Libya's Benghazi slowly rising from the ashes

LBY190209MD01Benghazi, Libya - Hassan al-Mogharbi usually tries to look at the bright side. On a recent day, he stood on the empty, exposed concrete platform that was once his bedroom and pointed across the street.

"Five families used to live there," said al-Mogharbi, 43, who with his wife and six children fled the fighting in this city in 2014. "Now, that building is gone. So I consider myself lucky."

This area in downtown Benghazi was once the epicenter of the "New Libya": It was where the revolution that toppled Muammar Gaddafi began in February 2011 – on Courthouse Square just next to Shahat Road where al-Mogharbi lives. It's also where years of war raged
between Khalifa Haftar's Libyan National Army (LNA) and a coalition of armed groups including Islamic State, and left the city in ruins.

It's been a little over a year since the fighting stopped. And residents like al-Mogharbi are trickling back, hoping to rebuild, and get on with their lives. It's a monumental task: According to the residents, 70 percent of the homes on Shahat Street have been destroyed. Al-Mogharbi's house, like many others, is missing its roof, walls and everything inside.

"When I saw it for the first time, I couldn't stay – it was too painful," said al-Mogharbi of his home. Still, he's buying tools and building materials in the hopes of repairing his house. He says he wants to bring his family back in six months.

In fact, many residents here are infusing new meaning into DIY repairs, and it's easy to mistake residents for construction workers these days. Al-Mogharbi, who works as a civil servant in the Ministry of Health, spends his spare time looking for reinforcing bars and other wall supports littering the lots of bombed out buildings to fix his house. It's dangerous because of unexploded mines left by Islamic State but he has no choice. The price for new ones has more than doubled over the past five years due to skyrocketing demand, and he, like most of his countrymen, is already barely making ends meet as it is.

And he can't expect to receive any help.

Nidal al-Kaziki, spokesman for the city, estimates that reconstruction of the town will cost about $36 billion, and that families should get $700 per square meter depending on the size of their home to help with reconstruction. He quickly adds that the municipality doesn't have the money. The city would appeal to the federal government for funds but that poses another problem.
Which one?

Libya currently has two administrations: The international community only recognizes the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord. But it has no power or authority in eastern Libya including Benghazi. The other one, the Tobruk government based in the East, does. But it has no money.
Representatives of the Lebanese firm, Solidere, which rebuilt downtown Beirut after its civil war ended in the 1990, say the problem in Benghazi goes beyond the ruin.

"The main issue is that there is no law which defines who owns this or that land, so it is hard to attract investors even if the project is huge," one Solidere official told the Washington Times privately.

Meanwhile, the streets are dangerous. Cables hang freely on the streets and electric panels sizzle when it rains, a major hazard, especially for children. Abdurahman Saad, 60, says bought a PS4 video game console to entice his grandchildren to stay inside.

Meanwhile, his apartment remains unusually intact.

"A sniper lived in the building," he said, by way of explanation.

Saad says he prefers not to think about what happened in the building during the fight. “I like to speak with my neighbors who came back about what will happen in the future, how the area will be rebuilt, and how fast, not about what the terrorists have done inside our walls."

Looking to the future, the city is abuzz over possible elections later this year. Libya needs to be united with one government, most agree, for the country to move forward. Here, many look to Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, head of the Libyan National Army, as the only candidate that can defeat terrorists and get the country on track.

"Haftar liberated us. He has been the only one to fight for Benghazi, meanwhile the Tripoli government and the international community did nothing," said Adel Sherif, 55, who returned to the house in Benghazi in October where he, his father and his grandfather were born. "But we needed to get back to a normal life."

Analysts say Haftar's LNA is using the desperation in the east and especially in Benghazi to position itself to takeover nationally.
"The LNA is an organization modelling itself off the Egyptian army and seeking to be the dominant authority in all areas under its control, heavily involving itself in Benghazi’s civil administration and economy," said Tarek Megerisi, an analyst in Libyan affairs at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

"The creation of the LNA investment authority and the LNA’s past behavior suggests that the LNA will not engage in the thoroughly planned, inclusive and transparent reconstructions process Benghazi needs, but rather seek to politicize it and profit off of it," he added
Regardless, to fully rebuild, Benghazi needs the energy of its residents, money and the rule of law.

So far, at least, it has peace, residents say.

Hamed Hassi, a famed local singer, plays for his friends almost every day at the Benghazi Café, a hopping venue that faces the Mediterranean Sea.

"We come to remember how it was before the war, when the area was the heartbeat of Benghazi," said Hassi, recalling how the neighborhood known for its boutiques, cafes and the waterfront promenade where families used to stroll.

"Now, we cannot look at the streets, it's too painful to see how it is destroyed," he added. "That's why we come to this café where you have a nice view of the sea, it's soothing.”

Still, some say that in spite of devastation, they are happy to be back in Benghazi.

"It was very frustrating to rent a small apartment far from home while other people use your property for destruction," said Saad. "So, as soon as it was possible, we came back.”

Now, he added, "We want our life back as it was before."

Photo: November 29, 2018 - Benghazi, Libya - A typical destroyed building in downtown Benghazi. The area was the epicenter of the war fought between Haftar's LNA forces and a coalition of Islamist brigades and terrorists groups from 2014-2017
Credit: Maryline Dumas / ARA Network Inc. (11/29/2018)

Story/photo published date: 03/06/2019

A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.
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