Benghazi a scene of violence year after embassy attack

LibyaBENGHAZI, Libya — "Saiqa never sleeps," affirms Libyan Gen. Wanees Bokhamada, referring to the Benghazi's special forces unit he commands. Some 4,500 soldiers work "night and day" to secure the military camp and several other parts of the city, including the airport, power station, central bank and Jala hospital.
In Bokhamada's opinion, the sprawling Saiqa camp, named Boatny, is the safest place in Benghazi. "After you walk out the gate, I can't guarantee your safety anymore," he says.
Across the city, shops are open and people laugh, walk in the streets, and smoke shisha at hotel cafes along the waterfront. But a thread of tension and fear runs beneath the surface. Tempers run high in frequent traffic jams, and gunshots and explosions are heard nightly.
Such violence is common in the streets of Benghazi, where weapons markets flourish alongside vegetable stands and cigarette shops. The city's courthouse, where cries of "Free Libya" once rang out two and a half years ago, has been bombed twice.
Like many other young activists whose energy jump-started the uprising, Enas Aldrsey, 27, now feels forced to seek opportunities abroad. Her activism, especially for women's issues, has made her a target, she says.
Aldrsey, who works for the National Council for Human Rights, a semi-governmental organization, was proud to purchase her own car with money she made working, but unknown attackers kept slashing the tires. Then one day someone set fire to the car. She received a phone call from a blocked number: "This time it's your car, the next time your head."
Now Aldrsey never leaves the house alone, and goes out only to work and to attend English classes so that she can go to the United States or United Kingdom.
"It's like living in prison. This is not what we wanted at the beginning of the revolution," she says.
About 50 political assassinations have been carried out over the last two years, including high-profile cases such as Gen. Abdel Fateh Younis, commander of the rebel forces when he was killed in June 2011, and most recently, lawyer and activist Abdelsalem Mesmari, a critic of the Muslim Brotherhood, who was killed as he exited a mosque.
No one has been brought to justice for the murders; the police system is weak and has no discernible investigative or preventive functions.
"It is not the job of the army to control the city. We can't use our tanks and airplanes for civil security," Bokhamada says.
Abdelehman Ahlees, who recently completed his degree in zoology at Benghazi University, takes a more sanguine view of the security situation.
"Sure, there are explosions sometimes. But in general, there is not violence on the streets, and you feel safe enough to move around."
The issue, Ahlees says, was that if you become a victim of a crime, there is not much recourse from the law. "The police just don't function here."
If people know who is responsible for violent acts, they are not willing to say, but the usual suspects are a shady lot: loyalists of former leader Moammar Gadhafi, Islamic extremists, power-drunk militia leaders, and plain criminals. About 1,200 inmates escaped in a jailbreak six weeks ago from Quweifiyah prison. About 100 have been recaptured or forced by their families to return, but the rest remain at-large.
As the one year anniversary approached of the Sept. 11 attack on the city's U.S. diplomatic facility — in which Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed — Facebook groups such as the Islamic Emirate of Libya called for violent anti-Western action.
On Tuesday night, a car bomb killed Salem el-Arafy, a former colonel in Gadhafi's Ministry of the Interior,and Benghazi was awakened at 6 a.m. to the sound of an explosion at the Foreign Ministry building.
Besides the assassinations, a string of attacks targeted new shops that have sprung up amid the chaos, including international chains such as Costa Cafe and Mango clothing.
"Libya doesn't have the common problems of transitional state-building that other countries have," says Faraj Nejem, professor of history at Benghazi University.
If it can manage to open ports currently blockaded by federalists in the east, Libya is flush with oil money, Nejem says. Meanwhile, Sunnis dominate the country, so sectarianism is not an issue. In addition, unlike Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood dominated elections, no clear political party is supreme in Libya.
"The problem is the Libyan people themselves," says Nejem. "They have the wealth, they have the arms, they have the power. Every Libyan is his own president, his own ministry of Interior."
Nejem recounted an episode he recently witnessed at the university where he teaches, in which a student went to the dean, jumped on his desk and demanded to be sent abroad to study.
"He pulled out his gun and said 'do it now, or you will pay for this.' It's something normal now."
Many in Benghazi remember Ambasador Stevens fondly, and express dismay that neither U.S. nor Libyan authorities have succeeded in apprehending any suspects.
"We find it strange that we hear drones overhead now, and they must be able to see where the Islamists have their camps and their weapons. Why don't they take the opportunity to attack them?" Aldrsey asks.
Asked if Western countries should do more to help build civil and military infrastructure in Libya, Bokhamada says, "Of course. They have everything. But the international vision for Libya is not clear."

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