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: Getty
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How the Saudis are making it almost impossible to report on their war in Yemen

The conflict is not getting anything like the media attention it deserves.

This article has been co-authored by Ahmed Baider, a fixer based in Yemen's capital Sana’a, and Lizzie Porter, a freelance journalist based in Beirut who is still waiting for a chance to report from Yemen.

Ten thousand people have died. The world’s largest cholera epidemic is raging, with more than 530,000 suspected cases and 2,000 related deaths. Millions more people are starving. Yet the lack of press attention on Yemen’s conflict has led it to be described as the “forgotten war”.

The scant media coverage is not without reason, or wholly because the general public is too cold-hearted to care. It is very hard to get into Yemen. The risks for the few foreign journalists who gain access are significant. And the Saudi-led coalition waging war in the country is doing its best to make it difficult, if not impossible, to report from the area.

Working in Sana’a as a fixer for journalists since the start of the uprisings of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011 has sometimes felt like the most difficult job in the world. When a Saudi-led coalition started bombing Yemen in support of its president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, in March 2015, it became even harder.

With control of the airspace, last summer they closed Sana’a airport. The capital had been the main route into Yemen. Whether deliberately or coincidentally, in doing so, the coalition prevented press access.

The media blackout came to the fore last month, when the Saudi-led coalition turned away an extraordinary, non-commercial UN flight with three BBC journalists on board. The team – including experienced correspondent Orla Guerin – had all the necessary paperwork. Aviation sources told Reuters that the journalists’ presence was the reason the flight was not allowed to land.

The refusal to allow the press to enter Yemen by air forced them to find an alternative route into the country – a 13-hour sea crossing.

After the airport closure in August 2016, an immensely complex set of procedures was created for journalists travelling on the UN flights operating from Djibouti on the Horn of Africa into Sana’a. The level of paperwork required offered only a glimmer of hope that the media would be allowed to highlight the suffering in Yemen. Each journalist’s application required visas, permits, return ticket fees of $1,100 per person (later reduced to $250) and a great deal of bureaucracy.

But there were other issues, too: equipment that all journalists take with them to war zones as standard – flak jackets, helmets and satellite phones – were not allowed on the UN flights, increasing fears about operating in the country.

The new arrangement significantly increased the cost and time involved – two things that most media organisations are short of. A team of two would have to budget for several thousand dollars for a week-long reporting trip. This was limiting for even large media organisations with big budgets.

Still, the system worked. A few journalists started to come and cover the situation from the ground. Yemenis were happy to share their stories. On one assignment to villages on the west coast, people ran to talk to us and show us their malnourished children as soon as we arrived. It was obvious from the look in their eyes that they wanted to tell people what had been happening.

That changed after last October, when three or four large international media teams had reported from Yemen, broadcasting images of starving children and bombed-out homes to TVs around the world. The Saudi-led coalition began refusing to let journalists fly in with the UN. They said that the flights were for humanitarian workers only, or that the safety of journalists could not be guaranteed. Members of the press who had been preparing trips suddenly had their plans quashed. Time assigned to reporting the conflict had to be given to more accessible stories.

Over the next few months, media access was again opened up, only to be followed by U-turns and further paralysis. And when the Saudi-led coalition did grant access, it was only under certain, excruciating conditions.

As well as a press visa granted by the opposition authorities in the capital, from February this year, journalists have required a second visa granted by the Saudi-backed government in Aden.

It felt impossible. Why would they give press visas for journalists to visit opposition territory? The doubts were proved correct when trying to convince Hadi government officials to issue press access. The consular envoy in Cairo refused. A call to their team in London resulted in another “no”. 

This meant applying to the authorities in Aden for secondary visas for the tenacious journalists who hadn’t already been put off by the cost and access hurdles. One example of the petty requirements imposed was that a journalist’s visa could not be on paper: it had to be stamped into his or her passport. Of course, that added a week to the whole affair.

After months of media blockade, journalists were finally able to access Yemen again between March and May this year. At present, members of the media are officially allowed to travel on the UN flights. But how many more times journalists will be refused entry remains unknown. Not all crews will have the resources to make alternative arrangements to enter Yemen.

The New Statesman interviewed one French documentary producer who has reported from Yemen twice but who has not been able to access the country since 2015, despite multiple attempts.

Upon each refusal, the Saudi-led coalition told the journalist, “to take commercial flights – which didn’t exist…” he explained, requesting anonymity. “Saudi Arabia and its coalition are doing everything they can to discourage journalists as well as organisations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.”

He said that blocking media access was part of the Saudi-led coalition’s strategy to “bring [Yemen] to its knees in an atmosphere of silence and indifference.”

Access is not the only problem. Reporting in Yemen carries great risks. The British Foreign Office warns of a “very high threat of kidnap and unlawful detention from militia groups, armed tribes, criminals and terrorists”. It specifically mentions journalists as a group that could be targeted.

Editors are increasingly nervous about sending journalists into war zones where kidnap is a significant danger. The editorial green light for arranging assignments to Yemen is – understandably – ever harder to obtain.

Although they are willing to work with recognised press teams, the Houthis and Saleh loyalists have also been known to be suspicious of journalists.

“Even before the Saudis banned access to Yemen, it is important to remember that Yemen is one of the most difficult countries for journalists to access,” added the anonymous journalist.

The amount of press attention dedicated to Yemen simply does not reflect the extent of country’s suffering and political turmoil. Journalists’ rights groups, international organisations and governments need to step up pressure on Saudi Arabia to ease media access to the country.

The coalition last month proposed that the UN take control of Sana’a airport, which it refused. Whoever runs it, the hub must be opened, so that journalists can get in, and Yemenis desperately needing medical treatment abroad can get out.

Failing this, coupled with the extreme risks and costs of reporting, the world will never see the graves of 10,000 people. Yemenis will continue to die starving and invisible, in destroyed homes.