The people of Libya are currently facing agonising decisions about when to go out. They risk the indiscriminate fire, in search of food and other essentials from the few shops that are open. In Tripoli, the capital city, residents are facing the dilemma of staying in their homes or leaving, with no clear idea of what part of the city will be targeted next.
The city is shuddering under an offensive by forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar. Humanitarian agencies say basic services in Tripoli are in danger of breaking down completely even as aid workers are struggling to cope with a growing emergency.
It seems, this is the worse war the country has seen since the 2011 uprising that ousted the revolutionary Muammar Gaddafi. The Haftar-led Libyan National Army took over the capital city controlled by the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord on April 4.
Fighting continued across a string of southern suburbs, with airstrikes and rocket and artillery fire from both sides hammering front lines and civilians alike. ‘’It is terrible; they use big guns at night, the children can’t sleep’’, a Tripoli resident said, adding, ‘’shots land everywhere.’’
At the moment, the raging war has displaced thousands of people and trapped hundreds of migrants and refugees in detention centres. Some are concerned that it has equally damaged years of diplomacy, including attempts by the UN to try to build political consensus in the troubled African country wrecked by the imperialists who wanted Gaddafi out by all means.
Sadly, in a post- Gaddafi Libya, a hitherto prosperous and politically stable country, militias today are supporting the two major rivals for power: the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Haftar-backed House of Representatives, based in the eastern city of Tobruk.
Before now, UN agencies like the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) have been ringing the alarm that detained migrants and refugees, including women and children, are particularly vulnerable.
A research fellow at Clingendael Institute think tank in The Hague, Jalel Harchaoui, said ‘’pandora’s box has been opened. The military operation [to capture Tripoli] has inflicted irreversible damage upon a modus vivendi and a large set of political dialogues that has required four years of diplomatic work.’’
Reportedly, the fighting is most intense in the southern suburbs, which until two weeks ago included some of the most tranquil and luxurious homes in the city. Now these districts are a rubble-strewn battleground, made worse by the ever-changing positions of Libyan National Army (LNA) forces and militias that support the GNA. The battle is coming to a city struggling with chaos and militia violence, with residents having known little peace since the NATO-backed revolt eight years ago.
One woman who lives in an eastern suburb of Tripoli was quoted as saying, ‘’since 2011, Libyans have faced one issue after another: shortages of cooking gas, electricity, water, lack of medicines, infrastructure in ruin and neglect. Little is seen at community level, where money disappears into pockets [of officials]. Hospitals are unsanitary and barely function. Education is a shambles of poor schools and stressed teachers.’’
But, the Haftar LNA says their objective is to liberate the city from militia control, while the GNA is accusing them of war crimes and calling for prosecutions. However, diplomatic efforts to end the war appear to have floundered.
Haftar launched his offensive the day the UN Secretary-General António Guterres was visiting Tripoli. The visit was designed to bolster long-delayed, UN-chaired talks with the various parties in the country, which were due to be held this week. UN had hoped the discussions, known as the National Conference, might pave the way for elections later this year, but they ended up being cancelled due to the upsurge in fighting.
Guterres tried to de-escalate the situation by holding emergency talks with the GNA in Tripoli and flying east to see Haftar in Benghazi. But as foreign powers reportedly line up behind different sides, his calls for a ceasefire, along with condemnation from the UN Security Council and the EU, have so far been rebuffed.
In the mean time, only a handful of aid agencies have a presence in Tripoli, where local services are now badly stretched. The World Health Organisation (WHO) reported on April 14, that the death toll was 147 and 614 people had been wounded, claiming that the latter figure may be higher as some overworked hospitals have stopped counting the numbers treated.
WHO Spokesperson said, ‘’we are still working on keeping the medical supplies going. We are sending out additional surgical staff to support hospitals coping with large caseloads of wounded, for example anaesthetists.’’
The UN’s emergency coordination body, Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said that 16,000 people had been forced to flee by the fighting, 2,000 on April 13, alone when fighting intensified across the front line with a series of eight airstrikes. OCHA says the past few years of conflict have left at least 823,000 people, including 248,000 children, ‘’in dire need of humanitarian assistance’’.
UNICEF is appealing for $4.7 million to provide emergency assistance to the half a million children and their families it estimates live in and around Tripoli. In the appeal, UNICEF said it was alarmed by reports that some migrant detention centres have been all but abandoned, with the migrants unable to get food and water.
UNICEF said, ‘’the breakdown in the food supply line has resulted in a deterioration of the food security in detention centres. Detained migrants and refugees, including women and children, are particularly vulnerable, especially those in detention centres located in the vicinity of the fighting.’’
Furthermore, more than 1,500 migrants are said to be trapped in a string of detention centres in the capital and nearby. The UN’s refugee agency, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the previous weekend said they were trying to organise the evacuation of refugees from a migrant camp close to the front lines.
‘’We are in contact with refugees in Qaser Ben Gashir and so far they remain safe from information received’’, the agency said in a tweet. UNHCR estimates there are some 670,000 migrants and refugees in Libya, including more than 6,000 in detention centres.
Many migrants continue to hope to find a boat to Europe, but that task has been made harder by the EU’s March decision to scale down the rescue part of Operation Sophia, its Mediterranean anti-smuggling mission.
Search-and-rescue missions run by nongovernmental organisations have had to slow down and sometimes shutter their operations as European governments refuse them permission to dock. On Monday, Malta said they will not allow the crew of a ship that had been carrying 64 people rescued off the coast of Libya to disembark on its shores. The ship was stranded for two weeks as European governments argued over what to do with the migrants, who will now be split between four countries.
Eugenio Cusumano, an international security expert specialising in migration research at Lieden University in the Netherlands, said a new surge of migrants and refugees may now be heading across the sea in a desperate attempt to escape the fighting. He said they will find few rescue craft, adding: ‘’If the situation in Libya deteriorates there will be a need for offshore patrol assets.’’