SIRTE, Libya, Feb 17, 2012 (IPS) – On the first anniversary of Libya’s revolution, Sirte brigade members lounge on leather couches in the lobby of the upscale Mahari Hotel, supervising its reconstruction. A base for the Misrata rebels during October’s fierce fighting, the hotel is notorious as the site where 65 alleged Gaddafi loyalists were executed on its seafront grounds.
“This hotel was full of bodies and blood and so we volunteered to clean it up,” says Monam Abdallah Bashir, a local construction company owner and opposition fighter against Gaddafi’s forces.
Hundreds of civilians, loyalists and anti-Gaddafi forces were killed and wounded during the battle in Sirte, which ended Gaddafi’s 42-year rule.
Since Gaddafi’s violent death on Oct. 20 last year, Bashir’s brigade is one of a handful in Sirte allied with Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC) trying to maintain security in the devastated and emotionally fraught town.
“I once paid a bribe in order to build a road for Gaddafi,” Bashir says. “I joined the fighting because I was 100 percent convinced this guy shouldn’t lead because he was corrupted.”
“It is not safe now, so we cannot put down our weapons,” says fellow fighter Feraj Hassan. “If the government pours in money, then things will get better. The biggest challenge is security, and then housing. But nothing has happened yet.”
While most of Libya is celebrating their newly won freedom after the overthrow of a brutal dictator, a few historically pro-Gaddafi towns like Sirte are the exception.
Home to his small tribe, Gaddafi invested heavily in what was the small village of Sirte and its residents over the years, to the detriment of other coastal cities like Misrata and Benghazi. He envisioned a ‘United States of Africa’ with Sirte at its administrative core, and built vast, sprawling structures like the Ougadougou Conference Centre.
Nearly four months after the end of battle, three of Sirte’s neighbourhoods, including District 2, the final stronghold for Gaddafi loyalists, are reduced to rubble and littered with unexploded ordnance. Only 60 percent of the town’s pre-war population remains, pro-Gaddafi graffiti is scrawled over cinderblock walls, and a GRAD rocket was found lodged in a main city street as recent as this week.
“We are finding a variety of munitions, it’s quite staggering,” says Max Dyck, programme manager for the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) in Libya. “Finding them is not hard. The hard part is trying to coordinate with the locals. When you go in you can’t just plant a flag and say we are going to start clearance. You have to break the ice – you produce and gain trust. It’s a slow process.”
“In Sirte the people are very angry. It is very ‘green’ and they are not scared of saying this,” says Michael Morrison, area coordinator in Sirte and Misrata for the international development organisation, the Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development (ACTED). “Sirte really feels like they’ve been left out by the NTC, who are late coming to the most damaged city,” he says. “Pre-war Gaddafi there were perceptions that Sirte benefited a lot from handouts.”
During the fighting, ACTED was present on the outskirts of town. “When we were there to help internally displaced persons (IDPs), some loyalists refused to accept help from us,” Morrison says. “Reconciliation will be a long process.”
Fifteen young men in bright orange jackets work on the seafront road lined with shelled out buildings, clearing spent ammunition and debris and leveling out the tarmac. ACTED pays residents a daily wage of 30 dollars for help clearing their town.
Hassan Alswaey, a 37-year-old computer engineer, says he is proud of community involvement to clean up their neighbourhood. “Now it is a country after war, and many people have died or run away. Many of those in the houses have left, and feel bad. Before this I lived side by side with my neighbours – it’s very hard.”
The head of Sirte’s local administration, Mohammed Kablan, has been working on critical short-term issues like shelter and food distribution, but says Sirte has not received money and that residents are impatient.
Bill Lawrence, researcher for the International Crisis Group, believes the reconstruction of Sirte should be considered a long-term goal, after democratic elections usher in legitimate representatives.
“For Sirte, and Bin Walid, and other ghost towns – there is an argument for fast action, but we are arguing against fast action. The NTC is relatively weak with legitimacy issues,” he says. “There needs to be more openness and transparency. This has got to happen immediately.
“In the case of Sirte, the debate is whether to reconstruct. I am saying the residents should decide, and build it as a symbol of the new Libya,” says Lawrence.
Lawrence cites the lack of cash flow into the country’s banks and unpaid government employee salaries as critical. “The humanitarian crisis is immediate,” he adds. “IDPs, detainees, food and housing.”
For Mohammed Kablan, another concern is the integration of local military brigades into formal institutions. “Around the country, we are trying to find the right mechanism – whether to put people into the army or the police.”
However, Kablan adds, “There is a controversial issue between pro and anti Gaddafi groups inside the city. It holds us back a bit – it’s a problem in itself.”
The NTC have recently agreed upon an electoral law, and national elections for a constitution-making body are scheduled for June. Subsequent general elections are likely to be held in early 2013.
Georg Charpentier, the Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary General with the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), believes “there is little common knowledge on about electoral law and process…(The NTC) needs to reach out and explain.
“It is risky to go into a competitive process like an election with a disjointed security environment. Some argue that we should go into a political process after the brigades have been transformed. On the other hand, the electoral timeline is very short and brigades fill the security vacuum.”