A street in Benghazi’s Salmani neighbourhood. Photo posted on Facebook.

The eastern Libyan city of Benghazi is the birthplace of the revolution that ousted Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, and is considered by many to be Libya’s cultural capital. However, since mid-October, Benghazi has been transformed into a vast battlefield between the Islamist militias that control the city and the Libyan army, which is trying to push them out. With its deserted streets and buildings pockmarked by shells, Benghazi is hardly recognisable, says our Observer on the ground.

On October 15, the special forces of retired general Khalifa Haftar (which are allied to the Libyan army) launched an offensive against the Islamist militias that control Benghazi as well as several jihadist groups working with them. At least 32 people — including several civilians — have died in the ensuing violence, according to a report issued by Benghazi’s medical centre at the beginning of last week.

A street in Benghazi’s Salmani neighbourhood. Photo posted on Facebook.
Mustapha A. (not his real name) is a doctor in Benghazi.

Most of the violence is concentrated in the area around the al-Sabri neighbourhood and the port-side fish market where the army has managed to trap and encircle the Islamist militias for several days now.

Benghazi is running in slow motion. Only some stores stay open; everything else - including schools, factories, universities, administration — is closed. Starting at about 5pm, it turns into a complete ghost town. All of the stores close and people lock themselves inside their homes. The only people left in the streets are the young people who participate in neighbourhood watches. They have armed check points, where they monitor all the night-time comings and goings.

These clashes have had disastrous consequences, not just on the population but also on the architecture that’s part of our cultural heritage — it’s going up in smoke. Venice Street was one Benghazi’s most illustrious street, filled with the most posh restaurants and luxury shops. Now, it is the site of fighting between the forces of the “204 tanks” brigade, who are allied with the army, and the “17 of February” Islamist brigade, whose headquarters is nearby. This street, once popular amongst the locals, is now just a landscape of desolation. Practically all of the residents were evacuated by the Libyan Red Cross.

Venice Street, before the clashes. Photo posted on Twitter.

Venice Street in November 2014. Photo posted on Twitter.

Al-Joumhourya Hospital is the oldest hospital in Benghazi and it served as military barracks during WWII. But the hospital is located in the al-Sabri neighbourhood, where the fighting is most violent, and it has been hit by gunshots and shelling. The hospital was evacuated a week ago, but we are afraid that the building itself will become more seriously damaged.

Benghazi’s most well-known historical monument, the Akhribiche lighthouse [Editor’s note: the lighthouse, which was constructed during the Ottoman Empire, is the oldest building in Benghazi] has not been spared from the violence either. It was damaged by shelling last Friday.

The Akhribiche lighthouse has been damaged by shelling.

Benghazi University is a veritable symbol for Libyans because it is Libya’s oldest university. It opened its doors in the 1950s and most of Libya’s best-known politicians and intellectuals studied here. Unfortunately, the members of the “Saeqa” or “lightning” brigade, which is allied with the Libyan army, clashed with the “17 of February” militias on the campus. The resulting fire destroyed the main administration building. Luckily, people working there had anticipated the fighting and managed to transfer the university’s archives to a safe location before the clashes broke out.

The most important hotel in Benghazi, Hotel Tibissi, was partially destroyed in the clashes.
Politically, Libya continues to sink further into chaos. On November 6, the Supreme Court invalidated the results of elections held last June, which brought into question the legitimacy of its parliament, which had been recognised by the international community. The parliament, which is dominated by anti-Islamists, immediately denounced the decision as “invalid”.