Libya - a country controlled by gangs of mobster militias

Libya - a country controlled by gangs of mobster militias
In-depth: Thousands of people have been abducted and killed in Libya, where the security services have all but disappeared and gangster militias act with impunity, reports Francesca Mannocchi.
8 min read
27 September, 2017
Members of the Fajr Libya (Libya Dawn) Islamist militia in Sabratha [AFP]

The mosque in Tripoli's Algeria Square fills for Friday prayers. Fathers with their children wear jalabia for the day of celebration.

Three women sit outside on the steps, begging, their faces covered by the niqab. In front of them, the few dinars they have received.

From the loudspeakers, the voice of the imam speaks of these difficult days of Tripoli, these days without money, without security: "These are days of suffering and we have to help each others. If you have [something] to eat and your neighbour does not have it, help him.

"It is no good eating if our neighbour can not enjoy the table like us. If you have money and your neighbour does not, give him some of yours. One day, he will repay you."

A poster with the face of General Khalifa Haftar is marked with a red cross. A caption reads: 'We do not want you here'

On the wall in front of the mosque, a poster with the face of General Khalifa Haftar is marked with a red cross. A caption reads: "We do not want you here."

Khaled comes out of Friday's prayer with his eyes downcast. He talks to himself as he sits in one of the many cafes in the square in front of the mosque. He sits alone.

The next table over seats representatives of the government of Tripoli. On the other side of the square are the black cars bearing the symbols of the al-Nawasi militia, one of the most powerful in the city. Inside the car sit four young, armed, noisy boys, showing the arrogance of their power.

On the same square there is a building with an ATM, now broken and dusty - like dozens of others in the cashless city.

The scene at this square represents the country today: political power in the hands of the militias, increasingly powerful, increasingly corrupt.

The economy, broken. The money, stolen.

Khaled left Libya in 1985, and returned only after the revolution in 2012. Twenty-seven years of exile was the price paid by a young Khaled for joining other people like him in trying to oppose the Gaddafi regime.

Libya Gaddafi grafitti AFP
Grafitti in Tripoli ahows a young man asking: 'Where
is the punishment for the people's poverty?' [AFP] 

In the autumn of 1985, Khaled was arrested by Gaddafi's intelligence agents, tortured for a month and released after his family paid a corrupt official.

His father managed to get him out of the country and he headed to the United States, where he remained until the sumer after Gaddafi's death.

"I came back to help my country," says Khaled. During his time in the US, he became an engineer. "But after five years, I have lost all my hopes. And I just have to go away again. Here I failed and the revolution failed too."

Libya's economy is in serious crisis, the lack of cash making life impossible for ordinary people.

The official exchange rate is currently at 1.37 dinars to the dollar, while the black market rate is nine dinars per dollar.

The militias control the banks, they distribute their money to their men, and give cash to the people in exchange for bribes

The difference between these two rates is where the country's opaque powers move.

"Money is in the hands of the militias," says Khaled. "For this reason, you can see these young guys, armed, threatening people with no consequences. The militias control the banks, they distribute their money to their men, and give cash to the people in exchange for bribes.

Read more: Two killed as revenge bazooka attack destroys Tripoli bank

Militias police the daily morning queues in front of banks, deciding who can enter and who can not.

Archive video: Sirte mine clearing [December 2016]

"Officials hold the keys of bank branches only formally, but the Nawasi and Tajouri men are the ones who really rule the city," saud Khaled.

The black market is increasingly widespread in Libya and affects the most vulnerable parts of the country. The decline of gross national product, rapid inflation and liquidity shortages have fueled illicit trade.

Primary goods have become expensive very quickly; the price of bread is nearly ten times higher than in 2014.

"Every morning I leave my home," says Khaled, sipping his tea. "I walk, looking around. I see women queued by six in the morning waiting to know from some armed guys if they can withdraw a handful of dinars, a handful of their life savings. I observe the men, marked by the wrinkles, begging these guys to have some money to buy food. I watch this scene every morning and I wonder where the revolutionary ideals are. I wonder if there have ever been really revolutionary ideals in this country."

The desperation has pushed more and more young boys to join armed militias, attracted by the guarantee of easy gains.

In Libya more than 50 percent of the population is under thirty; more than half of them unemployed.

They are the young people who fought for the revolution six years ago, running the risk of being killed or tortured.

They are the same men who fought in Sirte for six months to defeat the Islamic State group in its self-proclaimed capital of North Africa.

They are the same young people who today walk in front of the faded murals of 2011.

Drawings on the walls portray Gaddafi on his knees, Gaddafi beaten by people, the king that turned into a devil defeated. The writing on the graffiti says: "Libya is finally free. Finally independent."

The reality of today, however, tells another story. It is a different story from that told by Prime Minister al-Sarraj, who in a recent interview invited everyone to visit Tripoli, "the safe city".

In June alone, according to the city's Criminal Investigation Department, there were 216 cases of armed robbery, 73 armed assaults - just on pharmacies and petrol stations - as well as 128 bodies found in the street and 83 kidnappings.

The city is in the hands of the powerful militias that hold power over citizens and government alike. Nothing moves in Tripoli that is not decided by warlords such as Haitham Tajouri and his armed gangs.

They decide indiscriminately who may walk free, and who must be kidnapped. They are deepening the chaos in which the country has become embroiled.

The kidnapping of civilians by militias, almost always to get a cash ransom instead of for any political gain, has increased considerably since 2014 - particularly in the west of the country, where abductions have become a feature of daily life.

Among the latest victims is Professor Salem Mohamed Beitelmal from the University of Tripoli.

"Salem Beitelmal's case," says Heba Morayef, Amnesty International's North Africa research director, "shows the constant dangers for civilians, with militias continuing to intimidate the population, encouraging fear through a ruthless campaign of kidnappings. It also highlights the complicity of political and state officials who have so far failed to stop this practice of the militia."

Abductions are also used as a tactic by militias to silence opponents, journalists and human rights activists.

Victims are selected on the basis of their political inclinations or tribal affiliations. The kidnappers know they are committing crimes and abuses in a regime of impunity.

In this spirit of impunity, Jabir Zain, a Sudanese activist, was kidnapped last September in Tripoli by an armed group reportedly linked to the National Accord Government's Interior Ministry.

Jabir had moved to Tripoli with his parents when he was six. He is an analyst specialising in human rights and social injustice. That September evening he was holding a meeting on women's rights in the Coffee and Book cafè in Tripoli.

His relatives said they knew the name of the militia that kidnapped him, and that they had been threatened. Like them, hundreds of families do not denounce the abductions of their loved ones for fear of being killed.

Feature continues below map

When Salem arrives for our interview in a central Tripoli hotel, he moves with circumspection, as if he is always followed by someone.

He is 26 years old. Along with five of his peers, he is an activist trying to defend press freedom. They try to tell what is impossible to see in Libya; they try daily to walk, talk, take notes, write and send them overseas.

Salem tried to use a both a stills and video camera to document the daily abuses, but both were taken away by men from the al-Nawasi militia.

Today, power is with the militias

Salem says an aversion to cameras is a legacy of Gaddafi's regime: "You can not see anything that is not pleasing to power," he says. "Today, power is with the militias."

When Salem and his friends tried to hire an office for their research, one of them was kidnapped for a week. It was a warning from one of the powerful militias in Tripoli.

They have since taken down the sign from their office door and they continue their research in secret.

A few weeks ago, Salem wanted to talk to the people queued at the banks, noting their reasons, recording their voices. But a soldier pulled the recorder out of his hands, threatening him.

"Not even under Gaddafi was there press freedom. There was no freedom at all, but I remember one thing. I remember that we all felt safe," Salem says, lowering his gaze, as if he was ashamed of his own words, as if he had pronounced a taboo, held inside for too long.

"Under Gaddafi we always felt safe; I remember that when I was a child, my mother told me not to pronounce Gaddafi's name in public except to praise him. She always told me: 'If you meet anyone who criticises him, leave the conversation immediately, go away and never meet that person again.'

"I remember this fear always with me.

"At the same time, I remember living in a stable country. If I think about my twenties and the revolution I feel so confused."

Salem's confusion is shared by his friend and colleague, Mohammed.

"If I think of my future, I see only fog, I see uncertainty, I see the terror of being kidnapped or beaten, suddenly. And without any reason. It could happen tomorrow, after tomorrow. Today.

"The militias could enter my house tonight, take me away, and I could disappear like the regime's opponents disappeared under Gaddafi. Or I could become a resigned adult like all Libyans are today. Libyans who have believed in change and who now lower their heads in the face of the threats of the militias, and who say they will never rebel again - because if the results are like this, why should we have to risk it all again?"

Francesca Mannocchi is a journalist who previously reported from the front lines of the battle for Mosul. Follow her on Twitter: @mannochia