“Talking to you right now, I might get captured, because of the phone call, I might be tortured. I might be killed. It’s a possibility.”
This is the story of Muhammad. He lives in Benghazi. He lives in the middle of a war.
I struggled with how I was going to start this article after speaking with Muhammad. Before talking with him I naively knocked around ideas about how we (for more than a year) traded critiques on books and quotes and poetry, how we shared an interest in various writers and how that would be a perfectly appropriate salvo into an opening paragraph. I had a ridiculous sitcom style outline about how we might be from different parts of the world but there are some things like good literature that can transcend any given situation. That’s all garbage.
After speaking with Muhammad, I realized how silly and detached I was from the realities of what happens at a human level during wartime. The real story here is about a rational person being slowly consumed by the irrational behavior around him.
“Things are kind of calm today. I’ve heard one or two missiles dropping down nearby, but its ok, its fine, something casual these days.”
Remember this quote. This is a vital quote. This could easily be construed as a quote from a naturally callous person. This isn’t the case.
Libya for Amateurs
“The university has been burned to the ground, including the central library, which contains about two million titles.”
Since the fall of Gaddafi there have been military coups, fractions, factions, militias and ISIS (ISIL). There is currently a western government and an eastern government alongside other independent bodies within Libya. Not to mention NATO and UN interference.
Muhammad walked me through the timeline and tried to explain all the facets involved, but it was too much for this article.
Benghazi Day to Day
“In the span of three or four months you can witness a whole war go on between two parties, two militias. They fight in the middle of the city, they
destroy everything and then they just stand down because of some treaty, and it’s all for money, oil, power.”
Benghazi is a microcosm of the powers that may exist at any given point. Those powers are almost constantly changing. An example is Ansar al-Sharia, once an autonomous group, now has mostly joined forces with ISIS since the death of its leader during fights. Not only do group loyalties change and morph often, they do so in relatively close quarters. Al-Sabri is a neighborhood in Benghazi. It’s a coastal freeway where both the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries and ISIS have a presence in the blocks that comprise the tight area.
Muhammad lives two miles away from the nearest frontline. He is somewhat fortunate that he is a software developer and works independently.
“I go almost every day to my favorite café. It’s not in a dangerous area, but a relatively dangerous area. I like to hang out there.”
Working in software myself, I knew working independently or offsite was a perfectly normal benefit of being a code writer. It is something that almost every IT person can identify with.
“I take my laptop with me and work. I work there, get back home, read some books, try to have fun at home because there is nowhere else to go.”
Again coders from all over the world can imagine rolling up to a café or Starbucks and jamming code out while buzzing on a triple espresso. It was only after I offhandedly asked have you ever heard bombs or shooting while at the café.
“A lot of the times. One of the times I was inside, there were all of the people hanging out in front of the café and they got inside because they heard gun fire between two militias.”
I pressed him further about that incident.
“That day it happened about three or four times. They were fighting between two militias using a 14.5 mm, do you know the 14.5 mm gun? It is an anti-aircraft gun. They are using anti-aircraft guns on the street. They act like this is something normal.”
I asked how close to the café were they using that kind of gun.
“Well, the red bullets were going right and left and we were inside on the floor.”
All precepts of normality dissolved right in the middle of our conversation. At first we were connecting on simple acts such as working in a public space while sipping your favorite beverage and immediately I found myself being schooled on antiaircraft weaponry.
This is life in Benghazi. This is life for Muhammad. This is howMuhammad is being traumatized, psychologically damaged, hardened.
“Libya is divided by east and west, but is under the same currency. The central bank is in Tripoli, which is in the west and the western government.”
Being on the side against a central bank is a bit like fist fighting the air. You can swing haymakers, but they won’t connect, and you will only end up out of breath.
Benghazi is considered part of the eastern government, but still conducts commerce with the Libyan Dinar. This is the same Dinar that is controlled by the central bank in the western government. To be clear the Libyan Central Bank is an independent entity, but geography matters in term of liquidity.
In Benghazi inflation is high, very high. For now, within Benghazi the Dinar can still be used. As of this writing the exchange rate is 1.38 Dinar to one American dollar. That isn’t the issue. The issue is finding American dollars. For thatMuhammad has to resort to the black market where the exchange rate there is one American dollar for three Dinar. It is American dollars that everyone wants outside of Libya where vital services are.
“It’s hard to get out of here to get treatment in Tunisia or Egypt because you can’t find dollars to buy. You have to buy from the black market, so you have to pay too much.”
Beyond this obstacle, internal inflation using the Dinar inside Benghazi is rising fast. Then there is the critical issue of Dinar liquidity. This goes back to the central bank and geographic placement.
“I went to the bank to take my mother’s retirement check. She is retired. She worked at a transport company for (many decades). Because she’s retired she takes a retirement salary. She gave me the check to get paid from the bank and they said there is no liquidity. There is no liquid money in the bank. We used to not have this problem. It took about a month to find liquidity at the bank.”
Adding to the constant stress of being caught in the middle of a fire fight between two militias at any given moment is the added insult of not knowing if there will be any money to buy the basics of survival. This isn’t the American version, where there is money everywhere and you as an individual may not have access. No, this is a situation where there is no money in the financial system to keep commerce itself afloat. This adds a layer of strain to Muhammad’s life and that of his family.
Things weren’t always this way for Muhammad. There were happy times once. Before going back to war-torn Benghazi, before the trauma set in.
“I worked in Tripoli for months and it was so amazing. It was so peaceful and tranquil there. I had to get back here because rumors started going around and I don’t want my family to get hurt. Because anybody from here that works in Tripoli or stays in Tripoli or the west in general risks having them get to your family, to burn your house down, to take all your possessions, they could do anything, anything.”
I asked him about the east\west divide in the country. Is that a natural divide that we in the west just don’t understand?
“Most folks in the west support their government. Most people in the east look at the western government as terrorists, as extremists, they support extremists. In fact it’s quite the opposite because I was in Tripoli and life is so vibrant there. Life is so colorful there. I even had a girlfriend.”
He even had a girlfriend. It was a happy experience back in a happy time. Finally, there was something I could relate to, something I could understand. The need to be physically close to another person I think everyone can relate to. An experience that is comforting and human. That had yet to be taken away from Muhammad.
“I’m telling you, life there is so amazing.”
But things went wrong and family ties always are the ties that draw us back in.
“So when I heard the rumors that I was fighting (for the west). I had to get back. I was like what the fuck? I’ve never picked up a gun in my life. So I had to get back. I didn’t want my family to get harmed because of me.”
“Tripoli was so amazing, but then I got here into the war zone and the first month I was going crazy because I had a lot of gunfire and dropping missiles and I couldn’t sleep in my own apartment. My apartment is on the 4th floor and it’s the last floor so any missiles could drop here. At first I couldn’t sleep in my apartment, but then I got used to being here. I got used to gun fire. Once I was talking on the phone on the balcony of the apartment and I saw gunfire right above my head and I felt whatever happens, happens, at first you are scared but you get used to it. It’s the hardest most horrible thing to get used to. I know it’s going to cost me PTSD. I’m being affected psychologically, I know that.”
Did you catch that?Muhammad is at a point where whatever happens, happens. I suppose there is liberation in that, but not the kind of liberation I would envision for Muhammad.
Please follow Salvadore Ritchie on Twitter @Sal_Ritchie
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