A woman walks past a wall full of names of people who died during the Libyan Civil War, in Misrata.
A woman walks past a wall full of names of people who died during the Libyan Civil War, in Misrata.
Frédéric Bobin

MISRATA — It's a strange city where 15-year-old kids can be seen jumping behind the wheel of semi-wrecked cars, where the scenery they pass is made mostly of building facades blackened by mortar shells. In Misrata, the screeches of tires at the roundabout resemble the piercing sound of war sirens.

The Libyan revolution here is a troubling mix of youths sent to the nearby front line and the joyrides of children not yet ready for the call to arms. Because Misrata is the capital city of Libya's militias, what happens here is important for the whole nation.


Whoever wants to understand the chaos that is Libya today, relentlessly revealing itself as geopolitical dynamite at the gates of Europe, with its jihadist enclaves and its migrant boats sinking in the Mediterranean, needs to probe the soul of Misrata. The coastal city, the country's third largest after Tripoli and Benghazi with half-a-million inhabitants, is like a cracked cornerstone for the nation that threatens to be its undoing.


Ali Schtawi, a man in his 60s, tries to hide a gaping wound behind a friendly smile. He's seated in a leather armchair in the living room of a luxurious hotel, a vivid red building flanked by unfinished construction sites. All of Misrata is embodied there, in this juxtaposition of the comfort of a merchant city facing the open sea — and of the desolation spreading around it. The man has ordered an espresso and is fiddling with his iPhone. The video starts. We can see a wounded teenager, lying at the back of a pick-up. The image is shaky. There is smoke and shouting. The child is going to die. "My son had gone out without weapons to a peaceful demonstration. They slaughtered civilians without protection," says the inconsolable father.


That was in March 2011, at a time when Muammar Gaddafi was faced with the first waves of protest, a new step in the "Arab Spring" started a few weeks before in Tunisia, then spread to Egypt. The siege of Misrata by the forces loyal to Gaddafi was butchery. Some one thousand inhabitants are believed to have been killed. The Libyan "Guide" had thought that the city would be grateful for its richness, made even greater by the economic opening of the 2000s that saw it become Libya's biggest port and home to one of Africa's largest steelworks. Such "treason" deserved an exemplary punishment.


The Misrata of the revolution is first and foremost this original martyrdom. It's like a mourning that can never end, an incarcerated memory. The tragedy has left scars that are visible on every wall in the city. Like a vengeful echo, they're answered by the images of a bleeding Gaddafi (lynched by men from Misrata in October 2011 in Sidra) still being shown on a loop on television screens.

Stepping on Gaddafi


Four years later, Tripoli Street, the city's central artery where Gaddafi's troops and snipers spread death, still looks like a mutilated set. The destroyed and burnt out facades, pocked with bullet holes have been kept intact on purpose as the stage of a story on which the curtain must never be drawn. At the Martyrs Museum, the walls are covered with pictures of hundreds of victims, often young. At the entrance, people wipe their feet on a dirty carpet with the face of Muammar Gaddafi, a posthumous insult indulged in by arriving visitors from near and far.


How can they ever forget? For the people of Misrata, to still take up arms is a tribute to the dead. Mohamed Hamrane, a businessman in the frozen meat industry, is a typical example of Misrata's merchant class, having long done business with Malta, Italy, Turkey, and other Mediterranean countries. "Misrata is the city that suffered the most in Libya," he says. "We can't give up on the revolution."


For him this means supporting the Libya Dawn coalition that, from Tripoli, rules a large part of western Libya. This coalition of Islamist groups (Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood) and of secular-leaning forces share an infinite hatred of the late dictator and his stooges.


Misrata's strategic role in the Libyan chaos stems from the fact that it accounts for more than half of Libya Dawn's military potential. Misrata's brigades are its real armed wing and they even take part in fights in the desert sands of the south. They fight the enemies of the "Dignity" operation, a coalition of liberals, anti-Islamists and former Gaddafi-supporters who claims to fight on behalf of the Parliament exiled in the eastern city of Tobruk. The MPs had been elected in June 2014 during an internationally-recognized vote.

Local rivalries and tribal conflicts swirling around this central schism have splintered Libya. Such a mess has opened up gaps for new groups to emerge. ISIS is one of those making the most gains, and is now controlling territory in Derna (east) and Sidra (west).


And that's just the problem with Misrata, with its obsessional memory, its debt to the dead, its retrospective anti-Gaddafism. The city is pushing ahead with the 2011 revolution and struggles to grasp the reality of the new war that's begun, the one that ISIS has declared on Libya.

The real enemy

Misratis think that the old regime is back because their enemy in Tobruk has appointed Khalifa Haftar, a former dignitary of Gaddafi's army who rebelled in the late 1980s, as its army-chief. That's where they believe the biggest danger lies for them. The rise of new jihadist groups, especially of their ad hoc Salafi allies inside Libya Dawn (such as the Ansar al-Sharia group) and their proven ties to ISIS are only of secondary importance.


"We know that Daesh (the Arab acronym for ISIS) is there in Debra and Sidra," admits Sofiane el-Kabir, a judge who insists in talking to us outside his office to prove that Misrata is a normal and peaceful city. "But that's not our problem for now. Our priority is to fight against the counter-revolution."

Does that mean that radical jihadists aren't an objective danger for this culturally secular city? "We'll fight them, but later, once we've cleaned out our own home."


While the United Nations are working on a national reconciliation plan, Misrata looks to secure a major piece of the future Libyan power pie, but continue to see the ancient regime as the biggest threat. "Three-quarters of ISIS fighters in Sidra are former Gaddafists who want to take revenge on the revolution," says Mohamed Hamrane in what might appear like a dangerous denial of reality.


"There's a paranoia in Misrata that the revolution will be stolen away from us," admits Faysal Swehli, a forty-something entrepreneur who inherited a family import-export business.

The weariness of war is however quite palpable. Since early May, those in favor of peace are starting to make their voices heard, to the displeasure of the most extreme Islamists fighters. "People are tired of this war," says the judge Sofiane el-Kabir.

A student says he refused to go to the front line: "Why would I enroll in a militia to eventually end up being a pawn in the radical Islamists' game?"


There's still a long way to go, but Misrata recently agreed to a ceasefire with certain opponents in its immediate surroundings. The times are eminently fragile, and volatile. Is there ever a good time to lower your guard? How do you break the infernal circle of vendetta?

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January 22-23

  • Navalny saga & Putin’s intentions
  • COVID’s toll on teenage girls
  • A 50-year-old book fee finally gets paid
  • … and much more!

🎲 BUT FIRST, A NEWS QUIZ!

What do you remember from the news this week?

1. Which two words did U.S. President Joe Biden use about possible scenarios in the Russia-Ukraine standoff that upset authorities in Kyiv?

2. What started to mysteriously appear on signs, statues and monuments across Adelaide, Australia?

3. What cult movie did U.S. rocker Meat Loaf, who died Friday at age 74, star in?

4. What news story have we summed up here in emoji form? 🇬🇧 👱 💬 💼 ❌ 🥳 🦠

[Answers at the bottom of this newsletter]

⬇️  STARTER

Toxic geopolitics: More than ever, we need more women world leaders

The world is watching the Russian-Ukrainian border. Russian President Vladimir Putin threatening an invasion finds an ally in Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi, united against their common enemy: the United States. Back in Washington, U.S. President Joe Biden — marking his first year in power with painfully low approval rates (higher only than Donald Trump’s) — sends his Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, to Kyiv to reassure President Volodymyr Zelensky who worries that France’s Emmanuel Macron might undermine Ukraine. And we haven’t even mentioned Xi Jinping!

It’s an endless theater of world leaders beating their respective chests — and they have exactly one thing in common: they’re all men. It’s by now a decades-old question, but worth asking again: What would happen if women, and not men, were running the world? Would there be less conflict, more prosperity? More humanity?

In 2018, the World Economic Forum released a study that showed that “only 4% of signatories to peace agreements between 1992 and 2011 were women, and only 9% of the negotiators.” The report shows that in several conflict zones in the world in recent decades, citing Liberia, Northern Ireland and Colombia, women have been instrumental in achieving peace.

In Colombia, where 20% of peace negotiators for the 2016 peace treaty were women, Ingrid Betancourt, herself a victim of the 50-year conflict, has announced her candidacy for the May presidential elections. Differently from previous bids, where she focused on fighting environmental abuses and corruption, Betancourt now is putting gender issues at the center of her political agenda. Bogota daily El Espectador questions whether the former hostage will be able to ride this important political wave, with feminist movements flexing their muscle around the region demanding more rights.

In Italy, next week’s elections for the head of state are monopolized by infamously misogynous former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is hoping to be elected for the seven-year, honorary function. There is no official candidacy, but Berlusconi’s name and that of current Prime Minister Mario Draghi are the two getting the most attention. Italian feminist writer and intellectual Dacia Maraini writes in La Stampa that, yes, the very fact of electing a female president will be progress for the country — and by the way, there are plenty of women qualifed for the job.

There was also a woman politician making the news this week for actually getting elected: Maltese conservative politician Roberta Metsola, became the new European Parliament President after the death of Italy’s David Sassoli. And yet the election of the first female president of the EU’s legislature since Nicole Fontaine in 2001 has been widely criticized by female politicians — primarily for Metsola’s stance against abortion rights. "I think it is a terrible sign for women's rights everywhere in Europe," French left-wing member of the European Parliament Manon Aubry told Deutsche Welle.

The women who have risen to power in history (Margaret Thatcher, anyone?) don’t necessarily make the case that gender is the silver bullet to fix politics. Still, after watching all the toxic masculinity on the world stage this past week, we can rightfully demand fewer men.

Irene Caselli

🎭  5 CULTURE THINGS TO KNOW

• Record-breaking online concert of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand”: More than 100 musicians from around the world will take part today in a performance of Mahler’s epic 8th symphony consisting of 1,200 elements, including a double chorus, children’s choir, a full orchestra and an organ. The event is a culmination of a year of work; all artists recorded their parts in isolation besides the children’s choir. Tickets can be purchased here.

Yearly Japanese festival will set a mountain on fire: Today, the grassy hillside of Mount Wakakusayama in Japan will go up in flames as fireworks go off in the background as part of celebrations for Wakakusa Yamayak. The origin of the festival isn’t totally clear, but might relate to border conflicts between the great temples in the region or to ward off wild boars.

• New insights into antiquities taken by the Nazis: Scholars are looking into how German forces during World War II looted artifacts such as on the Greek island of Crete. Nazi officials pillaged these valuables for their own personal gain, but many were also destroyed, which is why researchers around the world are hoping to gain greater insight into this often overlooked aspect of German occupation.

Exhibition of Beirut’s restored artwork: The Beirut Museum of Art has inaugurated the exhibition “Lift” featuring 17 paintings by Lebanese artists that had been damaged by the port explosion in 2020, and have since been restored as a result of a UNESCO initiative.

The world’s first vegan violin tunes up: Berries, pears and spring water are just some of the natural ingredients relied on for the construction of the instrument by English violin-maker Padraig O'Dubhlaoidh. Traditionally, animal parts like horsehair, hooves, horns and bones are used, especially to glue pieces together. The £8,000 instrument is sure to be music to some animal lover’s ears.

🇷🇺  NAVALNY SAGA & PUTIN’S INTENTIONS


One year ago anti-corruption lawyer and politician Alexei Navalny was detained in Russia, marking the effective end of domestic opposition to Russian president Vladimir Putin. In the time since, more than half of the former coordinators of Navalny's headquarters fled Russia. Even Navalny's name is forbidden: Putin never says his name, calling him "this citizen."

At the same time, Navalny’s imprisonment and the de facto end of the opposition have changed Russia. The fear of persecution, the lack of alternatives and the total censorship and propaganda have caused Putin's ratings consistently downward.

An aging leader with no successors, no enemies and dwindling popular support is finding it increasingly difficult to explain why he must continue to rule forever. In such a situation, there’s nothing quite like an external threat to fuel the raison d’être of the authoritarian regime. In Putin’s eyes, the perfect threat right now is NATO expansion, and the perfect enemy is its neighbor Ukraine and its attempts to join the military alliance. Whether Russia's president is ready to engage in a real war is the great unknown, but its aggressive and uncompromising foreign policy — like his disposing of Alexei Navalny — is the latest legitimization of his increasingly absolutist rule now into its third decade.

Read the full story: What The Alexei Navalny Saga Tells Us About Putin’s Intentions On Ukraine

🇨🇴  FROM HOSTAGE TO POTENTIAL HEAD OF STATE


Íngrid Betancourt spent more than six years as a prisoner of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) terror group in Colombia, an experience that is sure to play a role in her recently announced presidential campaign. Betancourt, who is 60, is running as part of the Verde Oxígeno and is the only woman in the Centro Esperanza Coalition (CCE), a centrist alliance.

Betancourt could be a boost for the coalition and embody its goals of transforming, overcoming polarization and, as its name indicates, giving hope to Colombia. In particular, the centrist candidate who in the past has been largely focused on anti-corruption and environmental protection, has said she will make women’s rights a cornerstone of her campaign.

Read the full story: Ingrid Betancourt, A Hostage Heroine Reinvented As Feminist For President

♀️ 😔  YOUNG WOMEN FACE THE BRUNT OF THE COVID-19 MENTAL HEALTH CRISIS


A growing number of studies around the world show that COVID-19 and lockdown restrictions have prompted a disproportionate increase in mental health illness among teen girls. These include rising suicide rates among adolescent females in the United States, Germany and Spain and a higher prevalence of anxiety and eating disorders in Israel. But why are women being disproportionately impacted?

There’s a range of reasons. In India, for example, young women had increased difficulty accessing education resources when schools went online and shared a disproportionate burden of household tasks as opposed to their male peers. Around the world, social media also played a significant role; without access to in-person socialization and hobbies, young people spent more time online, often comparing themselves to others, impacting feelings of self-worth. The situation is particularly dire given the challenges of accessing mental health support resources during the pandemic.

Read the full story: Why The COVID-19 Mental Health Crisis Is Hitting Teenage Girls The Hardest

💡  BRIGHT IDEA


Norwegian mobility company Podbike has announced that Frikar, its four-wheeled enclosed electric bike, will soon hit bike lanes on home turf. The futuristic-looking vehicle does require the user to pedal, which powers a generator and drive-by-wire system that keep the Frikar running — with a speed limited to 25 km/h.

#️⃣ TRENDING

“Mãe De Bolsonaro” is the top query on Twitter in Brazil, after news that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s mother Olinda Bonturi Bolsonaro had died at age 94.

😄📚 SMILE OF THE WEEK

Photo of the new President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola

New President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola

Philipp Von Ditfurth/ZUMA


London’s legendary bookshop Waterstones Gower Street tweeted a photo of a letter from an anonymous user confessing to having forgotten to pay for their books some 48 years ago. Owing approximately £100 ($136), adjusted for inflation, they had sent through £120 ($163) to make up for their tardiness. Touched by the kind gesture, the bookshop reciprocated by donating the money to the largest children’s reading charity in the United Kingdom.

👉   OTHERWISE ...

Dottoré! is a weekly column on Worldcrunch.com by Mariateresa Fichele, a psychiatrist and writer based in Naples, Italy. Read more about the series here.

Bucket of tears

I’ve been thinking and thinking about a patient of mine since yesterday. His name is Giovanni.

Psychiatrists, you might not know, are quite often asked the same unanswerable question: "Why does one become insane?”

When I was younger, I searched and searched for an answer, losing myself in scientific explanations about synapses, neurons and neurotransmitters.

By the end of my studies, I’d realized that the only thing that was clear was that I’d been clutching at straws to justify my work and give it a semblance of scientific dignity. In the years since, I’ve forced myself, in defiance of the authority of my position, to reply with a laconic but honest: "Sorry, but I don't know."

So when Giovanni asked me that same question, he was not happy at all with my answer. “Dottoré, how’s it possible that you don't understand why I became crazy?”

When he tried to ask me again one day, I tried a different response:

"Giová, do you cry?"

"No. Why?"

"Imagine that the tears that you don't shed, that you force yourself not to shed, because that's what you've been taught to do, all end up inside your heart. The heart is an organ that pumps blood, which brings nourishment and oxygen to the whole body. But over time those diverted tears accumulate to the point that the heart begins to pump them instead of your blood. Slowly your body becomes sick, but the part that suffers the most is your brain. Because tears don't contain oxygen and nourishment, just sadness."

I expected a reaction to this fanciful explanation, but instead Giovanni kept quiet and eventually left.

The next time I saw him, he said: "Dottoré, I've thought about it. I know you told me about the tears to make me feel better, but maybe you’re right. Because sometimes I feel that I have a lake, more than a heart. But it takes a very powerful pump to pump out all that water, and my heart alone cannot do it. And now that you've explained to me how I became crazy, can you also tell me if I'll ever get better?"

"Do you want another story or do you want the truth?”

"This time, I’d rather have the truth!”

"The answer is always the same then. I'm sorry, Giová, but I don't know this either. But I can tell you one thing for sure. I'll help you slowly, slowly with just a bucket. Because the truth is, not even I have that pump."

⏩  LOOKING AHEAD

• Italy's parliament will convene Monday to begin the process of voting for a new president to succeed Sergio Mattarella for a seven-year term.

• Qualification games for the 2022 FIFA World Cup will be held from Jan. 27 to Feb. 2 for South, North and Central America as well as Asia. Argentina’s national team will not be able to rely on superstar Lionel Messi, still recovering from COVID-19.

• Next Thursday will mark 100 years since Nellie Bly died. The American journalist is known for her record-breaking 72-day trip around the world in 1889, inspired by Jules Vernes’ book Around the World in Eighty Days


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