Libya: Civilians trapped in Benghazi in desperate conditions as fighting encroaches

Fears are growing for hundreds of civilians who are trapped in a Benghazi neighbourhood which faces intensified fighting after several months under military blockade, Amnesty International said today.

The organization has gathered testimony from some of the 130 Libyan families and hundreds of foreign nationals who have been trapped for months in the residential district of Ganfouda, in south-west Benghazi. All entry roads are blocked by the fighting or Libyan National Army forces, and food, water and electricity supplies have been cut off.

“Time is running out for civilians in Ganfouda, who are being left to die trapped by the fighting. While bombs and shells continue to rain down on them, civilians are struggling to survive on rotten food and dirty water. And the sick and wounded must make do with dwindling supplies of expired medicines,” said Magdalena Mughrabi, Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International.

Time is running out for civilians in Ganfouda, who are being left to die trapped by the fighting. While bombs and shells continue to rain down on them, civilians are struggling to survive on rotten food and dirty water.

Magdalena Mughrabi, Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International

“As the airstrikes intensify and the fighting moves ever closer, many people are too afraid to leave their homes. We are urging all parties to the fighting in Benghazi to respect international humanitarian law and allow unfettered access to humanitarian relief for civilians in need. Those who wish to leave must be protected from any attacks based on where they are from or their perceived political affiliation.” 

A military offensive named Operation Dignity was launched in mid-2014 by former General Khalifa Haftar against Islamist militias and armed groups in Benghazi, which later formed a coalition known as the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries (SCBR). During fighting in the city, both sides have committed serious human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law, in some cases amounting to war crimes.

Two years on, the Libyan National Army under Khalifa Haftar’s command has continued to carry out repeated air strikes on areas under SCBR control in Benghazi – namely Ganfouda and other smaller pockets in the city – endangering the lives of civilians. General Khalifa Haftar’s forces have also restricted entry to, and departure from Ganfouda, leaving many people pinned down by airstrikes.

Mohamed, a resident of Ganfouda, told Amnesty International that airstrikes and artillery shelling have intensified and moved closer over the past week. He spoke of the desperate need for humanitarian supplies, especially for children.

“Children look like skin and bones because of the lack of food and poor nutrition… If they could just drop us some food for the children or get them out of here, even if that meant leaving the rest of us, that would be fine,” he said. 

Children look like skin and bones because of the lack of food and poor nutrition

Mohamed, a resident of Ganfouda

He described how the flour, rice and oil available had all expired, and how lack of cooking fuel meant they had to cook in a wheelbarrow filled with coal. Mohamed has a kidney problem, but the medicine he needs to treat this has run out.

Mohamed took in eight other families who fled the fighting and around 45 people, including 23 children, are now living in terribly cramped conditions in his house.

“There are no fighters amongst us: we’re just normal civilians,” he said. 

He described how constant, indiscriminate shelling and lack of electricity, which has been cut for over two years, leaves them huddled at home in the dark. “It’s like we’re in prison,” he said.

“We just want a safe way to leave,” said “Waleed”, another resident trapped in Ganfouda, whose name has been changed to protect his identity.

“I have two sons, one is three and a half and the other is two years old. There is no baby milk or food for them. I have to fill bottles with water and fool them into thinking it’s milk.”

As well as the lack of basic supplies which make daily life so difficult, people are also living in constant fear of airstrikes and shelling, with many saying they are too scared to leave their homes. One of the civilians Amnesty International had been in contact with inside Ganfouda, Tarik Gaoda, was killed on 1 July 2016 alongside his 80-year-old father. They perished as a result of a fatal air strike, according to an eyewitness who did not want to be named for security reasons.  

“Planes are patrolling the skies and people are scared to even walk outside because any area where they see movement, they strike. Even a mosque was hit by shelling a few months ago,” said “Hassan”.

“There are constant airstrikes, and we don’t leave our houses at all,” said “Khadija”, a woman trapped with her four young children including a 10-month-old girl who she was forced to give birth to at home because of the fighting. She has no baby powder or medical supplies for her daughter, and the lack of clean water is becoming a serious concern.

 “All the warring parties must take all feasible precautions to protect the lives of civilians caught up in the fighting in Ganfouda and other parts of Libya in line with their obligations under international humanitarian law,” said Magdalena Mughrabi.  

“Indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks are prohibited by international law and every effort must be made to distinguish between military targets and civilians or civilian homes and buildings.  Artillery and other imprecise explosive weapons with wide area effects should never be used in the vicinity of densely populated civilian areas.”

Amnesty International has expressed concern for an estimated 130 detainees who were abducted by the armed group Ansar al-Sharia in 2014 and are also trapped under fire in Benghazi. Recent media reports, which have not been independently verified, suggest that as many as 20 detainees may have been killed in airstrikes, with photos of their dead bodies shared online.

Hundreds of foreign nationals, including Sudanese, Chadian and Bangladeshi migrant workers are believed to be amongst those trapped in Ganfouda. According to media reports, at least five Sudanese nationals were killed in an airstrike in mid-August. Ganfouda residents interviewed by Amnesty International have also said that foreign nationals were amongst those killed in recent airstrikes.

We’re living like animals

Samir" one of the residents trapped in Ganfouda

“We’re living like animals,” said “Samir”, another resident and former judicial police officer who lives in Ganfouda with his wife, three sons and a one year old daughter. He has also taken in three other families who were displaced by the conflict– bringing the number of people living in their household to 24, including 14 children.

“Our house has been hit and damaged by three tank shells. One hit the bedroom, another the stairs, while the third shell hit the kitchen but did not explode. The shell is still there and intact,” he said, adding that at least six families have had loved ones killed in airstrikes in August. Two of the families were from Chad.

Lack of a phone signal in many parts of Ganfouda has made it difficult for those trapped to make contact with the outside world, meaning their relatives do not know whether they have survived.

Civilians are also scared that they may be subjected to attacks based on their perceived support for SCBR forces, after a tribal leader affiliated with Operation Dignity stated at the end of August that any person over the age of 14 should not be allowed to leave Ganfouda alive. 

“All sides should be facilitating the delivery of aid and granting civilians who wish to leave the area safe passage. Civilians should not be used as human shields, and those who wish to leave must be protected from arbitrary detention, torture or any other abuses, “said Magdalena Mughrabi.