x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

I no longer recognise the country Libya has become

Mustafa Fetouri reflects on the experience of returning after all the tumult in his homeland.

When I returned to Tripoli earlier this year, I planned to stay two weeks but I ended up staying more than six. I stayed that long because it was like visiting somewhere for the first time: my country and its people have changed beyond recognition since I was last in Libya.

Tripoli is now a strange place. Its once beautiful seafront, where families used to spend their evenings in beachside cafes, is devoid of life.

One day, as I sat in one of Tripoli’s notorious traffic jams, I was struck by how ill-behaved my taxi driver was. He ignored traffic priorities and he badmouthed other motorists. I reached the end of my tether and decided to get out as we neared the famous Rixos Al Nasr hotel.

“You’ve embarrassed me with your behaviour. I am not continuing my journey with you,” I said to him by way of explanation.

“This is new free Libya,” he replied, which is a standard saying that young people use when they are misbehaving.

During the day, the city seemed quiet and safe except for the occasional roadblock. But at night, Tripoli rumbles to the most disturbing symphony of gun shots and loud explosions.

Perhaps surprisingly, imported foods and consumer goods are widely available if cripplingly expensive. Sensing an opportunity, a major French supermarket chain has opened two outlets in the Al Hadba district south of the capital.

On another day, I visited a couple of government departments where guards were on duty but I was able to move around freely. Other buildings that had been destroyed by Nato air strikes in 2011, lay in ruins.

During the day, the cafes in the city centre thronged with men sipping coffee and talking about football, politics, shootings and their daily struggles.

After a little while I grew tired of Tripoli and returned to Bani Walid, my hometown in the west of the country.

There, shops stay open until late at night and I freely moved around the town without coming across any checkpoints, let alone seeing a single armed person on the streets.

Almost all the homes I visited had their televisions tuned to the local broadcaster known as Aldardanel.

Its local office is near a university building that was also destroyed by Nato. The government considers its broadcasts illegal, which goes some way to explaining its popularity.

For almost two years, the mountainous town has been militia-free and has enjoyed peace and safety since the siege of Bani Walid in October 2012.

Many displaced families now live in Bani Walid. One family from Tawergha occupies our old family home. Tawergha is a ghost town after militias forced its 40,000 inhabitants into exile. Not a single Tawreghi has returned to their former city since the civil war and the Bani Walid social council has made it a policy to provide free housing for refugees.

In late March, the council organised a day of solidarity with the missing and the imprisoned people in Libya. The event attracted many families and relatives of missing persons from as far away as Sebha and Benghazi. Among them were a couple of women, sisters and mothers of former regime officials now jailed by Misurata militia.

Eventually I decided to return to Europe, but the road to the airport was closed on the day I left. Fortunately, my flight was delayed too.

While waiting to leave, a friend called me to wish me safe a trip and then said: “Unless you really have to, do not come back. You won’t miss much and nothing is worth coming back for.”

My friend is right, but I still mourn what my country has become.

Mustafa Fetouri is a Libyan analyst at IHS Global Insight, an author and a freelance journalist