Cafes, art and shopping are returning to birthplace of Libyan revolution, even as fighting continues to rage only streets away
BENGHAZI, Libya – Music and laughter fill the air, paintings and calligraphies are displayed on walls. The Tanarout arts club, which opened in 2015, is an unlikely space in north-east Benghazi, a city still struggling with violence. And indeed it is a symbol of a people determined to get on with life. Dozens of members meet here regularly.
Schiffa, 20, had discovered the club a few months before. The self-taught painter wanted to improve her technique. "But I learned a lot of other things, too," she told Middle East Eye, "about philosophy and calligraphy, for example."
We owe it to the future of the city. Ideally, there should be clubs like this in every area, on every street
- Hassan al-Thini, Tanarout founder
The founders of the club, Hassan al-Thini and Mohamed Tarhouni, say that Tanarout is only the first step.
"We owe it to the future of the city. Ideally, there should be clubs like this in every area, on every street," said Thini.
By promoting culture, the two men hope to help the reconstruction of their city, and their country. But they also want to improve Libya's image.
"People in Europe need to know there is more than just war here. There is more than just death. There are intellectuals and music, and there are the arts here, too," added Tarhouni.
Yet not far from Tanarout the fighting continues. Souk al-Hout and Sabri, two districts still in the hands of rival militants, are less than 4km away.
"There must be roughly 100 terrorists or so spread out over three zones – Souk al-Hout, Sabri and a block of buildings in Ganfouda," said Ahmed Mismari, a spokesman for the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA) uniting revolutionary fighters and armed forces of the former Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.
In May 2014, a military offensive code-named Operation Dignity (Amaliya al-Karamah in Arabic) was launched by Khalifa Haftar whose intention was to "clean up" Benghazi and drive out "terrorists".
The generic term, as used by the general, encompasses the militias of Ansar al-Sharia, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State – groups that are indeed listed as terrorist organisations by the UN.
But it also targets the Muslim Brotherhood and conservative revolutionary brigades with ties to Fajr Libya, the Libyan Dawn movement militia that held Tripoli from 2014 to 2016. In short, a heterogeneous alliance united to combat a common adversary: Khalifa Haftar and the LNA.
Three years later, the LNA has paid a heavy price: more than 6,000 troops dead and 12,000 wounded. At the time of writing, the LNA is fighting to win back the south-western district of Ganfouda, where a block of buildings is still under militants' control. Haftar's forces are reluctant to make a straight-out attack, however.
"We don't want to destroy the homes," Mohamed Manfour, the head of the Benina air force base, told MEE. "They use ambulances and stolen UN vehicles. They have civilian prisoners too. We can't just go around bombing left, right, and centre."
Another of the "dirty war" tactics favoured by militant groups is to plant improvised explosive devices in the areas they leave behind.
Hence, although a good part of Ganfouda is now under LNA control, it is impossible for civilians to return home. The entire district has to be inspected with a fine-toothed comb, house by house, street by street, to make sure it is clear of mines.
MEE witnessed this first-hand: while touring the area accompanied by the LNA, an explosive device was detected in a rubble-strewn street next to the putrefying corpse of a dog. Makeshift cemeteries have also been discovered on the grounds of private homes, from which not all of the bodies have been removed.
As soon as the military forces give the green light, security in the former combat zone will be turned over to the police, who have already set up office in their recently renovated headquarters. Good news for this city where, before Operation Dignity, the armed forces were reluctant to patrol in uniform for fear of being attacked by militants.
"We are happy to be back to work," Captian Adel Majbri told MEE. "And the civilians are glad we are too. We are already getting calls from former residents enquiring about the zone."
A police station in Ganfouda reopens (Maryline Dumas / MEE)
In much of Benghazi, life has returned to normalcy. The birthplace of the revolution is whole once more, no longer a succession of districts and streets cut off by blockades and buffer zones, as it was in 2015.
Hatem Saïd, who brought her two youngest children to al-Kish playground, said it had been impossible to go to the park during the peak of the violence.
"I'd say that things started to improve around June 2015. From then on, it was much easier to get around. Before, we mainly stayed home, only going out if absolutely necessary. And we had to get back before dark. It was really scary," she said.
On 3 February, the district of Garyounes in southwest Benghazi was reopened to civilians. Members of the LNA celebrated loudly. A few groups of armed men in pickup trucks enthusiastically waved the Libyan flag, holding two fingers up in a victory sign.
Said al-Kebir returned to the flat he had abandoned on 17 October 2015.
"It's hard to describe the feeling," the teacher told MEE. "At first you feel happiness, because you are back in your home, but at the same time you want to cry.
"The war has been so terrible. The doors and windows in my apartment are all gone. The living room is totally destroyed. The entire place was covered with empty shells."
The father-of-three added that he hopes to receive government aid to repair all the damage.
The families forced to flee their homes because of fighting are often faced with serious economic difficulty. Many of these displaced residents are struggling to pay rent in their new accommodations. To make matters worse, the country is currently suffering from a liquidity shortage linked to inflation.
"A kilo of sugar has gone from 2 dinars to almost 7 dinars [$1.43 to $5]," Houda, a French teacher, told MEE. "Prices keep going up, day after day."
The teacher and mother doesn't even bother going to the bank to withdraw money anymore. "There's no point queuing all day for a mere 45 dinars [$32]."
In Benghazi, banks are limiting withdrawals depending on available funds.
So Houda has had to come up with another plan: "I make out a cheque to a businessman, and he gives me cash in exchange. He takes a commission but it's still better than going to the bank."
In these difficult circumstances, and despite the reopening of stores like Mango and Marks & Spencers, businesses are struggling to recover. A cafe employee named Ahmed says he has lost lots of customers.
"People have stopped coming, or they are coming less often," a telling sign in this Libyan city where there is a passion for "nousse-nousse", which loosely translates into a creamy coffee.
To cope with the cash flow crisis, the country's Trade and Development Bank put an SMS payment system in place.
When buying, clients send a text message to the bank which then, after checking their account, sends an approval code to the merchant. The latter can present the code at any bank branch to recover the amount owed.
Mohamed Ben Dardaf, the managing director of the men's clothing store Septemus, is happy with the system.
"New customers are starting to come," he said.