Civilians trapped within the Libyan capital of Tripoli continue to be exposed to nightmare conditions as the country’s situation becomes more critical.
Rabat – Hundreds of Libyans have already been slaughtered and thousands more have been injured as Tripoli remains under siege for another week. Meanwhile, warring parties on both sides continue to make attempts at gaining the upper hand, with those caught in the crossfire being subjected to increasingly severe human rights violations and hardships.
After over a month of fighting, the head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), Ghassan Salamé, warned on May 21 that Libya is at risk of “descending into a civil war which could lead to the permanent division of the country.”
Libya has been in a state of unrest and violence since the outbreak of the 17 February Revolution, fought to overthrow longtime Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, in 2011; however, following the signing of the Skhirat Agreement in 2014, there was some semblance of hope that peace would come soon after.
Now, more than eight years after the first bullets of the Libyan Civil War were fired, the country still remains in a state of disarray, and recent fighting in Tripoli has prompted concern from the international community that a full-scale civil war may be inevitable.
“I am no Cassandra,” continued Salame, referring to the mythical Greek figure whose prophecies were ignored, “but the violence on the outskirts of Tripoli is just the start of a long and bloody war … imperiling the security of Libya’s immediate neighbors and the wider Mediterranean.”
A capital under siege
Seven weeks ago, in early April, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and forces from the Libyan National Army (LNA) launched an offensive into Libya’s Tripolitania region and now sits on the edge of Tripoli, the country’s capital city.
Since the fall of the Gaddafi government, Haftar has been playing an intricate game of chess with the UN-backed interim government, the Government of National Accord (GNA). The assault on Tripoli is an attempt by the rogue general to corner the GNA into a checkmate, which would allow for the LNA and the Libyan House of Representatives to establish control over the country.
Beginning in February of 2014, under the guise of combating extremists, Haftar has swept through Libya, where he now commands military forces in control of the entire eastern Cyrenaica region, as well as most of the southern Fezzan region and northwestern Tripolitania region.
During the course of this crusade, Haftar and the LNA have been accused on multiple occasions of violating human rights, while GNA forces loyal to Fayez al-Sarraj have been accused of committing similar crimes in an attempt to maintain control over their territory.
Stranded in Tripoli
The ongoing conflict has already forced over 75,000 of Tripoli’s citizens to flee their homes, with more continuing to fight tooth and nail in an attempt to escape the violence. For those that could not escape, the future grows grimmer as routine shelling by attacking forces is accompanied by deteriorating living conditions in the city.
As the humanitarian crisis within the city’s walls grows worse, authorities have closed Tripoli’s only functioning airport, leaving the city’s population of 2.5 million people stranded in the middle of a warzone.
For those trapped within the Libyan capital, nightmarish conditions and brutal violence are a daily routine.
In May, approximately one month after Haftar’s troops began to surround Tripoli, a water control station in southwestern Libya was attacked by forces aligned with the LNA, cutting off water supplies to Tripoli and other cities in the region.
With hundreds of thousands of beleaguered Libyans cut off from drinking water, the UN condemned the attack as a possible war crime.
“Such attacks against civilian infrastructure that are essential for the survival of the civilian population may be considered war crimes,” UN Humanitarian Coordinator Maria Ribeiro, said.
Since 2018, sabotages of wells and water infrastructure have become dramatically more frequent. As of now, 96 out of 366 wells feeding Libya’s Great Man-Made River (GRRM) have been disrupted, cutting off drinking water to an estimated 1.5 million people, including approximately 600,000 children.
Meanwhile, there has also been a sharp increase in the number of abductions, unlawful arrests, and disappearances, especially against journalists and activists, since the outbreak of fighting in Tripoli.
Indiscriminate attacks on civilians
On the night of April 16, as the citizens of Tripoli’s Abu Salim district slept in their beds, rockets were launched into the Hay al-Intissar neighborhood, killing four women, one man and critically injuring a little girl.
Though the Hay al-Intissar area is controlled by GNA-affiliated militants, there was no military presence on April 16 and the area is inhabited almost entirely by civilians.
“Hay al-Intissar is a strictly residential area. There were families and children minding their own business,” said one witness, speaking to Amnesty International.
Two more attacks on civilian targets were conducted within the Hay-Intissar area the same week, with significant damage to residential buildings and other civilian infrastructure, including a mosque, a school, and several ambulances.
An Amnesty International investigation concluded that the attack was carried out using 122mm Grad-style rockets, an incredibly inaccurate type of artillery which makes distinguishing between military and civilian targets impossible.
“The use of artillery and other imprecise weapons such as GRAD-style rockets in civilian areas is prohibited under international humanitarian law and such indiscriminate attacks can amount to war crimes,” said Magdalena Mughrabi, the MENA Deputy Director for Amnesty International.
“In both documented cases, the attackers blatantly ignored their obligations to take all feasible precautions to minimize suffering to civilians.”
Both the GNA and LNA have utilized these weapons during the Tripoli offensive and both sides have accused the other of being behind the attack. However, all of the residents of the Abu Salim district interviewed by Amnesty International claimed that they believed the LNA was behind the attack.
Mistreatment and violence against refugees
Refugees and migrants are often exposed to the worst imaginable environments, but these conditions often pale in comparison to the unspeakable conditions within Tripoli’s detention centers.
In March, an investigation by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) into Tripoli’s Sabaa Detention Center were alarmed to find that one in four of its 300 inhabitants, including 100 children, were malnourished or underweight.
They also discovered 31 people locked in a room measuring just 4.5 meters by 5 meters (14.8 feet by 16.4 feet). Left with less than 0.7 meters of space each, inhabitants had no room to lie down or move in unclean and dangerous conditions.
“What we see today in this single detention center is symptomatic of an uncontrolled, unjustified, and reckless system that puts the lives of refugees and migrants at risk,” says Karline Kleijer, MSF’s Head of Emergencies.
“We’re talking about the basic necessities required to sustain human life. If food, shelter and essential services can’t be provided in a consistent and appropriate manner, then these people should be released immediately by the Libyan authorities.”
An even more significant atrocity is the reckless violence committed against refugees and migrants by both sides of the conflict.
On April 23, armed men affiliated with the LNA entered the center, confiscated detainees’ phones and demanded that a group of Christian detainees conducting Easter prayers to stop. When they refused, the armed men fired on the detainees, significantly injuring at least 12.
Civilians as shields
In an attempt to dissuade Haftar’s forces from engaging in a more aggressive assault on the city, the GNA has exploited the civilian and refugee population, using them as human shields to prevent the LNA pushing further towards the capital.
Since May 7, several airstrikes have landed within close proximity to the Tajoura migrant detention center, a former military base which now holds approximately 500 migrants and refugees.
However, an investigation by Amnesty International concluded that these airstrikes were directed towards GNA armored vehicles, suggesting that the detention center was also being used as a military complex.
Detainees at the site also revealed that a nearby warehouse within the complex was used to store weapons for the GNA and loyalist militias. They also said that detainees were often forced to participate in military-related activities, such as loading and cleaning weapons for the GNA.
“By detaining migrants and refugees in such close proximity to an active military site, the Libyan authorities are endangering the lives of civilians who are completely in their power,” said Mughrabi, the Amnesty International representative for the region.
“They should be doing everything possible feasible to remove them away from military targets. The allegations that some of the detainees were forced to work at the military sites against their will also violate international law.”