What a difference 5 years makes

A Libyan town’s downward spiral from revolution to Islamic State

By Tom Westcott

Freelance journalist based in Libya, and regular IRIN contributor 

On the fifth anniversary of Libya’s uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, there isn’t much to celebrate for the residents of Bin Jawad. Once at the heart of the 2011 rebellion, they have either fled for their lives or find themselves under the brutal rule of so-called Islamic State.

Residents of the sleepy coastal town slowly became accustomed last year to IS militants fuelling up their trucks at the town’s only petrol station or shopping for supplies at the local stores.

They watched with growing anxiety as IS’s reign of terror spread along Libya’s central coastline until it stretched for some 300 kilometres and encompassed eight towns and villages, including the major town of Sirte.

Made vulnerable by their town's remote location – half way between Benghazi and Misrata – and targeted for its strategic proximity to several of Libya’s oil facilities, the people of Bin Jawad were powerless to protect themselves against their own inevitable takeover in early January. 

Many residents took flight. Nadia was eight months pregnant when she fled for the capital Tripoli with her husband a week after IS arrived. “I didn’t want my baby to be born under such horrible circumstances,” she told IRIN. “They were letting people leave but we weren’t allowed to take any baggage with us, so I left with almost nothing.”

Double displacement

This is the second time in 15 months that Bin Jawad’s residents have been forcibly displaced. The entire town was evacuated in December 2014 for three months, when Tripoli government forces used it as a base to launch an assault on the oil port of Es Sidra, 30 kilometres to the east and controlled then by a former head of Libya's oil field guard, Ibrahim Jadhran, who operates independently from either of Libya's rival governments.

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But most of the town (11,000 according to a 2006 census) came back. This time, the displacement is different. IS shut down the town’s telephone and internet communications within days of seizing power, so Nadia can only keep in sporadic contact with her family via letters sent with local people who drive 640 kilometres to the capital. It’s the only place to withdraw money as IS shuttered the town’s bank.

“It’s very hard for me here, in this big city with no friends or family,” she said. “Every morning I wake up worrying about my relatives and the people of my town. Most people there cannot afford to leave and have no choice but to stay.”

For 46-year-old Mohamed, another resident of Bin Jawad now living in Tripoli, seeing IS carry disembodied heads through Bin Jawad is something he’s been unable to forget. “They drove through the streets, sounding their horns and standing in the back of their trucks holding up three cut heads by their hair,” he said.

“It was terrible and I didn’t want to watch, but I had to look to see if I recognised the faces of those poor men, to see who they were. I cannot remove this image from my head.” 

The victims were security guards from a nearby village; IS later released images of their execution on social media.

Mohamed described the move as a scare tactic to force local people into submission. It seems to have worked. He fled the following day, saying it was just a matter of time before IS started killing people from Bin Jawad.

“I saw the pictures, and they slaughtered those men like sheep,” he explained. “I used to work for the government, which IS hates. So if I had stayed, one day, one of those heads could have been mine.”

Mohamed said his wife and daughter were deeply traumatised from living under IS just for two weeks. “Every night I woke to find my wife weeping in her sleep and all I could do is reassure her she is safe now. I can’t say anything else because I just don’t know when we will be able to return home.” 

Financially trapped

With the bank shuttered, salaries delayed and the oil ports – one of the main employers for residents in the region – barely functioning for two years, many cannot afford to flee IS. “About 20 percent of families have left, but for those of us who cannot, we just have to obey the new IS rules,” said 57-year-old Hassan, a Bin Jawad resident visiting Tripoli to try and withdraw money to take back to his family. “If you are captured by IS doing anything against them, you will pay with your life, so we do exactly what they say.” 

He described Bin Jawad as a paralysed town, with deserted streets and few stores open. Lorry drivers are unwilling to take the risk of delivering into IS-controlled areas, so basic goods are already starting to run low. Despite cash shortages, Hassan said IS had begun charging residents for using electricity, a resource few have paid for since 2011.

Although people in the town need food and medical supplies, as well as cash and petrol, Hassan said sending aid would be pointless, as it would inevitably fall into IS hands.

Mohamed complained that neither of Libya’s rival governments had taken any meaningful action against IS. “Over a month has passed and still no one has done anything to help. It is an impossible situation and Libyan people affected by IS would welcome international intervention, as it is the only thing that could protect us now,” he said.

“Military from the two governments here seem either unable or unwilling to fight IS and every minute that passes is a chance for IS to expand.”

Growing mistrust

Among the many residents who can’t afford to leave Bin Jawad, there is a growing sense of mistrust. Locals say people inside the town were clearly giving IS information before it took control, and some residents detained by IS - which has made more than 150 arrests in the town - have become pro-IS since their release. 

“While in captivity, they had a lot of religious instruction and some of them are now saying how good IS are, even though they were against them before,” Hassan said. “We are a rural community, and some poorly educated people are vulnerable to being brainwashed into supporting IS. It is impossible to know who to trust anymore.”

He said militants continued to make arrests, capturing wanted individuals at checkpoints set up inside the town where residents are routinely stopped and quizzed, and their phones searched for any evidence of anti-IS activities.  

“People are basically living in a constant state of fear, of IS and now even of each other."

“People are basically living in a constant state of fear, of IS and now even of each other, with most afraid even to leave their homes,” Hassan said. “IS have also seized properties for their own use and to accommodate fighters, and no one knows who will be targeted next.”

He described the early days of IS rule in Bin Jawad as following patterns seen in other Libyan towns – a slow erosion of human rights, interspersed with violence. Armed militants with loudspeakers patrol the streets at prayer times. Vehicles, fuel and homes have been commandeered, women working in schools and the town’s hospital must fully cover their faces, and the risk of arrest or detention is ever-present.

Earlier this month, US Secretary of State John Kerry said IS was gaining a “stranglehold” in Libya, but ruled out military intervention by the American-led coalition that is fighting the group in Syria and Iraq. Increasingly, voices like Mohamed’s are wishing otherwise.

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