For Benghazi's displaced, no help, no dignity

2015-08-28 12:23
File: AP

File: AP

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Benghazi - Libya's second-largest city, was the stronghold of the popular insurrection against Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, and a symbol of resistance against his rule.

But four years after the revolution that toppled the longtime Libyan leader, the city has been ravaged by civil war and strife.

Last year, Khalifa Haftar, a general in the Libyan army in the 1970s and '80s who later became a Gaddafi opponent launched "Operation Dignity" to expel Islamist militias from Benghazi. The subsequent fighting has destroyed entire neighbourhoods, and thousands of people have been displaced.

Those who remain in the city must wait in queues stretching hundreds of metres to buy bread at bakeries. The queues to buy petrol can stretch several kilometres. Three of the city's five power stations have been destroyed, and daily blackouts last for several hours.

"I came here yesterday. I queued for hours to buy a gallon of petrol. And today it's the same: I am queueing again under the sun," said Ibrahim, who did not provide a last name.

Next to him in the queue was Mahmoud, who before the conflict worked as a teacher, but is no longer employed. "With Gaddafi, we faced many problems for 42 years. But in the last four years, it's been even worse," he said softly. "We are worried, and we are definitely pessimistic about our future prospects. Look at how they reduced this town: checkpoints everywhere, no power… We can't take it any more."

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Since October 2014, Benghazi has witnessed daily clashes between Libyan soldiers loyal to the Tobruk government and militias that are part of the Shura Council of Libyan Revolutionaries - an alliance of anti-Gaddafi rebels affiliated with the Islamist Ansar al-Sharia group.

Today, Libya's second city is effectively divided in two. One part is controlled by loyalist forces; the other is ruled by forces linked to Ansar al-Sharia and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) group.

More than 100 000 people, about one-quarter of Benghazi's population, have been forced to flee their homes, mostly in el-Blad, Sidi Khribish and el-Sabri districts. The most privileged have left the country, while many of the poorest displaced people have moved into empty schools. The city's educational system, as well as its hospitals, are in shambles.

The Benghazi Medical Centre, an advanced research centre and hospital, has been hit by missiles and saw its warehouse for drugs destroyed last May. Some sandbags have been put in front of the nursery to prevent gunshots from striking inside the hospital.

The Libyan Red Crescent, a humanitarian organisation, tries to support displaced residents living in schools. But the humanitarian assistance that makes its way there is not enough, and after many months of war, hygiene and medical conditions in the shelters have become catastrophic.

RELATED: Libya in crisis: 'This is not just Misrata's fight'

Fathi, a resident of around 60 years old who did not provide a last name, is very thin, and moves nervously.

He introduced his family at the entrance to the school where they live. "She's Halut, my daughter. She's 20 years old and she has psychological diseases," he said, wrapping his arms around his daughter. "No one can take care of her; almost all the hospitals are closed and we can't find therapy. We are poor. A therapy session costs 40 dinars [$29] and we can't afford it."

Fathi's wife, Jazia, said they were one of the first families in Benghazi to have been displaced by the fighting. Since then, they have moved from school to school. The school they currently live in is shared by 18 families, and has just one common toilet.

"We have asked for help at all the institutions," Jazia told Al Jazeera. "Since the beginning of the war, we have not been getting aid from the government any more. No one helps us. The little money we can scrape together would be for food, but we spend it all on medicine."

The three of them live together in a classroom whose blackboards still show the last lesson taught before the school closed. The chairs and desks have been piled up, except for one desk that they use as a table. A lone mattress on the floor functions as a bed for all three members of the family.

In the next classroom live Fatima and Faraj's family. Faraj has severe diabetes and is in the beginning stages of Alzheimer's disease. He sits on the floor, not speaking, and barely recognises his wife, Fatima says.

"Each dose of medicine for Faraj costs 75 dinars ($55). But in spite of the war, no one cares if we live or if we die or if we can at least afford a minimal subsistence," Fatima told Al Jazeera. 

"We used to live in southern Benghazi. Then we realised that Islamist militias were conquering our districts, and we ran away. I wasn't scared when I was forced to leave my house; I was more scared of the Islamic State [ISIS] than taking my stuff and running away. We have been supporting the army since the very beginning, but now I am so tired that I would prefer to go back to live in my own house. My house is better than this lack of dignity."

Read more on:    isis  |  muammar gaddafi  |  libya  |  north africa

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