TRIPOLI, LIBYA —
“We need this war to end and to go back to civilian life,” says Mohammed, a 27-year-old soldier at a base in the suburbs of Tripoli.
Less than a month ago, peace talks were planned and the reunification of Libya was back on the table. Now, fighters are in their fourth week of battle as the eastern forces of Khalifa Haftar try to take over the capital in the west.
An hour later, Mohammed is on the front line as guns fire in both directions over dirt berms in a neighborhood abandoned by civilians only weeks ago. Neither side is gaining ground.
Haftar’s army, known as the Libyan National Army, arrived almost a month ago, after he declared his intention to take over Tripoli. Western forces, known as the Government of National Accord, have mostly prevented the assault from entering the center city, but there is near-constant fighting in the suburbs, and 42,000 people have been displaced. At least 22 civilians have been killed.
WATCH: Displaced Families in Tripoli Languish as Fighting Continues
Aid workers fear their resources are thin and that a continued assault would lead to a crisis for which they are not prepared.
“We are very afraid of a large displacement of people because we have low capacities,” said Ahmed Ghedan, who is in charge of the displacement camps in Tripoli, which are mostly converted schoolhouses. “We are dependent on the people and businesspeople of Tripoli to help the families. So we fear we will not get enough support.”
In Tripoli, locals say they are tired of war, and anger for Haftar and his international supporters is public and loud. Anti-Haftar signs hang in Martyr’s Square, a main center for protests and celebration, and also are plastered on the pavement.
But in the markets, sellers say their real allegiance is to peace, not to any government.
“They just added a few traffic bumps,” says Sammy, a 39-year-old stall-owner who sells children’s clothing, pajamas and socks, referring to the current Western leadership.
“Freedom of speech is here,” he adds, but he says that in his mind, this particular freedom was not what fueled the mass uprising in 2011 that overthrew 40-year leader and strongman Col. Moammar Gadhafi. Since then, Libya has suffered through a string of wars that has left the country torn between two distinct governments in the east and the west.
They fought Gadhafi, he notes, over the economy, corruption and abuse of power. Free speech is nice, he says, but not nearly enough.
While many here like the idea of Libya finding a single, powerful leader to unite the country, Sammy does not suggest replacing one strongman for another. Haftar was expected to take part in negotiations for unified national elections this month, before the assault on Tripoli.
Some support for Haftar in this market did exist a month ago, Sammy adds, but now it is unspoken, if at all. Over the weekend, airstrikes hit a neighborhood near the city’s airport and the streets are becoming more crowded as families flee the suburbs for the city.
“If we could go back, I think we wouldn’t have had a revolution,” he says.
Tripoli soldiers say the fighting is most intense in the evening, and airstrikes — believed to be with the help of foreign countries — are hard to combat.
Tripoli’s army, like Haftar’s, is made up of a coalition of military groups that once fought among themselves. Now, both armies fight as units against each other.
But long-term security beyond this battle is also at risk, explains Abdul Basset Marwan, commander of the Tripoli Military Area. Before Tripoli was attacked, the West was close to becoming peaceful and secure, he says, and the April negotiations had offered fresh hope the country would be unified.
Now, it is hard to know how the war could end without withdrawal, surrender or devastating battles in heavily populated neighborhoods. Neither side has indicated these are options.
“This war will bring destruction and instability, and it is very difficult to bring it to an end,” Marwan says. “We wanted to unify the military. But not like this.”