International audiences follow foreign conflicts through the lens of international media. With the rise of social media and cellular phones in recent decades, we have more access to on-the-ground and amateur sources than ever before, but the reality remains – if it wasn't in the Guardian or NYT or Al Jazeera, we probably won't pay attention.
And so with the ongoing Libyan conflict. Much attention is focused these days on foreign interference – the Russians, Turks, Emiratis, and rightly so. Attention is also shifted to the plight of asylum seekers and refugees, including on this platform – as they remain stranded in Libya, often undergoing abuse and violence as they seek better lives, and rightly so.
Yet, the plight of every-day Libyans often goes overlooked in this.
In some places, life goes on as usual, if more difficult due to the economic downturn from the war and lack of functioning governance. For example, cut off from Tripoli's main landfill, lower-class residents have had to suffer trash piling up near residential areas and people burning off garbage – creating toxic smoke.
But in many areas, especially in and around Tripoli, where fighting has continued since April, civilians are also getting caught too frequently in the violence itself.
The World Health Organization (WHO) and UN estimate that since fighting renewed in April with the LNA push to take Tripoli, over 1000 have been killed, including over 100 civilians, and over 100,000 have been internally displaced. Earlier this month, an LNA airstrike on Tripoli ended up killing 3 children and wounding their mother and another sister. The family hurt in the strike was said to have been renting the property after fleeing from their original home further to the south of Tripoli due to the fighting there.
Haftar's LNA offensive on Tripoli began in April and continues, backed by foreign powers. Human Rights Watch claims both sides, but especially the LNA, has “repeatedly shown their disregard for civilians' lives with disproportionate or indiscriminate attacks against civilians.” HRW called for the UN to investigate these airstrikes for possible war crimes. The LNA claims it was targeting a nearby “terrorist operations room” and denied it was purposefully targeting civilians. Local sources verified there was a military intelligence complex about 20 meters from the house, although a Tripoli area GNA commander told foreign press the compound was not involved in the current fighting.
In early October, LNA forces reportedly attacked an equestrian club in Tripoli, injuring 6 children and killing horses. UN personnel in the area investigated the attack and found no GNA military facilities in the vicinity.
Amnesty International also conducted an investigation regarding civilian casualties in the conflict. The group visited 33 sites damaged by air and ground strikes since the April offensive. The investigations took place in August in and around Tripoli. They note airstrikes, often with unguided weapons, have hit civilian homes, field hospitals, a school and a migrant detention center, and also caused Tripoli's international airport to shut down for the past two months.
Amnesty mentioned incidents such as an LNA strike on the Abu Salim neighborhood in April, in which 6 rockets fell on the residential area, killing 8 and damaging buildings and a GNA attack in May in the Qasr bin Ghashir area hit a civilian building killing 5 and injuring more. Other incidents in which civilians were hit include GNA strikes on Tarhouna, using “parachute” bombs with an 800 meter blast radius – unsuitable for urban warfare.
The report further details LNA strikes on ambulances and field hospitals, some used to treat wounded fighters, who are protected under international law. Amnesty also found the GNA was making use of hospitals for military purposes, thus opening them to attack. Of course, the “deadliest such attack”, according to Amnesty, was a July LNA strike on Tripoli International Airport that killed 5 medical personnel and injured many more. The strike was determined to have been conducted by Chinese-made attack drones, which the UAE operates for the LNA. Amnesty, however, also determined that the GNA did not officially report the medical facility at the airport as such, and that it had been in use previously by militants.
While the two sides do not seem to be deliberately targeting civilians, it hardly matters. The lack of precision or concern for civilian deaths reaps a similar result. According to international law, attacks that are disproportionate or do not take enough precaution to minimise civilian harm are illegal.
This connects to one of the main dilemmas of modern warfare – who is to blame when one side builds its military infrastructure in and around civilian areas? Is one more at fault for attempting to strike such targets without ensuring it has the proper capabilities and intelligence, or is the other for having such a facility in a residential area to begin with? Is targeting civilian areas any worse than deliberately hiding behind civilians? Certainly, Libya is not the only conflict that has civilian casualties, and even pails in comparison to what is happening in places like Syria or Yemen - where targeting civilians is even deliberate. There the numbers of civilian casualties are in the tens and even hundreds of thousands.
Obviously an end to the war would be preferable for all, especially for Libya's civilian population. Short of such a lofty goal, as fighting continues with no end in sight, the international community, especially those countries like Turkey and the UAE and others backing the two sides, must make every effort to push for greater accountability and caution moving forward. It's the least they can do.