General Saleh Abuda’s orders to the troops besieging Tripoli came through a crackling radio early in the morning of July 22. “Destroy the enemy, advance on the capital,” was the message, and with it another operation to break the stalemate in Libya’s conflict had begun. It unravelled within hours as Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army, or LNA, met stiff resistance. Shortly after the command, one pilot landed a beaten up L-39 Albatross Czech-made fighter plane on a highway in neighbouring Tunisia and said he wanted out.
Libya is enduring its worst violence since the 2011 NATO-backed ouster of Moammar Qaddafi, which ushered in years of instability that allowed Islamist radicals to thrive and turned the country into a hub for migrants destined to Europe. Haftar had launched the war as the United Nations was laying the ground for a political conference to unite the country. It is now more divided than ever.
The latest upheaval in the North African oil producer started in early April when Haftar’s fighters, the largest force in the country, first marched on the capital. With outside powers including Egypt and the United Arab Emirates backing him, Haftar promised an easy victory. But the government of Fayez al-Sarraj, which was installed by the United Nations in 2016, fought back hard with Turkish military assistance.
People are inured to the tit-for-tat violence, and the long power cuts and gas shortages. Shops stay open late into the night on streets humming with generators. The temperature rises above 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) in the daytime. In the center of Tripoli, a city of more than 1 million people, families go out for strolls in the night on the corniche overlooking the Mediterranean.
At the O2 café in Tripoli, documentary maker Samer says he didn’t imagine the country would end up like this when he joined the rebellion against Qaddafi. “I’m a realistic person,” he said, declining to be identified by his full name. “Whichever side wins, there will be infighting. Chaos is to everyone’s benefit.”
Five days after the July 22 offensive, the LNA tried again to advance – and was repelled again. Near the front line, past miles of desolate homes south from Tripoli’s downtown, medics had set up a field hospital in a sprawling compound that once housed the American embassy’s staff before its evacuation during a previous war.
At the main clinic, a two-story villa nestled between an empty swimming pool and a tennis court, supervisor Abulqasim Shiwa woke up to the sound of bullets. The LNA had taken over a military base roughly 3 kilometers (2 miles) away. By 6 p.m., they had been forced to withdraw.
After treating a dozen wounded soldiers, Shiwa and the medics set out a meal on the villa’s front porch, ignoring a drone that buzzed overhead before disappearing. They were cleaning up when the missile smacked into the porch. The blast blew the blood-spattered front door into the villa, riddling Shiwa with shrapnel. Five of the medics were killed. Shiwa, partly shielded by a pillar, survived.
“I felt my shirt was on fire and when I took it off and saw blood,” said Shiwa, speaking at the porch where the missile hit. “I then started aiding people.” The surviving medics found the dismembered chest of one of their colleagues, Aws Nusrat, at the edge of the swimming pool.
That morning, Ramadan Hamoum, a high-school principal and commander of the pro-government Knights of Zawiya militia, had joined in an ambush that drew Haftar’s forces into the military base before pounding them with anti-tank missiles.
Hamoum lost his nephew in the fighting. At his headquarters, a bullet marked villa a few hundred meters from the nearest LNA position in an abandoned airport, Hamoum was watching a National Geographic documentary on a big screen television on an afternoon in August. One of his soldiers was flicking through cell phone pictures of the LNA soldiers they’d killed.
“This one was sliced in half,” the soldier reports. “They thought they’d enter Tripoli easily,” Hamoum said, grinning.
Division of the country’s wealth, and who gets the largest share, has been at the crux of the power struggles. Haftar’s war is just the latest, and has already killed more than a thousand people, including about 100 civilians, and displaced tens of thousands. Many have rented apartments in the capital itself. Others who are unable to afford the rent have been housed in schools turned into shelters.
In the district of Abu Slim, one elementary school is hosting 19 families. A handwritten sign on the door of a classroom reads: “Welcome to your second home.” Each classroom has been given to a family. Some, like Omar Jumaa, his wife and four children, have been displaced several times since 2011.
Jumaa is from Tawerga, which militias from the neighboring city of Misrata had razed to the ground in 2011, accusing its inhabitants of having supported Qaddafi.
He moved to Tripoli, but was displaced again last year when a militia in nearby Tarhouna marched on the capital, demanding access to the city’s finances. He now fixes air conditioners when he can to scrape by. “This is my third time,” he said. “What can I say? We’re used to it.”
It’s a thought shared by many Libyans. On the morning of Aug. 24, a Grad missile slammed into a pavement at Tripoli’s Metiga airport just opposite a row of airline ticket stores.
Hundreds of passengers sat in front of the entrance waiting for the flights, briefly suspended after the rocket strike, to resume. Days later, the airport suspended flights indefinitely after another rocket fell by a plane on the runway, injuring disembarking passengers.
The barista who runs a café at the airport just gave a wry smile. “We’re used to it,” he said.