SIRTE — If it were theater, it would be bad theater. Too incongruous, too unreal. The stage — buildings in ruins all along the boulevard — just doesn't fit the happiness on the people's faces. Some are busy decorating their cars with ribbons for a wedding. Others are drinking coffee or shopping. The cars are driving on the streets as if nothing had happened. And yet, 10 months ago, Sirte was a dead city.

That was when, after one year under ISIS domination and seven months of war, Muammar Gaddafi's former stronghold was liberated. Emptied of terrorists, as well as of its inhabitants. And destroyed.

ISIS first took a few buildings in February 2015. Little by little, its influence expanded until June 2015, when the terrorist group gained control over the entire city and more than 200 kilometers of coastal land. At first, ISIS was more or less accepted by the local population, accused of being pro-Gaddafi and marginalized since the 2011 revolution. Soon, however, the jihadist organization established its own rules, executing opponents and forcing civilians to flee.

After months of postponements, troops loyal to the UN-backed Government of National Accord in Tripoli finally launched the operation "Al-Bunyan Al-Marsoos" (Solid Foundation) on May 12, 2016. And on Dec. 5, after seven months of battle that killed some 700 among the Libyan forces, Sirte was officially liberated.

Tank in Sirte in 2011 — Photo: vittoare

During this troubled time, Mahmoud Emsameen fled to the neighboring town of Misrata. There, he was placed in charge of refugees. At the time, he asked journalists not to reveal his last name. He's no longer afraid now. He estimates that 60% to 70% of the displaced families have returned to their homes. "The people of Sirte are running their city single-handedly," he says. "Many came back in March, after authorities gave the go-ahead. They opened their shops again, restarted their businesses and jobs to bring life back to the city."

Back in business

Emsameen drives us around the housing estates, pointing to the homes where people have returned. Neighborhood number 1, ISIS's last stronghold in the city, is also the one that has seen the most destruction. "People have returned nonetheless," he explains. "Some were able to quickly refurbish their homes, others have sealed off parts and only live in a few rooms. The people whose houses were entirely destroyed have no choice but to rent."

Abdallah Boujazzia, 21, is one of those people. He pays about 700 Libyan dinars ($500) every month to accommodate himself and his entire family a few streets away from where his house used to stand. But the young man doesn't complain: The fish shop he owns together with his brothers was left untouched, as were their fishing boat. "We manage to make due thanks to our shop," he says. "We're the only fishmonger's for now. People come from all over the city to buy their fish here." The buildings around his shop still bear the marks of gunshots.

South of the city center, Rabia spent 32,000 Libyan dinars ($23,000) to refurbish his house. "ISIS fighters were living here. When they left, they set the house on fire," he explains. ISIS militants are said to have used such fires and the thick smoke they provoked to hide their escape. Rabia, a father of two children who will soon be able to return to school normally, had to use his own savings, and so didn't have to wait for government that may or may not arrive.

The buildings around his shop still bear the marks of gunshots.

Like many Libyans, Rabia is a fatalist and doesn't waste time asking himself too many questions. "We have to get back on our feet, that's it," he says. As soon as the war ended, he reopened his shop, where he sells cellphones and tablets, albeit with one slight change. "Since people don't have much money, I now sell used phones." And it works, even though at this time last year, there were no working telephone networks or electricity.

Keeping close watch

On the main boulevard, clothes shops have also reopened. Colorful women's clothes, which had been banned by ISIS, are back. But dark memories are never far away: On the walls, ISIS slogans indicating whether a shop has been authorized are still visible even though some of the markings were hastily covered with fresh paint.

Ali Emsameen, Mahmoud's son, fought to liberate the city and says it's now safe thanks to a new organization. "We have put together a new Sirte security force together with the military. It's made mostly of the two brigades posted in the city. The intelligence police also started working again. And Al-Bunyan Al-Marsoos is just on the city's outskirts, ready to intervene if there's a problem."

Standing in destroyed Sirte, Libya, in 2011 — Photo: Li Muzi/Xinhua/ZUMA

Under condition of anonymity, one inhabitant explains that, "We're monitoring everything. If we see a member of ISIS return, he'll be denounced. The families who cozied up too much to ISIS won't be returning anytime soon ..."

Sirte has been exempted from security issues since it was liberated. But the threat still clearly exists. ISIS cells are moving in the desert, not far from the city. On Sept. 22 and 26, U.S. warplanes bombed ISIS positions south-east of the city, killing dozens of jihadists. The previous month, terrorists had established roadblocks in the region around the city — a way to show that they haven't left the scene just yet.

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