Haftar's battle for Tripoli leaves Libyans without respite over Ramadan

Haftar's battle for Tripoli leaves Libyans without respite over Ramadan
The persistent offensive by rogue warlord Haftar's forces is taking its heavy toll on Tripoli residents since the holy Muslim month of Ramadan began.
8 min read
15 May, 2019
Defying a truce in Ramadan means a month of more hardship for Libyans [Getty]

At the outset of Ramadan, Libya's rogue general Khalifa Haftar ordered his troops to continue the military campaign to take Tripoli and to fight even harder to teach unity government forces a "greater and bigger lesson".

"Ramadan is the month of jihad," the commander's speech further read. "Our battles against terrorism in Benghazi and Derna did not stop in the holy month of Ramadan but we increased our determination and strength in this holy month."

His message came only hours after the UN mission in Libya (UNSMIL) called for a week-long humanitarian truce to coincide with the beginning of the holy Muslim month following a month of fighting for the Libyan capital.

The UNSMIL had urged all the fighting parties to start a truce in respect of the spirit of Ramadan and abidance by human rights conventions to allow for the delivery of humanitarian aid to those in need as well as the freedom of movement for civilians.

On April 4, forces allied with Haftar that make up the so-called Libyan National Army [LNA] launched an offensive against forces loyal to the internationally-recognised Government of National Accord [GNA], headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, to conquer Tripoli.

The renegade general already defied the UN when he began his Tripoli campaign on the same day UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was visiting the capital to prepare a national reconciliation conference.

Defying the truce in the holy fasting month means a month of more distress and hardship for Libyans in Tripoli if no ceasefire is imposed.

Ramadan is a time of peace, mercy and forgiveness when people should be able to enjoy time with their families and friends. Instead, we're seeing an increasing escalation of violence

"To anyone that thought Ramadan would slow down in fighting around Tripoli… It may only negatively impact supply lines/shift hours of engagement," tweeted Emad Badi, a Libya researcher.

As clashes intensify, Haftar's aggression is having a deleterious impact on people's lives during the Islamic holy month.

Tarek Saadawi, who worked as a consultant in the construction industry before the war broke out, lives in Ein Zara, southern Tripoli, in one of the conflict-affected areas. Artillery shelling, airstrikes and ambulance siren sounds can be heard from his house. 

"My family home is inside the capital. I see my relatives once every three days if I manage to reach them," he told The New Arab, while mentioning his struggles as a Tripoli resident. "I can't drive on the main road, it's too dangerous, I have to take side roads though even these roads can be sometimes risky.

"Most stores in my neighbourhood are closed since shopkeepers are too fearful to run their activity while the war is raging, and they're afraid that their shops may be looted if open as long as the conflict is on," he added.

In the absence of a ceasefire, civilians in conflict areas remain unable to move freely to safer areas and humanitarian actors' access to those in need remains restricted.

The armed conflict has been taking place mainly in the southern outskirts of Tripoli.

At least 443 people have been killed and 2,110 wounded since the fighting commenced, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Based on figures provided by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), just below 63,000 have been internally displaced by ongoing hostilities and nearly 3,500 refugees and migrants are in detention centres in areas exposed to or at risk of conflict more than one month into the battle for Libya's capital.

Facing the same insecurities as conflict-affected Libyans, refugees and migrants in areas closest to frontline fighting are particularly vulnerable as they lack similar extended family, social networks on whom to rely for shelter or support at times of crisis.

"Everyday life is becoming very difficult for large parts of the population in the south of Tripoli", said Niels Scott, head of office for OCHA Libya.

"People are very often trapped in the conflict zones and, when they're able to get out, it's difficult for them to stock food and water since a lot of shops are closed."

The OCHA chief emphasised that civilians in Tripoli are in need of daily basic necessities and medical aid. He also stressed that fuel is running very low which hinders the residents' ability to drive out of the fighting areas.

In addition, when Libyans in the capital leave their homes to flee the conflict there is a risk that vacant houses may be robbed amid chaos while they are away.

"Ramadan is a time of peace, mercy and forgiveness when people should be able to enjoy time with their families and friends. Instead, we're seeing an increasing escalation of violence," Scott noted.

The major challenge that OCHA Libya faces is to ensure access to essential relief in terms of water, food, medical aid and shelter, as well as adequate protection for the civilian population.

"As the conflict escalates, the situation turns more complex on the ground and the challenge becomes bigger. But we're making progress, we have so far assisted 35,000 people with some form of humanitarian aid since the onset of crisis," the head of office continued.

Once, a family of three tried to return to their home a few days before the start of Ramadan. They all died on the way there due to heavy fighting in the area

OCHA's situation report of May 10 indicated that displaced and conflict-affected Libyans are facing obstacles in meeting basic food needs due to disruption of supply chains, market closures and rising prices prompted by scarcity.

Their access to healthcare services is severely disrupted, attacks on medical staff and facilities has further hampered the ability of already overstretched health services to provide assistance to civilians, including those inured as a result of armed conflict.

The report highlighted that the humanitarian impact of Tripoli clashes is felt in the south of Libya, as supplies of vital goods like food and fuel are disrupted, exacerbating already existing scarcities.

"'We want nothing except to spend Ramadan in our home', said by a displaced mother who had to leave her house and run away with her child to a safe shelter in Abu Selim, one of many families who continue fleeing Tripoli for fear of their lives," reads a tweet posted by UNICEF Libya's Child Protection Chief Rania Ahmed.

The continued conflict is driving more Libyans out of the capital with some 3,900 new IDPs identified between May 7 and 10 in Qasr Al Akhyar, Tajoura, Suq Al Jumaa, Wershafana, Al Ajayalat, Garabolli and Tripoli.

The majority of IDPs are staying in private accommodation, whether in homes of relatives or in free apartments, or in rental accommodation, mainly in urban areas of Tripoli, while some 2,700 IDPs are hosted in collective shelters established by local authorities and first responders.

Twenty nine collective shelters have been set up as of today, for the largest part in schools with others in hotels, resorts and university dorms.

When the military operation started in Tripoli, Saadawi together with other volunteers took the initiative of setting up shelters for displaced Libyans after he encountered in the street a family whose home had been destroyed as LNA forces were bombing their neighbourhood.

He now coordinates three schools hosting 260 people located away from the fighting however within short distance from the conflict zones in order to facilitate incoming IDPs to find refuge. An estimated 80 percent of those sheltered there lost their homes in the hostilities.

"This Ramadan is different for me as I chose to be with the displaced," Saadawi stated. "We try to bring them good food, create a welcoming space where they can spend time together, and alleviate their own pain."

The warlord who wanted to be supreme victor: Haftar's Libya offensive kills political process
Read also: The warlord who wanted to be supreme 
victor: Haftar's Libya offensive kills political process

Despite that, many of the IDPs feel out of place sitting in large numbers around a table with strangers, and they turn depressed in thinking about their hardship, the dedicated coordinator explained.

"A lot of them say they prefer eating alone in their rooms, they want to go back to their homes and stay with their families," he testified. "Many others pee on themselves as they are still so scared and traumatised from the war."

Once, a family of three tried to return to their home a few days before the start of Ramadan. They all died on the way there due to heavy fighting in the area.

Sharing some anecdotes given by civilians who fled the intense-fighting areas, he said that some families found themselves face-to-face with LNA troops telling them they were there to protect them, and they replying: "How are you protecting us if you're bombing us?"

Others faced Haftar's troops who told them they were there to free their areas from terrorists, to which they replied: "Where are the terrorists? There are no terrorists here."

"If you ask me how I feel about the situation, I will cry," Saadawi uttered. "I'm trying my best to help those in need.. but you see what's happening in my country!"

As Khalifa Haftar's campaign to capture Tripoli entered its second month, the UN Security Council called for a ceasefire last week in Libya's capital, urging all parties to the conflict to go back to the political process. The EU echoed the UN's call on Tuesday demanding the warring sides to implement a ceasefire and return to dialogue.

So long as the hostilities are not brought to a halt, there is no break for Libyans in Tripoli in what should be a peaceful religious month as many of them are living in fear, they are lost not knowing where to hide and angered by the ongoing war.

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis. 

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec