A year after ISIS left, a battered Libyan city struggles to resurrect itself

Mahmoud Ameesh in the ruins of his house in the Giza neighborhood of Sirte, Libya. Ameesh’s home was destroyed twice, first by fire during the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings and then by a U.S. airstrike last year during the fighting against ISIS. He now rents a house in the neighborhood of Cambo.
Photos by Lorenzo Tugnoli

At one end of Al Nahda Street, three families with small children live in a shell-pocked townhouse with an unexploded bomb embedded in its roof. At the other end, an old man has spent weeks eating one meal a day. He is on the edge of begging.

In between them extends a landscape of obliterated houses, charred cars, mangled steel and other detritus of war. On a recent morning, that’s where Mahmoud Ameesh was sifting through the rubble of his son’s home, searching for firewood. The roof had collapsed. The front doors were broken and unhinged, much like the lives of the residents.

Mahmoud Ameesh in the ruins of his house in the Giza neighborhood of Sirte, Libya. Ameesh’s home was destroyed twice, first by fire during the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings and then by a U.S. airstrike last year during the fighting against ISIS. He now rents a house in the neighborhood of Cambo.

“My entire family was born on this street,” said Ameesh, eyes welling with tears.

Libyan militias, aided by U.S. Special Forces and airstrikes, drove out Islamic State militants from their stronghold of Sirte in December 2016, ending their brutal rule and aspirations for an alternate capital in North Africa. A year later, this sprawling coastal city remains deeply scarred physically and psychologically.

Whole neighborhoods are flattened. Thousands of families have yet to return. Many who have come back are renting in half-destroyed buildings. Schools and hospitals are partially functioning, as are businesses. Streets are covered in garbage. The smell melds with the stench from sewers that don’t work.

Skeletons in rotting clothes still lie in the wreckage, posing risks of disease. And death still lurks in land mines undiscovered in the debris.

“All they cared about was liberating Sirte,” said Salah Mohamed, a taxi driver who lives on the townhouse’s top floor, directly under the bomb. “They didn’t care about the aftermath.”

Although they no longer control significant territory in Libya, the Islamic State affiliate has staged suicide bombings and attacked pro-government checkpoints this year. American and Libyan intelligence officials say the group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, is seeking to regroup in areas south of Sirte.

The ambitions of the Islamic State in Libya will shape the country’s trajectory over the months and years to come, especially as the group seeks alternative havens following its recent defeats in Syria and Iraq. The factors that abetted its rise initially in Libya — insecurity, weak government, tribal tensions, and the abundance of weapons and competing armed groups — are still strong.

Deepening the resentment in Sirte are a plunging economy and rising prices. The fragile U.N.-backed government, one of three contesting for influence in the country, is struggling even to pay its own employees’ salaries. “We have been forgotten,” said Mustafa Ali, a local aid worker whose home was destroyed.

There is also a sense that their neglect owes as much to Libya’s divisive past. This is the hometown of the late dictator Moammar Gaddafi, and many local tribes were his staunch loyalists. That history has marginalized the population, said residents and local officials.

The militias who control Sirte are from Misrata, among the first to revolt against Gaddafi in the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. These militias remain suspicious, accusing many here of collaborating with the Islamic State extremists.

“They think that the people of Sirte wanted Daesh to stay,” Ali added, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.

One of the rooms in the Complex of Ouagadougou Halls in Sirte, Libya.
Bullet holes on an elevator of the Complex of Ouagadougou Halls.
One of the restaurants in the Complex of Ouagadougou Halls. It was a site of intense fighting.
Top: One of the rooms in the Complex of Ouagadougou Halls in Sirte, Libya. Left: Bullet holes on an elevator of the Complex of Ouagadougou Halls. Right: One of the restaurants in the Complex of Ouagadougou Halls. It was a site of intense fighting.

Six years ago, Ameesh’s house was destroyed for the first time.

It was the fall of 2011, and Gaddafi had fled to Sirte from Tripoli. Fierce battles broke out between his loyalists and mostly Misratan rebel forces. Gaddafi and his son were killed, their bodies were taken to Misrata, 150 miles west of here, and displayed in a freezer container.

[Gaddafi’s cousin is plotting a comeback of sorts from a Cairo apartment]

By then, Ameesh had fled to Misrata with his wife and large family. When they returned, his house had burned to the ground.

He owned a jewelry shop, among other businesses. Over the next three years, he rebuilt the house.

The Islamic State affiliate emerged after the revolution, exploiting the power vacuum to become the group’s most muscular branch outside the Middle East. While the city’s links to Gaddafi made it a symbolic target, it was also a strategic one: Sirte is nestled in the petroleum crescent, home to much of Libya’s vast oil and gas reserves.

With support from local Islamist militants and Gaddafi’s tribal loyalists who felt disenfranchised, the Islamic State was in control of Sirte by the summer of 2015. They forced men to grow beards and women to wear head-to-toe black abayas. Cigarettes and alcohol were forbidden. Religious police enforced the new dictates.

One day, they caught Ameesh outside the mosque at prayer time. He was locked up in a room for a few hours before being released with a warning, he recalled. “You’ll be executed in Zaafran Square next time,” one militant said, referring to a roundabout where ISIS held public crucifixions and forced residents to watch.

Then, one of Ameesh’s sons was taken into custody in the spring of 2016. The militants ordered him to join their fold. But Ameesh contacted influential tribal elders and they managed to have him released.

“I decided to leave with my family quickly,” said Ameesh, who took his family again to Misrata.

[Islamic State loses its stronghold in Libya, but more chaos could soon follow]

Shortly after the militants were driven out by Libyan militias backed by U.S. air power, Ameesh turned on the television to watch the news. The report was showing the destruction from Al Nahda Street.

He saw his house, he said, and began to cry.

The entrance of the Complex of Ouagadougou Halls.
Another view of the complex entrance.
In the entrance of Sirte’s city hall, some of the windows were damaged during the fight against ISIS.
Top: The entrance of the Complex of Ouagadougou Halls. Left: The entrance of the Complex of Ouagadougou Halls. Right: In the entrance of Sirte’s city hall, some of the windows were damaged during the fight against ISIS.

At the Zaafran roundabout, a monument has been erected to commemorate the victims of the Islamic State. The Islamic Court house, where ISIS judges sentenced offenders to jails in the basement, is now shut. So is the Hisbah, the office of the religious police.

“We can smoke freely,” said Salah Khalifa, 21, who was outside and puffing on a cigarette. “And you can pray as you like. No one is forcing you to the mosque.”

Nearby, large black decals on storefronts that ISIS used to identify shops to collect taxes have been painted over.

Under the surface, though, tensions are still palpable.

Writings on the wall of the former headquarter of ISIS religious police or Hisbah. On the right wall is written “Fury,” the name of the militia that is now in control of the building and then “history is made by strong men.” On the left the writing says, “It is better for us to die with our heads held high than our heads bowing to dogs.”

There is no fully functioning police force, no army, no courts, no trash collection services. The Hisbah now houses a Misratan militia, glorified by graffiti on the walls. Its nickname — “Fury” — is scrawled in English.

“Give us the money and we are capable of taking care of our own city,” said Ibrahim Ahmed Hiblo, a senior Sirte municipality official.

Community leaders and local officials say that some of the Misratan armed groups have kidnapped people for ransom. Others have committed robberies or beaten residents. Sirte’s tribal leadership hasn’t forgotten that the Misratans are still holding prisoners from the city arrested in 2011 for having ties to Gaddafi.

The city also has no representative in the government in Tripoli, and Sirte residents are still denied government careers, said Omran Muftah, an influential tribal elder.

“That’s why they lack the understanding of Sirte’s needs,” he added, referring to the government and the international community.

The spokesman for the collection of Misratan militias acknowledged that he did not fully trust the local population but denied any tensions. He said the “Sirte people know we are here to protect them, and not to be in control of them.”

The spokesman, Mohammed al-Ghasri, who also speaks on behalf of the defense ministry of the government in Tripoli, warned, “The Islamic State doesn’t view Sirte as a loss. They still think they can come back.”

U.S. Special Forces soldiers are still in Misrata, stationed at the airport, added Ghasri. Their role is primarily to assist in targeting ISIS training camps with airstrikes.

[U.S. drone strikes kill 17 Islamic State fighters in Libya, military says]

In August, he said the militants stopped a convoy of tankers and stole 40,000 liters of fuel. That suggests the militants have significant organizational capacity and ways to store the fuel, he said. In October, the group claimed responsibility for a double suicide bombing that killed five and injured 10 at Misrata’s courthouse complex.

“They are sending a message to us that we still exist,” said Ghasri.

A boy walks on the roof of a damaged building in the Giza neighborhood of Sirte.
Destroyed buildings are seen from the sea road in the neighborhood of Giza in Sirte.
Ammunition is spread on the street in the Giza neighborhood of Sirte.
Top: A boy walks on the roof of a damaged building in the Giza neighborhood of Sirte. Left: Destroyed buildings are seen from the sea road in the neighborhood of Giza in Sirte. Right: Ammunition is spread on the street in the Giza neighborhood of Sirte.

On Al Nahda Street, the residents of the townhouse have more problems than just the unexploded bomb on their roof.

Insaer Khalifa’s son was cut by a sharp piece of shrapnel left on the ground. The wound became infected and his leg nearly had to be amputated. Other parents said their children were increasingly getting skin rashes. The other day, some of the kids found the skeletons of ISIS fighters in the rubble — and began playing with them.

“We have to watch over our children,” said Salah Mohamed, the taxi driver who lives on the top floor. “There are diseases, unexploded bombs, dead bodies everywhere.”

More than 2,000 houses were destroyed here and in the neighboring enclave, according to municipality officials. There has been little assistance from the United Nations and international charities, residents said.

At night, Mohamed tries not to think about the bomb.

“Anytime it can go off,” he said. “But we can’t afford to live anywhere else.”

On the other end of the mile-long street, Muhammed Omran seems lost. In his 60s, he’s renting a house nearby, but his money is running out. With food prices sharply rising, he can afford to eat only meal a day.

“Who is going to help me?” he pleaded to a visitor. “My neighbors are also like me. They are hurting. The only thing left for me is to beg on the street.”

A football-field away, Ameesh is atop the debris of his home. He’s renting three houses in another enclave for his large family. But they no longer can afford propane gas to cook. So now, he was here gathering broken bed posts to keep warm. But he also comes to enter another world, one that evokes a more peaceful time.

“Sometimes I come every day, sometimes I come every other day,” he said as he walked through the wreckage. “It reminds me of the old days. I stay here until it kills my heart, and then I leave.”

Credits: Story by Sudarsan Raghavan. Photos by Lorenzo Tugnoli. Designed by Andrew Braford.