Date: Wednesday, 02 August 2017
A reporter’s journey through Tripoli: Long lines, kidnappings and murder
August 2, 2017 at 8:55 PM
Children play soccer in the old city of Tripoli. (Lorenzo Tugnoli/For The Washington Post)
TRIPOLI, Libya — The line at the bank was two blocks long and Abdul bin Naji was once again praying for the doors to open. He desperately needed his $60.
With Libya in the throes of a currency crisis, that was the weekly limit for withdrawals. For the past month, though, the bank hadn’t had any cash. That didn’t stop bin Naji and hundreds of others from arriving every night to get a good spot in line.
On this morning, the unshaven airline employee was third from the door. At 10 a.m., the bank still hadn’t opened. “Thirty-two days and no money,” he sighed.
Excruciatingly long bank lines are the latest misfortune for Libyans trapped in a cycle of war and economic upheaval.
Six years after the revolution that toppled dictator Moammar Gaddafi, the mood in this volatile capital is a meld of hopelessness and gloom. Diplomatic and military efforts by the United States and its allies have failed to stabilize the nation; the denouement of the crisis remains far from clear. Most Libyans sense that the worst is yet to come.
Increasingly, decisions that were once mundane are potentially life-altering.
Is it safe to visit parents in a neighborhood across the city? Which car will kidnappers be less likely to notice? Will a $60 bank withdrawal stretch until the next one is available?
“Every day, our future is getting darker and darker,” said bin Naji, 57, leaning against an ATM that hasn’t worked in years.
People line up in front of a bank. Because of a currency crisis, banks limit the amount of cash customers can withdraw, and some days they don't open at all. (Lorenzo Tugnoli/For The Washington Post)
Under Gaddafi, the oil-producing country was once one of the world’s wealthiest nations. Even as the economy struggled in his last years, Libyans enjoyed free health care, education and other benefits under the eccentric strongman’s brand of socialism.
The insecurity that followed Gaddafi’s death has ripped apart the North African country. Rival governments and an array of armed groups compete for influence and territory. The economy is on the verge of collapse. Criminal gangs prey on the vulnerable.
In Tripoli, parliament and other buildings are concrete carcasses, shattered by heavy artillery fire, rocket-propelled grenades and tank shells. Clashes often erupt suddenly, trapping residents in their homes and creating new no-go zones.
A journey through the city revealed how Libyans are adapting to the vicissitudes of the civil war.
A building is left unfinished in Tripoli. Since the start of the revolution in 2011, many construction projects have been abandoned. Investors involved in the oil-rich country during the regime of Moammar Gaddafi left shortly after his fall because of the poor economic situation and lack of security. (Lorenzo Tugnoli/For The Washington Post)
A contest for control
In the southern Tripoli district of Salaheddin, a main thoroughfare bustles during the day but is deserted at night.
Surrounded by what was once a typical middle-class enclave, the street has become a focal point of the contest to control the capital. On one side, militiamen aligned with a self-declared, Islamist-leaning government operate checkpoints. The other side is overseen by fighters loyal to a U.N.-installed unity government.
By 9 p.m., many residents have locked themselves inside their homes. Gunfire usually starts around that time, residents said. Those who dare to venture out are careful not to bring any valuables.
“I leave my iPhone and carry a cheap Nokia,” said Ibrahim el-Worfali, 31, a shop owner. “All these guys have guns and they can do anything they want to you.”
At the western entrance to the city, fighters with the Knights of Janzour, a militia aligned with the unity government, stop and search cars for weapons being funneled to their rivals.
“It’s obvious they want to control the capital,” said Mohammed Bazzaa, 29, the militia’s thickset commander, who wore tan camouflage fatigues and stood next to a pickup truck mounted with a heavy machine gun.
Soldiers check cars at the western entrance to Tripoli. The coastal road west of the capital has been closed at times and lacks security because of the militias that control sections of it. (Lorenzo Tugnoli/For The Washington Post)
One of the militia’s biggest rivals is a group led by Gen. Khalifa Hifter, whose army controls much of eastern Libya. Hifter, who lived in exile in Northern Virginia for two decades, is aligned with a third government based in the east.
“He’s another Gaddafi,” said Bazzaa, who fought in the revolution.
But the militia’s primary threat, Bazzaa said, are the fighters from a rival tribe controlling an enclave less than two miles down the main highway between Tripoli and the city of Zawiyah. Last year, they fought fiercely. Now, they are both aligned with the unity government.
The tensions and mistrust, however, still run deep.
“They are motivated only by money,” Bazzaa said of his rivals.
Posters in Tripoli’s Martyrs' Square express opposition to Gen. Khalifa Hifter. (Lorenzo Tugnoli/For The Washington Post)
Not far from the checkpoint, Sulaiman Abu Hallala was kidnapped.
He was pulled from his car by three masked gunmen and taken to a farm outside the capital. Held there for 19 days, he was deprived of his diabetes medication until his family agreed to pay an $11,000 ransom.
“I was so scared,” recalled Hallala, a businessman who is in his 80s. “My nephew was kidnapped three months earlier. He was killed after we paid the ransom.”
Sulaiman Abu Hallala sits in the garden of the house he built with revenue from his businesses. He was kidnapped last year and held for 19 days at a farm outside Tripoli. After his family paid a hefty ransom, he was released. (Lorenzo Tugnoli/For The Washington Post)
Kidnappings have become so common in the capital that residents constantly trade detailed information about the enclaves and roads where they have occurred. Once predominantly motivated by political or tribal rivalries, abductions have become a criminal enterprise fueled by the worsening economy.
“All they want is money,” said Mohamed Grabli, another businessman. “There are shortages of cash in the country. There are no jobs.”
Grabli was kidnapped last year and held for 63 days in a room smaller than a walk-in closet, with a steel door and iron bars on the windows. His hands were cuffed with cable wire, and his legs were chained, he said. His captors fed him pieces of bread “like a dog.” His family paid about $31,000 for his release.
Mohamed Grabli stands in his house in Tripoli. He was kidnapped on the way back from Sabratha and held for 63 days. His family paid $31,000 for his release. (Lorenzo Tugnoli/For The Washington Post)
The robe Grabli wore during the three months he spent in captivity. (Lorenzo Tugnoli/For The Washington Post)
Revolution ‘not the right thing’
Osama Labib has not driven his maroon Lamborghini in months.
The architect has been waiting for spare parts, which take weeks to arrive because fewer ships are willing to dock in Tripoli. But even if he repairs the car, he plans to keep it under a tarpaulin behind the high walls of his compound near Salaheddin.
“If I drive it, it will draw too much attention,” he said. “If I enter Salaheddin in this car, I am never coming out.”
Many Libyans are keeping their expensive cars out of sight, said Ali Kabous, a luxury auto dealer. Others, he added, have sent their cars to neighboring Tunisia to “keep them safe.”
Osama Labib’s red Lamborghini hasn’t been driven for months because the needed spare parts had to be shipped from abroad. But Labib says he’s afraid to drive it anyway, because it could make him a kidnapping target. (Lorenzo Tugnoli/For The Washington Post)
His worst-selling vehicle these days is a Toyota Land Cruiser. “It’s the most dangerous car to drive,” Kabous said. “The militia commanders really like them.”
Some customers, he said, are buying luxury cars and sending them outside Libya because they don’t trust leaving their money in the banks.
“It’s a way of safeguarding your money,” he said.
But few residents of Tripoli have such options.
As he stood in the snaking bank line, Allama el-Motamed lamented his declining health, and the money he must spend on doctors. But what makes him more despondent, he said, are the deepening social and cultural divisions he has noticed.
“Before, we never asked where a person is from. We always saw ourselves as part of one country,” said the 67-year-old airline employee, a colleague and friend of bin Naji’s. “Now, when someone stops you, he asks, ‘Where are you from?’ ”
“Sometimes he will kill you if you are, for example, from the east,” he said. “Or maybe he will kill you if you are from the west.”
At that moment, bin Naji interrupted, expressing a sentiment shared by many in the capital.
“The revolution was not the right thing,” he said. “Before, people were happy. Before, I was a king. I had a job. I felt like a man. Now, I can’t even take out my own money.”
At 11 a.m., the bank was still closed.
They planned to return again at night.
A man walks in Tripoli’s old city. (Lorenzo Tugnoli/For The Washington Post)