Residents of the city of Sirte, in Libya, have finally received authorisation to return to their homes, two months after the Islamic State (IS) terrorist organisation was forced out of their city. However, the Libyan army is tightly controlling the population's return and has installed drastic security measures to prevent jihadist infiltration of the newly-liberated city.
The forces loyal to the Libyan government of national accord, or GNA, took back the city from IS militants on December 5, 2016 after seven months of heavy fighting. More than 700 people were killed and another 3,000 were wounded in the operation, called Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous (Solid wall), according to Libyan authorities.
Since Monday, February 6, long queues of cars, filled with displaced people eager to return home, have been forming on the outskirts of the city. Soldiers, posted at checkpoints in all of the main streets in the city, have been carefully monitoring the returnees.
About 300 families have already been able to return to their homes, according to Ahamad al-Rwati, the spokesperson for Operation Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous. The general staff of the operation has developed a detailed plan laying out the progressive return of displaced residents, which will be ongoing throughout the month of February.
The city has been divided into several different districts. Residents from the so-called 700 district as well as those from Gharbiyyat (in blue) began returning to their homes on Monday, February 6. Residents from the No.3 district (in yellow) were allowed to return home starting on Friday, February 10. A week later, on February 17, residents from the Dollar neighbourhood (in green) will be able to return to their homes. The resettlement of the population of Sirte will continue in this gradual manner throughout the month of February.
"The heads of household must sign a paper agreeing to report any Islamic State activity”
The army developed this detailed plan to make sure that the return and resettlement of displaced people from Sirte is carried out in optimal security conditions.
We’ve set up checkpoints all over the place and carry out routine searches on the population. We also carefully verify the identity of each person entering the city and check it against our list of suspects [suspected IS members].
The Islamic State organisation controlled the city of Sirte for more than two years. In times past, Sirte was the stronghold of former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, and there are many Gaddafi loyalists throughout the population. When the Islamic State group captured the city [in June 2014], entire families joined the ranks of the jihadist organisation; many of them seeking revenge on the rebels who led the Libyan revolution and provoked the fall of the former dictator.
We know that some of the families have close relatives who fought with the jihadists and it is very unlikely that they will turn them in.
[Most of the soldiers who participated in Operation Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous] are not from the region [Editor’s note: As the region was pro-Gaddafi, few of the residents have joined the army led by those who ousted him] and no one really knows what went one during the two years that Sirte was controlled by the IS group.
We require the head of each household to sign a letter pledging to refrain from collaborating with the IS group or helping their cause. Anyone who breaks this pact will face charges.
"I promise not to collaborate with the Daech terrorist organisation in any way, including by telephone or on social media. I will not provide any information [to the organisation]. I will not hide or transport any member of this organisation or anyone who collaborates with the jihadists. I will report any action that could compromise the security of the country and its citizens. If my children break this agreement, I will be found responsible.”
We have the means to control access to the city. However, there are not enough of us to carry out the job of the policing the city and insure security within its boundaries. We are afraid of reprisal attacks between families who were against the IS organisation and those who supported it.
All of the public services as well as the city’s administrative bodies are still closed at this point. However, we were able to reestablish water and electricity in most of the neighbourhoods, thanks to support from the city of Misrata [located 250 kilometres to the west] which rushed over technicians and plumbers. We’ve also had many volunteers who came and cleaned the streets.
For now, we are dependent on this kind of voluntary efforts to make life in Sirte bearable. We have no budget for the city’s reconstruction because of the political crisis that has fractured our country for the past few months.
"We are scared that the jihadists will return"
We are carrying out mine-clearing operations across Sirte and are doing our best to remove the mines that are still lying in the buildings and streets here. However, there aren’t enough of us and we don’t have enough material to do this work properly. It’s very possible that there are still mines scattered here and there. About two days ago, an army vehicle exploded after hitting a mine in the Souaoua district in the eastern part of the city. That is another reason why the return of the population is being carried out in a gradual manner.
We are afraid that the jihadists will return, because this region has not yet been entirely returned to peace. The Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous brigades continue to carry out searches about 100 kilometres from Sirte, where there are still pockets of IS militants.
In addition to the chaos and ongoing security challenges that Libya is facing, the country has also been torn apart by an inextricable political crisis. Three different governments currently claim the right to govern the country: the so-called Government of National Accord, which has the support of the international community; a government set up in Tripoli since 2014, which has the support of a group of powerful Islamist militias and a “provisional” government that is based in Baïda, in the east of the country.