8 months in Libya

Christopher Neil
Aug 8, 2014 · 8 min read

Libya is a country on the precipice. After months of intermittent violence between rival militias, heavy fighting has broken out between two major factions in the capital Tripoli. Embassies and foreign companies have evacuated. What began so promisingly following Gaddafi’s death in 2011 has spiralled into the same kind of madness we are used to seeing in the region. I was lucky to have left in June.

I had been working with an international British organisation in Libya since November 2013 when it was decided that a group of us should start pulling out 2 months ago. The organisation (an influential culture and arts organisation) had decided to wind down activity in view of the increasing violence and growing rumours that the Americans would leave. The last of my colleagues got out 2 days ago in a convoy of 27 armoured cars that left via the Tunisia land border. Many people were on annual vacation when the evacuation happened, and have left all their belongings in the country. A Maltese friend of mine evacuated via the somewhat proviosnary Matiga Airport after Tripoli’s commercial airport was damaged by rockets, but was only allowed a carry-on despite having accumulated 2 years worth of belongings in the country.

I had been working on higher education projects in Libya. The Libyan authorities have huge financial reserves they are keen to plough into education. Until now that has involved sending Libyan students to universities around the world, but the plan was to internationalise the Libyan education system, adopt English (it was forbidden under Gaddafi), get Libyan qualifications recognised by universities abroad, build partnerships with UK and international universities, and open science parks on every campus. There is so much promise. Libya knows it must invest in its people.

In many ways the opportunities are endless for Libya- obscenely large oil revenues, an active diaspora, investment-freindly partners in the US and Europe, and a population itching to travel, start businesses and reengage with the world after 4 decades of isolation.

Following the February 17 Revolution of 2011, the militias formed by the revolutionaries came to control everything in Libya. They were never disbanded and a unity government has remained an evasive goal. Some of the militias are broadly secular, some Islamist. The eastern part of the country has suffered assassinations at the hands of Ansar Al-Sharia- the hardline Salafist militia, whilst General Haftar’s Libyan National Army (not actually an official army) has intervened to rid the government of Islamist figures and bear down on Islamists in Benghazi. The parliament has remained Islamist-dominated although voters have previously rejected an all-out embrace of political Islam.

The most asinine thing about the whole scenario is that all the militiamen receive salaries from the central government whilst tearing the country apart. The recent wave of violence erupted between the Misrata militias (an Islamist group known collectively as the Libya Central Shield), and the Al-Zintan Revolutionaries’ Military Council allied to General Haftar’s secular Operation Dignity movement. These are not street gangs; the Misrata militia is formed of 200 militia groups with upwards of 40,000 men holding 800 tanks and at least 2,000 vehicles mounted with machine guns and anti-aircraft weapons. The amount of weapons in circulation is said to be several times that of Serbia following the breakup of Yugoslavia. There are so many guns that the sound of people firing into the air can be heard most nights. It usually indicates a wedding has just ended. Once, a bullet came through the window of my colleague’s bedroom (I lived below him), and landed just above his bed whilst he was sleeping. After Libya defeated Ghana to win the African Nations Cup, the sky lit up with fireworks and bullets in a rare moment of celebration. People partied in the street but fearing that bullets might land on us (a very deadly threat), we stayed indoors. The government announced a national holiday at 2am and the office was deserted the next day save for the British colleagues who had obviously not heard the announcement.

There is no night life in Libya (alcohol is outlawed), but people know how to party when the time is right. On the anniversary on the revolution (17 February) we were told to stay indoors for fear that violence would erupt. A friend and I popped out to see what the fuss was about. The atmosphere was electrifying. In that moment, the jubilation of a people that had torn down a dictator was palpable. We couldn’t resist the pull. We went downtown to Martyr’s Square (formally Gaddafi’s Green Square). Every car had people spilling out waving the new Libyan flag. Little kids with face paints and flags stood in the back of pickup trucks. People set up speakers in the street and partied. Camels were being draped in national symbols and prepared for slaughter in the street. The bizarre mixes with the quotidiene. On the city’s main road into town, we saw someone dressed as Barney the dinosaur waving the flag of the revolution.

Barney waves the Libyan flag while a camel waits to be slaughtered

The entire country was out celebrating. It took us 4 hours to reach the city centre (only a couple of miles away). Around a quarter of the people had Amazigh flags- they are an ethnic minority from the western part of the country who are now fighting for greater linguistic rights. I bought an Amazigh flag (it looks like a rainbow flag ☺) and my friend William bought a Libyan one. People were curious to see foreigners sharing the jubilation. Kids sprayed silly string on everyone- nobody seemed to mind.

Living in Libya, it was not obvious whether people aligned themselves with a certain militia or not. People had their opinions, but they were desperate only for their country to move forward. In an oil-producing nation, it was beyond irony to see people queue for up to 12 hours daily to get petrol. We foreigners were lucky enough to be driven to the office in air-conditioned bullet-proof AVs. When the petrol crises had gotten particularly acute, a desparate driver shot another who had apparently jumped the queue in the petrol station outside my house.

More recently, I’ve heard from colleagues and friends (the orgnisation remains active with local staff) that cooking gas has become scarce, whilst electricity cuts, internet and mobile coverage outages can last half a day. Two rockets struck a colleagues’ house and he has since left with his 3-week old baby for Tunisia where I am also staying. Earlier this Summer, his brother was pulled from his car and shot in the legs 6 times and left for dead. Thankfully he managed to get medical care in Europe.

Living in Libya as an expat is not easy. Cultural activities are non-existent (literally), but there are a number of maganificent historical sites worth visiting. Sadly, myself and my colleagues were never allowed to visit the major sites for fear of attacks. The old Medina however, houses a magnificent souk as well as a resplendent Synagogue. The Jewish population were expelled by Gaddafi, and the synagogue has sadly been left in a state of disprepair.

The old Synagogue of Tripoli

I lived in Gargaresh, an area considered the most upmarket in Tripoli. Coming from Europe or the States, it wouldn’t quite fit that category back home. Yet in the 3 years since the revolution, dozens of local and international retail brands had opened in the area. Libyas have a lot of disposable income. While the infrastructure is meagre and the roads potholed and often rudimentary, it is not uncommon to see luxury cars or a group of Harley Davidson enthusiast riding the latest models.

International retail business flocked to the Gargaresh area

Libya still suffers a cultural deficit in the arts. I cannot think of a single arts institute or gallery in the entire capital city, yet there is clearly talent to be seen in the graffiti throughout this grey concrete jungle. But things are changing slowly. My organisation put on a street theatre programme sponsored by the EU, and the spontaneous performance in a local park got a rapturous reception. The troupe travelled to London and performed at the Greenwich and Docklands Festival this Summer. People need art to feel alive, to reflect on the beauty of life when the daily reality is grim.

Street theatre is a welcome distraction in a country bereft of any cultural scene

Although almost everyone works for the government sector, Libyans are entrepreneurial and often have projects on the side. A couple of guys I met had started a lucrative business filming events in the country and selling the tapes onto the international media. The population is very young, and they are extremely active on social media. There is a lot of promise in the revolutionary generation.

Libya’s youth will lead it forward in the years to come. They are the country’s greatest natural resource. But the oil reserves offer great promise in modernising the economy. When an oil silo was struck last week by a rocket, a representative spoke on camera of not ‘crying over spilt milk’ (oil is cheaper than milk in Libya). Not so, people are desparate for petrol. Besides, the oil is not limitless. It is easy to be nonchalant when material wealth seems abundant.

The oil will fund Libya’s development but security remains the overriding concern for international companies. Arriving at a national consensus agreeable to all the militias could lead to a desparatly needed arms amnesty. With its natural resources then flowing, there’s no saying what the country could acheive. There are models in the region that it can follow.

A militiaman guards a petrol station during the petrol crisis. The queues stretch for kilometres

It is incredibly difficult to live in Libya as an expat. The traditional attitudes and restrictions on freedoms you are used to back home mean that an R’n’R trip abroad is necessary every 6–8 weeks to stay sane. But at least we had the option to leave. The Libyans I know are immensely generous and good-spirited. No one hassles you, and relationships operate through respect and pleasantries. Having survived 40 years of the ‘mad dog dictator’, they are determined and steadfast. A colleague was very recently successful in entering the Parliament to represent his town. If the militiamen can similarly realise their own stake in a democratic political process, this violent impasse might end and Libya can return to fulfilling the promises of its revolution.

    Christopher Neil

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