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?