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Geopolitics

A Libyan Family's Quiet Resilience

Man jumping off a disused military vehicle in Misrata, Libya
Man jumping off a disused military vehicle in Misrata, Libya
Frédéric Bobin

MISRATA — The weather is fair as the moon hangs over a family home in Misrata. The al-Rufai's tiled courtyard, with its table and plastic chairs, and a vine shoot wrapped around the arbor, feels strangely peaceful this evening. Inside a dismantled Libya, the enclosure is an unexpected oasis, a welcome safe-haven against the chaos.

Here, the words "peace" and "democracy" are still part of the conversation, more than ever as a matter of fact. The family wants visitors to see that "the people of Libya aren't strange, they're just like everyone else." On the red-checkered tablecloth, they first serve coffee and chocolate biscuits. Then comes the pizza. In the distance, we suddenly hear the echo of detonations. "Don't worry, it's just firecrackers!" Of course, there's nothing to fear here in the rosemary-scented night.

The al-Rufais are the typical middle-class family in Misrata, an important coastal city in western Libya, 20 kilometers from Tripoli, the capital. Mohamed, the father, is a judge. Fawzia, the mother, is a teacher. The eldest son, Ali, is a lawyer. His younger brother, Faruk, is a cameraman for a television network. And the little sister, Maryam, just completed university with a degree in English literature. The patriotic family is strongly united. Exile isn't an option, despite all the frustrations, betrayed hopes and this war that never ends.

"We'll stay here just like we stayed during the crackdown, under Gaddafi," Fawzia says. "It can't be worse than it was back then. Four months of food shortage. No gas or electricity. People were hiding."

There's no way of avoiding this original wound. The siege of Misrata by Muammar Gaddafi"s forces, between February and May 2011, was pure carnage. The Libyan revolution, one of the "springs" that shook the Arab world that year, led to raging battles. Tripoli Street, Misrata's core artery, still bears the scars on its pulverized facades and bullet holes, left as it was, as if to maintain the martyrdom cult.

Nothing had prepared this prosperous trading hub — which is linked to Malta, Italy and most of all Turkey by centuries of commerce — to enter the legend of revolutions. And yet, when faced with Gaddafi's cannons, merchants became militiamen. And with extreme brutality, drunk on vengeance as they were, they mercilessly chastised those who had persecuted them.

That was five years ago already. The uprising and the NATO air strikes that followed brought Gaddafi's regime to its knees. From there, though, the so-called revolutionary brigades broke up the country into rival fiefdoms, opening cracks big enough for ISIS to crawl in.

In Misrata, people feel disillusioned and bitter. The revolutionary fervor has given way to a strong desire of peace. The al-Rufai family is among those who wish for a "national unity" government under UN supervision, exactly the sort of policy that is expected of Fayez al-Sarraj, the new prime minister, who reached Tripoli from Tunisia on March 30.

"This unity government will be able to save Libya," Mohamed wants to believe. "Democracy is for everybody, not just for the West."

But those opposed to this UN-brokered peace haven't given up their fight and can sitll cause damage. While this new government effectively settles in and starts working, life goes on, ordinary and tormented at the same time.

Longing for a "normal" life

Mohamed al-Rufai is a magistrate at Misrata's court of appeal. Institutions here continue to function, though not very well. Fighting continues outside the city — the ISIS-controlled city of Sirte is only located 230 kilometers east — but not in the center of Misrata, where the memory of their shared martyrdom keeps residents from turning against each other. Tonight, in the small courtyard, the father wears a purple djellaba. His great passion is astrology, but his days are filled with the civil code.

War is never far from the cases he works on. That was true of the case of a doctor whose employer, a hospital, hadn't paid her for three years because of her prolonged absence. She'd had to flee Misrata in the heat of the fighting to return to her village. "Libyan law states that work absences can be justified by an emergency," Mohamed explains. He thus won the trial and got the woman's wages back. "That's the law," he says. Unpaid salaries have become the new de facto rule in crisis-hit Libya. But here, in Misrata, people are proud to be an exception, and the court strives to hold on tight despite the surrounding chaos.

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Misrata by night — Photo: joepyrek

Things are very different at school. Fawzia, the mother, a black veil wrapped around her head, feels weighed down by the current environment. Indiscipline grows in the classrooms, the teacher says. When pupils get told off, some of them sometimes taunt the teachers by shouting "Free Libya," the slogan heard everywhere when the rebellion was at its highest. And when they get poor report cards, some fathers burst in at the end of the class and threaten to "destroy the school with my militia," Fawzia explains. "The quality of teaching plummets in such conditions."

This toxic environment particularly affects Maryam, 19, the youngest of the family. In the small courtyard, under the moonlight, she pets the cat, which is curled up on her lap. She speaks English with an American accent, something she picked up from watching U.S. television shows on the Internet. She dreams of becoming an interpreter. Will her wish become true one day? For the time being, she has to deal with a social environment that's stifling her. "I stay at home like a dead person," she says, a hint of rebellion in her voice. "Society judges you down to the air you breathe."

Of course, Maryam considers herself "lucky" with her "liberal family." But it's not enough for her. As soon as she wanders in one of the streets, she becomes infuriated by the cheek of young and eager males, bolstered by the sense of entitlement that comes from the militia culture. When driving the family car, even with her mother, she feels under siege.

"Boys are staring at us and call out to us at crossroads. Some even provoke accidents just to force us to get to know each other!" she says, fuming. "I look at my society with anger. I can't even go out for a coffee with friends, live a normal human being's life."

Dwindling options

Maryam's oldest brother, Ali, also has a sense that the horizon in today's Libya, where the ties that once bound people together are smashed to pieces, is narrowing. The 27-year-old lawyer deals a lot with financial compensation cases for people who died or were wounded in combat, or who divorced — an increasing occurrence — because more and more couples don't survive their different political views. "Diverging opinions can tear families apart," he says.

Ali too dreams of rubbing shoulders with the world. Earlier on he spent some time studying law in Liverpool. But his studies were cut short by the chaos back home. He'd like to return to England but knows there are many hurdles. Because the foreign embassies moved to neighboring Tunisia, he'll have to travel to Tunis to get a visa. But Libyans visitors there are all suspected of being "terrorists" and they're not always welcome.

What's more, it will be a costly journey due to the collapse of the Libyan dinar, a hot topic at the moment. A friend who used to import clothes and shoes from Turkey had close shop recently. Stories like that have become commonplace. From the middle-class society whose revenues were guaranteed by oil under Gaddafi, Libya has gone back to its social precariousness of the past.

Faruk, 24, wants to get away as well — just long enough to learn other languages. "I feel like I'm in jail around here," he says, grinding his teeth. A cameraman for a local television network, he earns enough to live. But everything is so stale here in Misrata. During the uprising against Gaddafi, the young man saw bodies fall around him. He thought it would stop once freedom was conquered. But it goes on. The causes are more obscure now. There are no ideals anymore, just a handgun culture that is self-sustaining and feeds off of the surrounding disorder.

A few months earlier, one of Faruk's best friends was found dead in a parking lot, his body riddled with bullets after an argument that turned nasty. More recently, by the dunes along the beach, he noticed people taking a corpse out of the trunk of a car. Faruk enjoys going there with his friends, to smell the salty gusts of wind that clean the soul. But where can they go if the beach itself start smelling like death?

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