“It looks like a gradual descent into the abyss,” says Hanan Salah, the Libya researcher for Human Rights Watch. “I’m hoping that there is a way out, but from everything that I’m seeing, that I’m hearing—no one is backing down, everyone is accelerating, everyone is becoming more territorial, more positioned on their issues. Everything indicates that it’s heading toward disaster.”
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Though the battle for Tripoli ended months ago, the capital does not feel secure. At night the streets are largely deserted and controlled by masked gunmen at makeshift checkpoints. Journalists and civil society activists have fled. Kidnappings are increasingly common and assassinations are on the rise. Intissar al-Hasseri, an activist who had taken part in protests against militants, was found stuffed in the trunk of a car last month, shot dead along with her aunt.
Meanwhile, extremist groups—including the Libyan affiliate of the Islamic State—have staged bold attacks on hotels and embassies. Last month, Italy closed its embassy and repatriated its staff, the last Western power to do so.
At Tripoli’s international airport, twisted metal beams and the charred shell of a building are all that remain. Sunlight pours in through the missing roof of what used to be the main arrival and departure hall. The tarmac has been transformed into an airplane graveyard, with the crumpled fuselages and skeletal remains of bombed-out planes scattered awkwardly on the runway. Nearby trenches and sand embankments are littered with bullet casings and spent artillery shells. Destroyed in a weeks-long battle between rival militias last summer, the airport now stands as a symbol of the conflict that is destroying the entire country.
“You can always rebuild the airport, but you can’t rebuild Libya,” says Ali Muftah, a first lieutenant in aviator sunglasses and army camouflage. He fought with the Libya Dawn coalition that took control of Tripoli in August and is now stationed at the airport. He blames the destruction entirely on his rivals—militias from the western town of Zintan that are allied with Operation Dignity—a common theme in Libya’s polarized narratives. “I fought in 2011, but this battle was harder for me. I never expected I would be fighting four years later.”
Mitiga, Tripoli’s second airport, is now the main hub. Passengers crowd inside the small, chaotic terminal, scrambling to get a seat on a flight.
Abdel Rahmi Ebedi has been coming to Mitiga for two days, trying to catch a flight east. The 45-year-old mechanical engineer is a refugee from Benghazi. He fled the city several weeks earlier, embarking on an arduous car trip to Tripoli, where he now lives with his wife. They are trying to return home to attend the funeral of Ebeidi’s nephew, 20-year-old Islam, who was shot in the head by a sniper in Benghazi. Ebeidi shows pictures on his phone of a handsome young man, posing variously in sunglasses, atop a 4Runner, smiling in the sun. The last photo is of his corpse, a lifeless face peeking out of the shroud.
“I lost one of my relatives, I lost my job,” he says. “I lost everything.”
Ebeidi, who sees no future in Libya, applied for a visa to Italy but was denied despite having previously lived there for over a decade. Most Libyans who want to leave the country have found that the world has rejected them.
“Europe doesn’t accept us as immigrants now,” Ebeidi says. His passport is also recently expired, and with the state bureaucracy crumbling, he has been unable to get it renewed. “Nothing is functioning here,” he says.
The bitter polarization that has divided Libya has created rifts within Ebeidi’s own family. His brother-in-law is totally opposed to Operation Dignity, the coalition that is battling Islamist militias in Benghazi, while his mother and brother support it. Some relatives cannot discuss politics with one another.
Ebeidi and his wife wait patiently for nine hours before boarding a flight to Labraq, after which they must make the three-hour drive to Benghazi, which has not had a functioning airport since last June. “Look at our situation; it’s horrible!” he says. “Why is this happening?”