“The situation is awful here in the Old City. There’s wounded people that have no medicine, nothing to eat, and nothing to drink. Many can’t move and are just waiting for their fate to be met. Many are using handsaws to cut off infected limbs and then covering wounds with electrical tape. Others have died under indiscriminate bombing by Egypt, UAE, and France,” Ghaith al Sanusi, a Libyan activist from the city of Derna, Libya, told TRT World via telephone.
The oil-rich port city of Derna is nestled amongst the desert, green mountains, and the Mediterranean Sea in eastern Libya. Its population of approximately 100,000-150,000 has born witness to some of the worst atrocities carried out in the country since the Libyan Revolution (also referred to as the first Libyan civil war) began in 2011 and subsequently morphed into civil war.
Today, however, the residents of Derna, particularly in the Old City, are subjected to “unimaginable horrors,” and are victims of what the United Nations has described as a “hidden human calamity,” with accounts of booby-trapped buildings, forced disappearances, mass torture, and aerial bombardment of residential homes becoming ever more widespread.
Residents and humanitarian workers have complained that Haftar-aligned militias are blocking aid from reaching the city.
Maria de Valle Ribeiro, the UN Deputy Special Representative for Libya, voiced her growing concern for the growing humanitarian crisis by stating earlier this month that she’s “deeply concerned by the escalation of hostilities in the eastern city of Derna and the consequent further deterioration of the humanitarian situation in parts of the city.”
She firmly calls for “unconditional, unimpeded and sustained humanitarian access to the affected civilians in the old city,” and urges all conflict parties to respect and protect civilians and civilian facilities, and to “strictly adhere to their obligations under International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights Law.”
Haftar - a legitimate force?
Whereas the city’s residents were under siege by ISIS (Daesh) in 2014-15, today it’s General Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army, who is bombing and starving these long besieged people.
The Libyan National Army (LNA) was established after the death of Muammar Gaddafi, and the collapse of his government, in 2011. The LNA split at the start of the ongoing second Libyan Civil War in 2014, however, with Haftar taking control of the “anti-terrorist” faction of the security force, and then acting independently of the country’s political authorities.
The once-exiled Haftar, who resided in the United States and was allegedly trained and managed by the CIA in the hope of overthrowing Gaddafi during the Cold War period, seeks total control of the country, the same way Gaddafi ruled over Libya for four decades.
“Just to make things clear, the Libyan National Army is an anti-democracy militia led by the war criminal Haftar, which is conducting a slow but vicious and bloody coup d’etat,” Ahmed Sewehli, co-founder of the Misrata Psychiatry Department and the former head of mental health in Libya, told TRT World.
“It’s not Libya’s official army – the Libyan Army – which is headquartered in the capital Tripoli.”
Foreign backers make it worse
Haftar is being supplied by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and France, which is not only a violation of the UN arms embargo on Libya but also tacit support for what are objectively war crimes in the country.
France, Egypt and the UAE are providing military support to the LNA for one simple reason: they believe he’s the right man to battle “Islamic extremists” in Libya, which is an absurdity given Haftar’s militias comprise of some of the most ruthless, violent and anti-democratic extremists in the country.
“These militias from neighbouring towns under the command of warlord General Haftar are using the method of ethnic cleansing to pursue their agenda and preventing the Libyan people achieving democracy,” al Sanusi says.
“What they have done is destroy homes, steal furniture, and seize the houses of displaced families, and in order to justify the war on Derna, they label the city’s residents as terrorists, but they are not terrorists. They are residents.”
The idea that the residents of Derna sympathise with extremists or terrorists is misguided given the city’s youth established the Derna Protection Force, a counter-terrorism force, to successfully push Daesh out in 2015. Before 2015 there was a heavy presence of Daesh fighters in Derna but were out in the Battle of Derna.
“We lost almost 400 young men in the fight against ISIS, and we are losing thousands more in this illegitimate tribal war that is being led by Haftar,” says al-Sanusi.
Today, Haftar is laying siege on Derna with the goal of forcing the city to surrender to his control, giving Haftar unfettered access to vital oil fields and the port, and as such has declared war on Derna under the guise of liberating it from terrorists.
“The barbaric siege on Derna began in 2015 as a way of forcing the city to surrender to General Haftar and his barbaric tribal militias. My people have been suffering for three years with no gasoline, no medication, and no food or other types of aid,” al Sanusi told me.
A new Gaddafi rises?
The atrocities and human rights violations are not being reported in the media because Haftar has ring-fenced the city with military outposts, refusing to allow journalists or humanitarian aid organisations access, despite the UN calling on the General to permit safe passage corridors for aid workers and civilians.
If Daesh or another extremist group were laying siege to the Libyan city, it would be safe to presume that the world’s media would be all eyes on the ongoing humanitarian crisis. The fact that these crimes are being carried out by a group with a legitimate sounding name – the Libyan National Army – fails to attract the attention it deserves.
The trapped and besieged people of Derna call on the international community to intervene and help reopen the port, and allow civilians safe passage out of the city.
“What we need is tangible steps by the Red Cross, United Nations, United States and European Union to save the remaining innocent civilians and historic buildings in the Old City, including synagogues and mosques that have been there since the Ottoman period. Haftar destroyed Benghazi, and here he is now destroying Derna and massacring its people, away from the eyes of the world. The international community must put an end to the killings, public executions of civilians, wrongful detention, and racial discrimination,” says al Sanusi.
Ultimately, Haftar seeks total control of Libya and is employing the rhetoric of the “war on terror” to do so.
In the same way that Gaddafi exerted his rule over the country from 1969 to 2011, he’s fighting anyone who seeks democracy and freedom from tyranny. The international community acted in 2011 to prevent the now deceased dictator from killing his people.
Now, the question is what it will do to prevent mass murder at the hands of the country’s most likely future dictator?
Clarification: An earlier version of this article included a quote from 2014 by Mr. Jason Pack of Libya Analysis, that ran in The Guardian, and was taken out of context. The quote has been removed.