The memories of the beautiful and prosperous Mediterranean coastal city Derna vividly linger on for Salem as he describes the unmatched nature of the northeastern Libyan city that blends green mountains, the Mediterranean Sea and the desert. Salem, a young merchant from Derna, located close to the Egyptian border, is now living in the Libyan capital Tripoli, away from his wife and children. "It was the extremist groups that destroyed the peaceful revolution after 2011. The inability of the local council in Derna to contact the Tripoli government had given leeway to extremist groups and their sympathizers in the city and offered [Khalifa] Haftar a good excuse to lay siege to the city back in 2016," Salem said with resentment during a meeting in a coffeehouse in Tripoli.
Derna had been one of the wealthiest cities of the region since the era of Barbary States, the rule of Ottoman and local Berber pirates stretching from Morocco to Libya and lasted about three centuries. After three decades of Italian invasion following Ottoman control, the city maintained its position during the rule of Libyan King Idris al-Senussi and Libyan military strongman Moammar Gadhafi.
The Mediterranean city was also one of the centers of revolution against 42-years of Gadhafi's rule that resulted in the toppling of the Libyan ruler. However, one of former officers of the Gadhafi era, the self-proclaimed general, Khalifa Haftar, now established another martial rule on the eastern side of the country, while locals of Derna yearned for the times when peace prevailed. Some locals of Derna, like Salem and his entrepreneur friend Youssef, who are reluctant to live under the oppressive rule of Haftar, are now living in Tripoli and others have taken refuge in the capital during the three-year siege, which culminated in a war that lasted nearly one war.
Most of them are unable to return their hometowns even to meet with their families due to fears of Haftar's militia, known as the Libyan National Army (LNA), and have established a strong community in the capital. Still, it does not mean that they could leave their fears behind.
"I cannot write anything on my Facebook because I fear that they could take my parents in Derna," Salem said. Disclosure on social media is a risk among the Derna community. However, for the Haftar militia and their key supporter, the Tobruk government, to render someone a suspect is a very simple practice. About 2,000 people were arrested through ambiguous accusations by LNA forces in Derna, Salih said.
For Haftar, taking Derna meant extending its influence across the whole of eastern Libya, and eliminating what it considers to be the most significant remaining hub political opposition to it in eastern Libya. The city would also serve his purpose to have a seat in any future settlement negotiations for the future of the country.
Haftar's rhetoric: A 'war against terror'
The self-styled LNA gained full control of the city following nearly two-years of siege on June 28, 2018. Haftar carried out his campaign in Derna with the pretext of "fighting against Daesh," which has been his main argument to convince the international community since his emergence as a force in 2014.
However, it was actually the locals of Derna who ended Daesh rule by expelling the militants affiliated with the terrorist group in 2015.
"No one can deny that there were some extremist groups among the fighters who liberated the city in 2015 from Daesh. However, Haftar's claim of fighting against Daesh in the city was a great distortion. In fact, he cooperated with those terrorists to claim the city," said Youssef, the young merchant from Derna who imports diapers to Libya. Similarly to Salih, Youssef lives in Tripoli separately from his family in Derna where he intends to get married.
Besides for the rhetoric of fighting against Daesh, the location of Derna also provided a significant advantage for Haftar's militia as it neighbors Egypt, the self-proclaimed general's staunchest supporter along with United Arab Emirates (UAE). During the campaign, it had been reported that Egyptian army provided substantial assistance for LNA forces. According to Youssef, the backers of Haftar do not want to see any democratic movements in Libya.
"They simply want people such as [Abdel Fattah] el-Sissi and [Bashar] Assad at the helm of Libya," Youssef said, referring to the Egyptian leader who came to the power in a military coup in 2013 and the Syrian strongman who dragged the country into civil war with his administration's brutal response to peaceful democracy protesters in 2011. For the young merchants, one of the primary reasons why the city has fallen into the hands of the self-proclaimed general is the grave mistake that the extremist groups made. In the wake of the 2011 revolution, Libya had become an increasingly complex fractured political ground, divided along tribal, regional, religious, political and personal frictions.
Derna had already been politically and socially marginalized in the colossal power struggle since 2011, rewriting the historical patterns of exclusion and reinforcing the city's identity as the main base of the opposition to the old Gadhafi regime.
On Dec. 12, 2014, fighters opposing Daesh within Derna formed the Derna Mujahideen Shura Council (DMSC). This group began to drive Daesh militants out of city in June 2015, even as the LNA imposed a loose siege on the city. Shortly after the siege of the city began by Haftar militia in August 2016, the DMSC was dissolved and formed another group, the Derna Protection Force.
Growing humanitarian concerns
The long siege of the city, however, exacerbated the dire humanitarian conditions, resulting in shortages of essential goods and medicines, social isolation and increasing suffering for the city's inhabitants. "The groups fighting in Derna did not contact the Tripoli government and they refused any help from High Council of State because they fancied themselves as a sovereign state," Salem said. Although the High Council of State tries to ensure reconciliation between the warring parties during the siege numerous times, their efforts rendered inconclusive due to the lack of social influence on the eastern tribes.
As the humanitarian condition further deteriorated and the Derna Protection Forces could not resist, Haftar forces announced full control of the city in February 2019. However, the Haftar militia still continues to imprison people from Derna in the Qirnada prison, notorious for torture and inhumane conditions, Salem pointed out. When asked about the civilian support for Haftar among some groups in Derna, Yazid explained that the people have seen a long blockade and they are fed up with fighting. After a long period of deprivation, Haftar began to offer these people electricity, gas and the entrance of certain goods for subsistence. Therefore, he added, people are compelled to support him. "They also fear for their lives as many still continue to be imprisoned. There is no such thing as criticizing Haftar," Youssef added.
When asked about whether they are planning to visit their hometown, both Salem and Youssef could not give a definite answer, as it is very difficult for them to say anything related to the future of Libya, particularly their hometown of Derna.