Twenty-seven-year-old Amin Abdullah and twenty-eight-year-old Mohammed Saleh were friends who met at the same café, played football at the same playground and swam at the same beach before the war turned them into enemies on the battlefield. Amin is affiliated with Ansar Al-Sharia and Benghazi Revolutionaries’ Shura Council while Saleh is affiliated with the Dignity and Army Forces Camp. They fight in the same city of Benghazi.

Twenty-seven-year-old Amin Abdullah and twenty-eight-year-old Mohammed Saleh were friends who met at the same café, played football at the same playground and swam at the same beach before the war turned them into enemies on the battlefield. Amin is affiliated with Ansar Al-Sharia and Benghazi Revolutionaries’ Shura Council while Saleh is affiliated with the Dignity and Army Forces Camp. They fight in the same city of Benghazi.

It has been over a year since the war in Benghazi started, during which time the city has changed both geographically and demographically. There has been a huge displacement of the population especially in the areas where fighting continues to intensify, like in Sabri and Al-Hout market in downtown Benghazi.

Benghazi’s Red Crescent information office reports that 1400 families have been displaced from the conflict zones, most of whom have been relocated in the city’s schools and institutes. Several have left Benghazi, while 300 citizens have gone missing since the start of the war in 2013.

Buildings and residential areas have been seriously damaged, foreshadowing another population crisis whenever the Benghazi war, fueled by young men like Abdullah and Saleh, ends.

Obstruction of dialogue

Abdullah said the peace initiatives between the two sides of the conflict continued before the war in Benghazi intensified in October 2014. He added that a committee was set up by the city notables comprised of Sheikh Mansour Al-Borousi, Salem Suwaidan and Sheikh Mohammed Al-Shaikhi to negotiate a peace deal with Azmi Al-Barghathi, Commander of Vital Installations Guards in the Eastern Region and a key Operation Dignity chief prior to his death.

Before the scheduled date set for the meeting in early June 2014, Abdullah explained, it was declared that Al-Barghathi was killed in the skirmishes that broke out at ‘Sidi Khalifa’, about 15 km away from Benghazi. Mohammed Al-Shaikhi was also reported killed in Al-Salam neighborhood around the same date. These two incidents, according to Abdullah, raised some doubts as to the second party’s desire to engage into a genuine dialogue.

Conditional peace

“The group’s doors for reparation remained open, however, only if weapons were surrendered,” Abdullah said, adding that the call for dialogue did not apply to Operation Dignity commander Khalifa Haftar as, “He is a war criminal,” Abdullah said.

Abdullah’s adversary and  former friend Saleh is a field commander in a contingent affiliated with the Operation Dignity Forces led by the interim government. He believes that the first reason for carrying on with the war effort is self-defense and protection of the country, acting on the order of the Prophet to fight the ‘Kharijites’ – uncompromising Islamic purists – who prohibit what God has ordained and allowed for Muslims’ bloodshed.

Saleh considers peace with Ansar Al-Sharia group illogical. “According to them, we are infidels and must be punished or repent and swear allegiance to their commander Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, which is not acceptable under any reason or logic,” he said.

Amin denied the insinuations that his group is affiliated with Islamic State (IS), assuring that his group has no connections or bilateral cooperation with the terrorist group. “I know by virtue of my position that no logistic support exists between the two groups,” he stressed.

Nevertheless, Saleh claimed that there are initiatives by a few individuals who are considered less radical within the ranks his group through which army supporters, according to him, tried to persuade them to surrender their weapons and join the army so that they could lead a normal life.

Some of them agreed, including Admen Al-Taurghi, commander of brigade 319 who was killed by members of his brigade along with 14 other victims who fell in the Ramadan massacre of 2014. He was beheaded in an attack launched by Al-Ansar on the brigade’s headquarters.

Support sources

This war has affected the different aspects of life in the city where the two warring factions receive arms from various sources. According to Amin, Ansar Al-Sharia is supported by some cities in the western parts of Libya and the Capital Tripoli.

“Our revolutionary brothers in Misrata and the other western cities provide us with arms and equipment through boats sent to the coastal towns. The General National Congress in Tripoli also supports our forces in Benghazi,” Amin said.

He, however, believes that the support is very limited, to the extent that the scare available resources have become a reality with which the group’s members have to deal. In comparison, the Operation Dignity forces, Abdullah alleged, receive support from a number of Arab states including Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

These allegations are completely denied by field commander Mohammed Saleh who claimed that Operation Dignity forces receive no support from any country, due to the arms embargo sanctioned against the Libyan army, which he describes as an arbitrary action by the international community. “We are fighting terrorism on behalf of the world,” Saleh added.

Obsolete weapons

Saleh believes that there are countries that work against Libya’s stability by weakening and fragmenting the Libyan army which is considered Libya’s safety valve.

“Our air force is outdated and most of our fighter jets are out of service. Besides, our artillery is underdeveloped. We are using tanks that were used in World War II. The navy is virtually nonexistent as we lack sophisticated and effective vessels,” he explained.

Nevertheless, he claimed that his forces could inflict heavy losses on the enemy on ground, depleting its resources and destroying 80 percent of its forces in Binina and Buitni battles due to the military expertise available with the Libyan army in military battle planning.

Field situation

The field situation, according to Saleh, tips in favor of the army and Operation Dignity forces. All areas, he said, are “besieged by the army and the loyal forces, whether at Al-Laythi and Sabri or the other areas located in the middle of the country including Al-Hawari, Al-Qawarsheh and the western parts.”

Meanwhile, news reports speak about continued clashes in some of these areas including Al-Qawarsheh and Al-Hawari. Mohammed Saleh said the army and Operation Dignity forces are advancing from three axes including Al-Safsafa project, Al-Fakat and 17 February. He stressed that orders were issued by the headquarters not to photograph army positions or its movements. As for Al-Hawari area, he said there was an advance from Al-Hawari Hospital, which is under the control of the army and Operation Dignity troops including Sayda Aisha Mosque.

Saleh stated that the only exit that is outside of his forces’ control is Al-Marisa port at Qanfoutha district through which supplies are delivered to Ansar Al-Sharia and Shura Council forces. There is also a route that goes to Al-Laithi area and passes through Al-Hawari, Al-Qawarsheh and Qanfoutha. Saleh believes that when they gain control over Rafallah Al-Sahati camp and Marisa port, the Ansar Al-Sharia and Shura Council’s supply routes will be completely cut off.

Supplies reach Al-Sabri and the central areas through small inflatable vessels that start from Marisa port into Al-Sabri and the central areas.

Gunboat shelling

These gunboats and other vessels coming from the western areas, like Sibrata and Sirte, are attacked by the interim government jets. Saleh explained that the enemy forces have shifted from offensive to defensive positions and that they now use buildings for sniping and hide in nearby neighborhoods and alleyways.

Abdullah, on the other hand, said that the most difficult problem facing Ansar Al-Sharia in Benghazi is how to protect the families caught up inside the conflict areas, including Al-Hout market and Sabri. He accused Operation Dignity forces of being indifferent to their plight and targeting these areas with rockets and artillery shells.

Saleh gives a completely different story saying that since the start of Operation Dignity they have been trying to reassemble the army, which was disintegrated by Gaddafi and weakened by the liberation war.

“The Muslim Brothers group and the warring Libyan militants have tried to destroy it completely through assassinating qualified military experts and setting up parallel army bodies such as armored brigades and security battalions controlled by these groups,” he explained.“They support Ansar Al-Sharia in Benghazi and Sirte and Al-Battar Battalion in Derna and give them huge budgets earmarked by the General National Congress.”

Saleh explained that the liberation of Benghazi marks the beginning of the end of the radical IS elements in Libya and that his forces plan to fight IS militants in Derna, Sirte and Ajdabiya environs as well as in some southern cities in which they are hiding and have camps for training IS militants and foreign fighters who keep arriving in Libya from around the world.