TRIPOLI, Libya — The last time Riad al-Hami saw his mother alive, she was chatting with a neighbor in the narrow street outside their houses, as they did every evening. Though the distant thud of mortar shells could be heard, Tripoli’s latest war had yet to reach their enclave.
For nearly two months, this besieged North African capital of more than 1 million people has been ensnared in its worst episode of violence since the toppling of Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi almost eight years ago. The forces of renegade commander Khalifa Hifter have reached the city’s southern edges and are battling a constellation of militias aligned with a U.N.-backed government.
“We are caught between two fires,” said Umm Ahmed, 57, a husky-voiced widow who fled her home after clashes erupted in her neighborhood. “And they are no different than each other.”
Unlike in previous militia clashes in the post-Gaddafi era, the combatants are deploying heavier weaponry and air power, including armed drones. Outside powers are blatantly violating an international arms embargo, say U.N. investigators, which has helped perpetuate the fighting and fuel what has become a proxy war involving regional and European countries.
The clashes follow months of failed efforts by the United Nations and Arab and European countries to bring Hifter and the Tripoli government, as well as their supporters, to the negotiating table and to hold long-delayed elections.
The violence threatens to spill into neighboring countries, force more mainly African migrants to risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean Sea for Europe, and destabilize global fuel prices if Libyan oil production is disrupted. A local affiliate of the Islamic State, which was largely defeated in Libya, has staged four attacks in the country’s south since the latest conflict began in April, raising concerns that the militants are seeking to take advantage of the instability to regroup.
The United Nations’ special envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salame, has warned that the fighting “is just the start of a long and bloody war” that could lead to “the permanent division of the country” as political, tribal and geographical divisions harden.
The conflict has killed more than 600 people, including 41 civilians, and injured nearly 4,000, including 157 civilians. Airstrikes, artillery fire and rocket attacks on densely populated neighborhoods are to blame for most of the civilian casualties, said U.N. officials. More than 90,000 people have been displaced by the fighting. An additional half-million are either trapped inside battle zones or in areas directly affected by the clashes, according to the United Nations.
“There has been a lot of indiscriminate shelling,” said Niels David Scott, head of the United Nations’ humanitarian coordinating office in Libya. “It’s taken a very heavy toll on the civilian population, not only in terms of casualties but also in the disruptions on their lives.”
Yet the denizens of Tripoli remain resilient. In areas yet untouched by the war, streets are clogged with traffic. Libyans shopped, frequented cafes and visited parks with their children after the traditional iftar dinner during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which ended Tuesday.
But under the surface, there is trepidation. “With this war there is no stability,” said Abdul Majid, whose brother was killed around the corner from Hami’s house in a separate rocket attack. “The front lines shift constantly.”
“Today, we live inside our houses,” he continued, asking that his last name not be used because he feared drawing any attention. “Tomorrow, I don’t know.”
'A photocopy of Gaddafi'
After Libya’s 2011 Arab Spring rebellion — aided by NATO airstrikes — led to the ouster and death of Gaddafi, militias ruled much of the capital. Some ran criminal networks, pillaging state funds; others trafficked in migrants.
In 2016, the United Nations installed the Government of National Accord led by Prime Minister Fayez Serraj in an effort to end the lawlessness and unify Libya. But the GNA has remained weak and dependent on militias for its security.
Hifter, a former general in Gaddafi’s army and a U.S. citizen who lived for years in Northern Virginia, returned to Libya after the revolution began. He later aligned himself with a rival government in eastern Libya as its military commander. He gave the name Libyan National Army, or LNA, to his forces, composed of eastern militias.
Hifter’s sudden military offensive in April caught the international community off guard, coming just as the United Nations was preparing to hold a national conference to reconcile the warring sides and plan elections. The strongman vowed to take Tripoli in two days, but his advance stalled as pro-GNA militias united against him.
Since then, a military stalemate has emerged. Both Hifter and the GNA have refused to heed calls for a cease-fire. Instead, regional powers such as Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, as well as France and Russia, continue to back Hifter, while Turkey, Qatar and other Western countries support the GNA.
The United States has in the past supported the U.N.-backed government. But in an April phone call with Hifter, President Trump endorsed his offensive, leaving U.S. policy unclear.
Inside Tripoli, residents are divided. In interviews, some viewed Hifter as a savior who could end lawlessness and insecurity in the nation.
“We believe the LNA will bring Libya together and get rid of these criminal militias,” said Munir al-Mabrook, 40, an Agricultural Ministry employee.
Others view Hifter as another authoritarian bent on grabbing power.
“Hifter is a photocopy of Gaddafi,” said Sadiq Gematy, 50, a civil engineer. “He’s another dictator in the making who wants to steal away our revolution.”
A city 'adapted to war'
For Tripoli residents, the current conflict is an unwelcome deja vu. In 2014, Hifter’s forces entered the capital and clashed with rival militias for months. In 2017 and last September, other militias battled for supremacy. Across the capital, buildings are pockmarked by mortar shells and bullets from different conflicts.
“We have gotten adapted to war,” said Tofiq Massoud, 46, a businessman.
On a recent weekend, Massoud sat on a park bench in downtown Tripoli with his 36-year-old wife, Yousra, enjoying the cool night air. Their two children played nearby, near an inflatable jumping castle. Vendors sold popcorn and candy from colorfully lighted carts.
Despite this semblance of normality, the couple constantly check a local community Facebook page to see if front lines have shifted and where overnight airstrikes landed. That determines which streets they should avoid or even if they leave their home.
Their children no longer attend classes because their school, like two dozen others, is now used to house displaced families. Some schools have been damaged by shelling or airstrikes. A warehouse was struck, burning a million textbooks. And the U.N. Development Program had to suspend the rehabilitation of 12 schools and a hospital because they were in or near battle zones.
“We are worried for our children,” said Yousra, draped in a cream headscarf. “Some families can leave the country, but for average people like us, we are forced to accept the situation and try to survive.”
Prices are soaring, with rents on the rise and the cost of basic goods such as milk and sugar up by as much as 30 percent since April. Medicines for chronic diseases, such as diabetes, are difficult to find, aid workers said.
Neighborhoods near the front lines are facing power cuts because of damaged electrical lines and power stations. A fuel shortage has led to long lines at gas stations. Even the water supply has been “weaponized,” Salame told the U.N. Security Council last month. He said unnamed armed groups had cut off an underground network of pipes “to extract concessions.”
Tens of thousands of families are now separated, including the Massouds. Massoud’s cousin and other male relatives have remained in the Ein Zara neighborhood, a major battle zone, to protect their home. He hasn’t seen his cousin in 50 days, he said. But he calls him every day to make sure he’s still alive.
“They saved their entire life to build the house,” Yousra said. “They can’t leave it for a night or else they’ll find it looted and destroyed.”
'They are traumatized'
Mabrook, the Agricultural Ministry employee, and his family were trapped for two weeks inside their home in the Wadi Rabia neighborhood. Their red 1997 Hyundai had engine problems. So most nights, Mabrook, his wife and their four young children stayed on the floor of their living room, praying their home wouldn’t be obliterated in the crossfire, he said.
“We were caught in the middle of heavy shelling by mortars and tanks, from all four sides,” Mabrook said. “It was terrifying.”
Finally, during a moment of calm, Mabrook repaired his car and the family escaped, seeking refuge in an elementary school with 33 other families.
But Mabrook’s children remain haunted by the shelling. His oldest, Mohammed, 8, is losing his hair.
Nearly half of all the displaced people are younger than 18, according to U.N. statistics. More than 7,200 children in the capital have already received some form of psychological support, the U.N. Children’s Fund says. In some displacement centers, children draw tanks, bombs and other violent imagery, aid workers said.
“They are traumatized,” said Scott, the senior U.N. humanitarian official. “It’s very hard to explain to a kid why they are being shelled.”
'I will fight'
A few miles away, Hami’s wife and two children now spend the nights at her parents’ home. Like many of his neighbors, Hami is reluctant to say which side he thinks killed his mother, a precautionary measure because no one knows who will control the capital in the months ahead.
“Everybody is afraid the war will move forward, from area to area,” he said.
The attack also killed the neighbor’s two daughters and injured her small granddaughter. Their destroyed house remains untouched, dried blood still on the walls, a grisly reminder of the perils the neighborhood faces.
The more than 300 families who live in the Kikla apartment complex, a block of tall, half-built buildings in the Abu Salim area, understand those perils all too well.
They all fled the eastern city of Benghazi when Hifter’s forces seized control there in 2014. Now, his forces were less than four miles away.
As children played in the compound on a recent day, they could hear the sound of shelling and explosions. In late April, four rockets struck in and around the buildings, including one that hit a third-floor apartment, injuring some residents. Many families fled to the city of Misurata, renting apartments for several months as a precaution. Others, though, vowed not to flee Hifter again.
“If his forces get in here, I will fight,” said Khalid Ahmed, 51, a burly businessman dressed in black sweatpants, a red shirt and sandals. “I will join the first militia I can find.”