Libyan security forces advance during clashes with anti-government forces after an attack on a Benghazi police station in May 2014. Photo: Getty
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Bullets and ballots in Benghazi

Many residents of the Libyan city are preparing to leave for fear of more violence; others would leave if they could.

The ceasefire in Benghazi, the largest city in eastern Libya, lasted until just 3pm on 25 June, the day of national parliamentary elections. The new 200-member parliament will be called the House of Representatives and will replace the unpopular General National Congress (GNC). In a last-ditch attempt to appease the restive east of the country, the House of Representatives will sit in Benghazi, rather than the capital, Tripoli.

Yet five hours before the polling stations were due to close, fighting resumed in the city. News broke that the prominent human rights activist Salwa Bugaighis, an important voice in the 2011 uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, had been shot dead in her living room after she returned home from voting. Political assassinations are not uncommon in Benghazi, but Bugaighis is the most prominent woman killed.

In Tripoli the elections were met with indifference. Across the capital, most of the candidate campaign posters had been defaced. The empty polling stations hinted at a considerably lower turnout than for the 2012 elections, when over 60 per cent of the electorate voted in the GNC.

One reason for the poor turnout might be the change in the electoral system. In an effort to stop party infighting hijacking the process, all candidates – over 1,500 in total – had to run as independents. Few people I spoke to had any idea who they were voting for.

“People are also disillusioned with the authorities and fed up with the state of the country; we expect less than 20 per cent to come,” said Fawzia Bin al-Taiff, who was working at a Tripoli polling station.

The GNC limped on to the end of its tenure having failed to oversee the completion of a constitution or the formation of an effective government. Libyans do not know who their prime minister is: three men confusingly declared their premiership in May. One of them, Ahmed Maiteeq, a businessman from the coastal city of Misurata, was carried to the prime minister’s office atop a truck armed with anti-aircraft guns.

Meanwhile, the GNC’s main political blocs – the Muslim Brotherhood and their non-Islamist opponents – frequently manoeuvre their own militias to fight against one another, turning every political spat into a potential war.

The violence in Benghazi escalated in May when the renegade former army general Khalifa Hiftar, backed by a muddle of former special forces and what remains of the national army, launched his “Dignity” campaign to wipe out Islamist extremists. Groups such as Ansar al-Sharia, the Islamist organisation responsible for the September 2012 attack that killed the US ambassador Chris Stevens, had been threatening to take over much of the east of the country.

Hiftar and his army are intent on overpowering Libya’s many government-funded militias. These formed during the war and are fighting each other for territory and weapons. In recent years various armed groups have laid siege to the parliament and government, kidnapped (and then rescued) the prime minister and shut down oilfields in the east at a cost of as much as $30bn in lost revenues.

Many Libyans, weary of the violence, tentatively backed Hiftar’s plan in the naive belief that air strikes would knock out the Islamists and the other militias fighting together with them.

A month later, the battle is still raging and the general increasingly looks like any other political opportunist. The ministry of defence does not officially recognise Hiftar’s army. And citizens are caught up in the violence.

“They started shelling early after sunset on Ramadan,” said Walid, a 36-year-old engineer and supporter of Hiftar’s “Dignity” in Benghazi. He is planning to move his family to the US. “I passed by one of the main hospitals in the city and saw it was secured by Ansar al-Sharia. I’m disappointed and confused. I don’t know if we are winning or losing.” Walid says his daughter cries herself to sleep each night, to the sound of gunfire.

However, Hiftar believes he will be victorious. In Marj, the last major town before the front line, his spokesperson Mohamed el-Hejazi, a pilot in the Libyan air force, said that the general had at least 70,000 troops on his side as well as several MiG fighter jets and attack helicopters.

“We have completed 60 per cent of our goals,” he told me when we met at an empty hotel in the deserted town, though he was vague on details. Even after a month of air strikes, the four districts surrounding Benghazi are controlled by Hiftar’s opponents.

It is unclear how the general and his troops can afford to continue the battle, but el-Hejazi dodged my questions about funding. Unlike government-recognised militia groups, these forces do not receive GNC funding. Nor does Hiftar get funds from overseas.

Even so, the militia commanders fighting Hiftar do not sound confident and some hint at a future stalemate.

“Hiftar’s people call themselves the police and the army. They are political climbers who didn’t fight during the revolution – we are the ones who liberated the country,” said Mohamed al-Arieby, head of Libya Shield 2, a government-funded militia fighting alongside Ansar al-Sharia. A wiry young man with long dreadlocks, al-Arieby looks more like a hippie than a fighter. His nickname is Boka, meaning “vehicle pit”, which refers to his pre-war career as a car mechanic. “We will not leave the city and we will not let them in,” he said.

Many residents of Benghazi are preparing to leave for fear of more violence; others would leave if they could. “We are living in horror,” said Nada, a young mother of two children. “My kids sleep to the sound of shelling.”

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, After God Again

Photo: Pablo via Creative Commons
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Is Lithuania still homophobic? My girlfriend and I held hands to find out

The Lonely Planet guide warned that for gay and lesbian travelers, "small displays of public affection can provoke some nasty responses".

It’s midnight somewhere on the greyish outskirts of Vilnius, and my girlfriend has just burst out laughing. Our Uber driver starts laughing too. Nonplussed, I scan the oppressively functional Soviet-era architecture we’re driving past for literally anything funny.

Then I see them. A series of panels above the stairway to a basement bar; photos of topless blonde men with glistening six packs. This is – as is usually the case – either a tribute to the most homoerotic scenes in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, or something deliberately gay. And 99 out of 100 it’s the latter, this being no exception.

Soho Club is the most out-of-context gay venue I’ve ever seen. It sits on a poorly lit street on the edge of Lithuania’s capital, almost as if it’s been plucked out of the city centre and dumped there.

Given the staunchly Catholic and formerly communist Baltic state’s uneasy relationship with its LGBTQ community, this wouldn’t be particularly surprising.

According to the Lonely Planet guide to the Baltic States for gay and lesbian travelers, "small displays of public affection can provoke some nasty responses".

Homosexuality was only decriminalised here in 1993. And, any legislative victories aside, a 2009 poll found that attitudes amongst the population were much the same as the pre-1993 days. Eight in ten respondents considered homosexuality to be anywhere between a perversion and a disease. 

Such a gay-hostile place probably seems like an odd choice for a romantic getaway with my girlfriend, on my birthday weekend. Then again an itinerary like ours, which includes a visit to the both the Museum of the Victims of Genocide, and the Holocaust exhibition at the Jewish museum, is hardly "gondola ride in Venice" or "Eiffel Tower at sunset". This is a stark, ex-Soviet, mostly-raining introduction to being gay outside of the liberal London bubble. Which is to say: dreamy.

Having said that, Vilnius’s cobbled old town is beautiful and, compared to other more mainstream Eastern European capitals, decidedly less stag night-y. Same-sex couples, it turns out, can be drawn to a city for features other than its queer nightlife. 

On the short walk from Vilnius’s central train station to our Airbnb, we passed a mural of Donald Trump smoking a spliff and giving Vladimir Putin blowback. A definite tribute to the gay kiss between the USSR's Brezhnev and East Germany's Honecker depicted on the Berlin Wall.

It was hard to tell what this said about the area’s attitude towards queers, but it was on the side of a bar that’s blasting out Black Lips and full of Lithuanian hipsters in their twenties. Say what you like about hipsters, they are not known for gay-hate. It was difficult to imagine anyone in there giving much of a shit about our sexuality.

At the Airbnb, we were greeted by one such Lithuanian hipster. She was about 20 and seemed a little nervous speaking to us, even though her English was near fluent.

The flat – an immaculate new build – was decked out in Ikea classics. Like the bar with the homoerotic Trump/Putin mural, anywhere with a Malm just seems to radiate gay-friendliness. It’s both sterile and PC. Like the Lib Dems, or a free sachet of lube.

Our host gave us a brief lesson in how to work the flat, before saying a polite goodbye. We’d just started unpacking when there was a knock on the door. It turned out the host had done a 180.

"One last thing," she said, "Do you need an extra duvet, or are you… sharing the bed?"

OH GOD, I thought. This is it. This is the kind of shit you read about. You never do read about anything good.

"Yeah, we’re sharing," I said, feeling both – I hate to say – embarrassed about being in a same-sex relationship, and embarrassed about being embarrassed about being in a same-sex relationship.

"OK, cool. No questions!" said the host, before disappearing into the afternoon at the speed of sound.

"No questions," I repeated, "Hmm."

Just to be clear, no, this wasn’t exactly a hate crime. I’m also reluctant to judge a 20-year-old from a very religious country for – well – judging us. And anyway, maybe "no questions" meant "no judgment". Who am I to… judge?

We’d been in Lithuania for about an hour before my girlfriend and I decided to really test the water and hold hands in the street. Mostly, we were starting to wonder if we were being xenophobic by assuming Lithuanians were probably homophobic.

This, I suppose, is the point at which bigotry really starts to eat itself. Unfortunately though, almost the moment we held hands, a group of...shaven headed individuals, who wouldn’t look out of place in a modern day pogrom, walked past, staring us down as if we’d stopped there for a spot of mid-street fisting.

I made brief eye contact with one of them as I let go of my girlfriend’s hand as fast as a bottle of water at airport security.

"Oh," I said to her, when – as far as we knew – Vilnius’s only out homophobes were at a safe distance. "Yeah…" she said.

There are parts of the world – Uganda, Russia and, most recently, Chechnya –  where both socially and legislatively speaking, things are actually getting worse for queer people. But, the overarching narrative is "it gets better". Visiting anywhere with less good attitudes towards The Gays than I’m used to feels like a step back in time.

I wonder, in terms of acceptance of, say, two women holding hands, which decade in London is reflected in 2017 Vilnius. The 80s? The 70s? I’ve only been gay in London since 1989. And back then – as far as I know – I wasn’t a particularly dykey baby. 

So began a weekend-long game of political PDA. We walked through the cobbled streets of the old town, admiring baroque churches and wondering if we were allowed to be a couple near them.

Without a strict set of rules, every stranger’s glance is open to interpretation. My interpretation being, "Let’s just not make a scene, OK?", my girlfriend’s interpretation being, "Stop being paranoid and xenophobic. No one cares."

In the evening, as we sat in a busy restaurant eating zeppelins (remarkably dense Lithuanian potato dumplings, not airships) we spotted – lo and behold – what we (homophobically?) thought might be another gay couple.

Two men in their twenties stood waiting for a table. They had professionally shaped eyebrows. One of them had earrings. In Nineties terms, they were gay as fuck. At a dumpling joint in Vilnius, at ten at night, who the hell knows? And, more to the point, why the hell should they care? Well, when your relationship has been reduced – via queer invisibility – to a handholding battle, you’re kind of desperate to find another same-sex couple.

"Are they…" I said.

"They must be," she said.

"Should we…?"

"NO."

I’m not even too sure what I was asking we "should" do (speak to them? Buy them drinks? Demand a gay tour of Vilnius?), or why I was shut down without finishing my sentence. Whatever we should or shouldn’t have done, we didn’t.

But back to Soho Club. The car stops and we leave behind our bewildered and slightly too amused Uber driver. Tentatively, as if approaching an ancient Egyptian tomb by lamplight, we walk down the stairs past the muscle man panels.

The complete silence – not even interrupted by passing traffic – doesn’t exactly say "buzzing" or… "Soho". Inevitably, almost, the bar is closed. In fact, it’s arguably the most closed bar I’ve ever seen. We’ve turned up, ready to party with Lithuania’s finest gays, at a giant lead box. What’s more, we look around us and realise we’ve strayed into Murder Town.

On our way to the nearest bus stop, we pass a life-size fiberglass cow devoid of any explanation, and a lit-up poster that looks startlingly like an ad for dead babies. The streets get wider and desolate-er until we’re at a petrol station, holding hands out of pure fear. On my part at least. If this is Vilnius’s gay scene, I’d like to give it some kudos at least for quite strongly resembling a David Lynch film.

Having somehow not been sawn into pieces and turned into outsider art, we find ourselves back at Vilnius airport the next day. While idly internetting on her phone, my girlfriend notices our Airbnb host has reviewed us as guests.

"Leonore and her friend are very friendly people!" she wrote.

In all fairness, I have shared beds in Airbnbs with friends. And whether or not someone is tiptoeing around my sexuality like a puddle of something that may or may not be wee, it’s always nice to be considered friendly. And to have "friends".

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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