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Cautious hope as residents return to 'liberated' Benghazi

While Benghazi's port and several areas remain in rebel hands, residents remain hopeful that peace for their city is in sight
“I visited my house for the first time in a year and a half,” one resident told MEE on Tuesday (MEE/Abdelhamid Amrooni)

BENGHAZI, Libya - As families start to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives and homes here in areas newly liberated by forces loyal to Libya’s eastern government, there is a feeling of cautious optimism.  

“I visited my house for the first time in a year and a half,” 35-year-old Nasser told Middle East Eye. “It’s badly damaged but that is not important because people gave their lives so we could return home. Knowing that so many died, a damaged building is fine for us. We can rebuild our homes, but we can’t bring back those lives.”

He described emotional scenes on the streets of Benghazi’s Laithi district on Tuesday, with people screaming, shouting, laughing and crying.

One woman sat amidst the rubble of her home, weeping and saying: “This is what my son died for, so we could return to our homes, and now the Libyan Army have avenged his death.”

Former medical student Nader told MEE it was difficult to describe his feelings.

“When we were living as exiles, we watched videos that the Islamic State [IS] posted online, filmed on our very streets, saying if we tried to return they would kill us. But now we are here and they are the ones who have run away,” he said.

A scene from Benghazi on Tueday evening (MEE/Abdelhamid Amrooni)
“This is my home, my street, the place where I grew up. It belongs to us and now, thanks to the army, we have got it back.”

He said many houses in the centre of Laithi, an area long occupied by rebel groups which include members of Ansar al-Sharia and IS, were completely destroyed as the area was the scene of some of the heaviest fighting.

Slow return

But in spite of this devastation, on Tuesday nothing could quash the high spirits of Benghazi families, some of whom had almost lost hope of the war ending and being able to return home from their rented flats, borrowed homes and makeshift accommodation.

After these initial celebrations, however, the process of returning home will inevitably be a slow one. Properties, vehicles and streets were left booby-trapped with explosives by retreating rebel fighters and in separate incidents on Tuesday, two men were blown up by devices they accidentally triggered in their homes. One was killed instantly, the other badly injured and transferred to a local hospital.

Benghazi’s special forces warned anyone attempting to return about the dangers posed by such devices. They announced on local television and social media that male family members were allowed to stay in their homes to protect them, but forbade any women or children from returning until the area had been fully cleared of any explosive remnants of war. 

In some properties, residents found walls daubed with graffiti praising IS and leaving intimidating messages to soldiers and local people.

“IS will stay forever,” one read, while another threatened: “We will cut off your heads if you don’t want the law of God.” 

Graffiti left on a wall in Benghazi reads: "The Islamic State will stay and will expand" (MEE/Abdelhamid Amrooni)

Nasser said the graffiti proved that the fight waged by Libya’s eastern government forces in Benghazi had been against militants rather than “revolutionaries,” which is what rebel fighters in the city have repeatedly been termed by the rival Tripoli government.

“There were no revolutionaries there. They were IS, extremists, Ansar al-Sharia or just terrorists. Everything I saw today was related to IS not to Libya,” he said. “Sure, maybe some of them fought against Gaddafi in 2011, but now we see that was only because they wanted to turn Libya into an Islamic State.”   

Strategic gain

Laithi was one of the two large districts in the city that was declared liberated on Tuesday. The west Benghazi area of Bouatni, including two rebel battalion headquarters and a large industrial area, was also reportedly under army control. 

“This is an important strategic gain for the army because it includes the main road that militants were using to transport weapons and ammunition which arrived on boats to Benghazi’s Marisa port,” said a local journalist, speaking on condition of anonymity.

He claimed that most supplies received by rebel forces came through the port and were widely believed to have originated from western Libyan towns and cities.

Final rebel-held areas in Benghazi could be liberated in days, says local journalist (MEE/Abdelhamid Amrooni)
“Although the city’s main port is not yet under army control, it doesn’t work properly and is very vulnerable to attack, so militants can’t receive weapons through there,” he explained.

With these latest strategic gains, he predicted that the remaining rebel strongholds in Benghazi could be liberated within weeks, if not days.

The Commander of Libya’s eastern government forces, General Khalifa Haftar claimed to have the city surrounded, vowing to fight rebels until the last bullet had been fired and the last fighter killed, the journalist said.

Waiting 'too long'

Although Benghazi residents are aware the war is not over, many are hopeful that there is peace in sight for the city, after a bloody few years that has left many hundreds dead.

“We’ve been waiting for this moment for too long,” 46-year-old Ahmed said, his voice breaking as he held back tears. “We have suffered a lot and lost so many people. But today, finally people can feel happiness again.”

But, fearing further clashes or retribution attacks, some residents are concerned about what the future holds. “Now we are very happy but we are also scared because of what these people might do next,” said Nasser. “Today they have lost a lot of the territory they controlled, so maybe they will take revenge by shelling us or planting bombs in cars again.”

Other residents said they hoped that Libya’s eastern government would act swiftly to rebuild the shattered district and return thousands of internally displaced people - the poorest of whom have been living in abandoned school classrooms - to their homes.

“We are tired of all this fighting and all these wars. Now we just want to focus on rebuilding our city,” said 29-year-old Salem, a young businessman. “Now the army has liberated our hometown, we ask the government to immediately start rebuilding these damaged areas.”

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