Saving Sirte, Libyan City Returns To Life After Fall Of ISIS

In the center of Sirte, Libya
In the center of Sirte, Libya
Maryline Dumas

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."

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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"The Truest Hypocrisy" - The Russia-NATO Clash Seen From Moscow

Russia has decided to cut off relations with the Western military alliance. But Moscow says it was NATO who really wanted the break based on its own internal rationale.

NATO chief Stoltenberg and Russian Foregin Minister Lavrov

Russian Foreign Ministry/TASS via ZUMA
Pavel Tarasenko and Sergei Strokan

MOSCOW — The Russian Foreign Ministry's announcement that the country's permanent representation to NATO would be shut down for an indefinite period is a major development. But from Moscow's viewpoint, there was little alternative.

These measures were taken in response to the decision of NATO on Oct. 6 to cut the number of personnel allowed in the Russian mission to the Western alliance by half. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the removal of accreditations was from eight employees of the Russian mission to NATO who were identified as undeclared employees of Russian intelligence." We have seen an increase in Russian malicious activity for some time now," Stoltenberg said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry called NATO's expulsion of Russian personnel a "ridiculous stunt," and Stoltenberg's words "the truest hypocrisy."

In announcing the complete shutdown in diplomacy between Moscow and NATO, the Russian Foreign Ministry added: "The 'Russian threat' is being hyped in strengthen the alliance's internal unity and create the appearance of its 'relevance' in modern geopolitical conditions."

The number of Russian diplomatic missions in Brussels has been reduced twice unilaterally by NATO in 2015 and 2018 - after the alliance's decision of April 1, 2014 to suspend all practical civilian and military cooperation between Russia and NATO in the wake of Russia's annexation of Crimea. Diplomats' access to the alliance headquarters and communications with its international secretariat was restricted, military contacts have frozen.

Yet the new closure of all diplomatic contacts is a perilous new low. Kommersant sources said that the changes will affect the military liaison mission of the North Atlantic alliance in Moscow, aimed at promoting the expansion of the dialogue between Russia and NATO. However, in recent years there has been no de facto cooperation. And now, as Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has announced, the activities of the military liaison mission will be suspended. The accreditation of its personnel will be canceled on November 1.

NATO told RIA Novosti news service on Monday that it regretted Moscow's move. Meanwhile, among Western countries, Germany was the first to respond. "It would complicate the already difficult situation in which we are now and prolong the "ice age," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters.

"Lavrov said on Monday, commenting on the present and future of relations between Moscow and the North Atlantic Alliance, "If this is the case, then we see no great need to continue pretending that any changes will be possible in the foreseeable future because NATO has already announced that such changes are impossible.

The suspension of activities of the Russian Permanent Mission to NATO, as well as the military liaison and information mission in Russia, means that Moscow and Brussels have decided to "draw a final line under the partnership relations of previous decades," explained Andrei Kortunov, director-general of the Russian Council on Foreign Affairs, "These relations began to form in the 1990s, opening channels for cooperation between the sides … but they have continued to steadily deteriorate over recent years."

Kortunov believes the current rupture was promoted by Brussels. "A new strategy for NATO is being prepared, which will be adopted at the next summit of the alliance, and the previous partnership with Russia does not fit into its concept anymore."

The existence and expansion of NATO after the end of the Cold War was the main reason for the destruction of the whole complex of relations between Russia and the West. Today, Russia is paying particular attention to marking red lines related to the further steps of Ukraine's integration into NATO. Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov previously stated this, warning that in response to the alliance's activity in the Ukrainian direction, Moscow would take "active steps" to ensure its security.

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