the attack on the city that started on 7 May. More than 44 people, including a child, have also been wounded and up to 500 families displaced, according to the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL).
Even the word 'army' sparks terror among us now. The LNA is exactly like the Islamic State to us
- Activist in Derna
UNSMIL's humanitarian coordinator said on Thursday that aid workers have been denied access to the city to deliver life-saving assistance and basic supplies, including medicine and food, and demanded that they are allowed to enter immediately.
"We need to be able to assist people without delay to prevent further loss of life," said Maria Ribeiro, the coordinator.
The attack by Haftar's self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), which he says will "liberate" the city from militants, comes after recent rumours of his ill health, and one analyst said it is a calculated attempt to deflect attention.
"Right now, he needs to show his external and domestic supporters that not only he is well, but he is stronger and more uncompromising than ever," said Riccardo Fabiani, former senior Middle East analyst at Eurasia Group.
A Libyan academic wishing to remain anonymous told MEE: "Derna is the only city in the east that still supports the February Revolution [against the rule of long-time leader Muammar Gaddafi] and rejects [Haftar's] Dignity Operation and military rule."
Around 150,000 residents are caught in the crossfire. Far from freeing Derna from militants, some say the fresh offensive, started just days before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, is terrorising their community, which has already spent years besieged and bombarded.
A local activist, who goes by the name the Lioness of Derna on social media, told MEE this week: "Even the word 'army' sparks terror among us now. The LNA is exactly like the Islamic State to us."
Instead of the peace and prayers usually associated with Ramadan, the activist said many of Derna's residents are marking this month with mourning and displacement.
"We are under siege, being choked, even the hospitals don't have enough oxygen and other supplies," the activist said.
Years of siege
Forces loyal to Haftar, one of several factions that have vied for power in Libya since a 2011 uprising ended Gaddafi's four-decade rule, have fought to control Derna for years.
The academic said: "Derna is an important pocket for Haftar because it has a national and historical significance. Derna is known for the resilience of its people and has been a bedrock of resistance."
Derna is known for the resilience of its people and has been a bedrock of resistance
- Libyan academic
In October 2014, the Islamic State (IS) took control of the city, but were driven out the following July.
The LNA has long claimed that the Derna Shura Council, which has controlled the city since driving out IS, is a "terrorist" organisation, a term that critics accuse the LNA of giving to all its rivals.
But the Derna activist said it was, in fact, locals who liberated their own city and that the LNA gave IS a free pass.
"Derna was suffering under IS, and at the time no one offered any help," the activist said.
“When the IS convoy was fleeing Derna, passing close to the LNA, they allowed them safe passage and they went to Sirte. They could have easily stopped them with air strikes but they let them get to Sirte."
Derna residents celebrate after IS is kicked out in 2015 (Twitter)
She added: "When we had a real problem with terrorists, they were nowhere to be seen, and when Derna was secured, they struck."
When the Haftar loyalists attempted to seize Derna once again in 2016 they were opposed by many in the city.
"Most civilians were in support of Derna's forces, and when they [the LNA] discovered this, they imposed the siege in an attempt to choke us, and they intensified strikes on us," she said.
"They wanted our response to be turning on our sons."
Until this month, the LNA's campaign had been largely limited to occasional air strikes and bombardment, targeting fighters on the outskirts of the city and ammunition stores.
Egypt, which backs the LNA, has also bombed Derna, saying that it was attacking training camps of militants who were being sent into Egypt to carry out attacks.
With the latest offensive, Haftar has said he is trying to rid the city of militants. "There is no option left for us in Derna than to crush the terrorists after they rejected all peace efforts," he told his forces this week.
Haftar announces the start of the Derna operation earlier this month (AFP)
While the LNA began ground attacks earlier this month, an escalation in fighting that started last week has seen fighters from both sides killed, as well as civilians.
Tens of fighters from the newly formed Derna Protection Force (DPF), an offshoot of the Derna Shura Council, were killed in clashes along with at least five LNA members, according to local media.
Analysts say the military leader and his backers are in a rush to legitimise his rule and that of the LNA, which is aligned with a parliament and government based in eastern Libya that has spurned the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli.
"Time is not on Haftar's side as he approaches 80 years old, hence they [his backers] want to fast-track him to absolute power in Libya so he can serve their own selfish interests in Libya," Libyan politician Guma el-Gamaty told MEE.
Fabiani, the Eurasia Group analyst, said Derna is the only realistic military target left to Haftar. "His resources are too limited and supply lines already overstretched to expand his military operations to the South [Fezzan] or the West [Tripolitania]," he said.
"Now that he has recovered from his still-mysterious health problem, he can only turn to Derna to score political and military points against both his adversaries and challengers at home," Fabiani said. "It's his only option to prove that he has not been weakened by the latest events."
'We are not terrorists'
Residents of Derna have long rejected claims by Haftar and his supporters that the city is a hotbed of terrorists.
A resident of Derna, Hamza Dernawy, who was involved in the fighting against IS, told MEE last year: "We are not terrorists. We do not call for war."
He has destroyed us. He's destroyed our psyche
- Activist in Derna
A year ago, Dernawy described a city isolated by forces loyal to the renegade general, with shops fast running out of food and medicine, and people facing an escalating bombing campaign, at the time, by Haftar's Egyptian allies.
The scene described to MEE this week was not so different. Describing a population "tired" of counting its dead, the activist told MEE: "These young men had so much ahead of them, their whole lives.
"A baby died in the womb yesterday because the medical supplies needed were not available."
The activist said that people in Derna are not opposed to having a unified army, claiming that the DPF had said itself that were a stable government to be established, it would lay down its arms.
However, the activist added that at the moment, the DPF is defending Derna from Haftar’s "militias".
"They're even threatening women and girls who say anything negative; they're receiving threats because the LNA don't want the truth about them to come out."
"This is the second Ramadan they have done this to us," the activist added.
"Last Ramadan, children were killed in the air strikes. A father and his son were also killed while going take out money from the bank."
"He has destroyed us," the activist said, referring to Haftar. "He's destroyed our psyche."