The Libyan National Army current holds de facto control of the eastern region of Libya and commands also the Tarek Ben Ziyad Brigade and Brigade 20/20. The militias has reportedly committed forced evictions and demolition of many areas of Benghazi, including historic neighborhoods, protected heritage sites and many residential units. These acts have been accompanied by violence carried out against, and suppression of residents and human rights defenders protesting this destruction, including by arbitrary detention.

This situation follows the 2014 “Karama” Operation when the current Municipal Council of Benghazi, appointed by the Libyan National Army (LNA) in that year, fled to Tripoli. No municipal elections were held in Benghazi in the 9 years since. Nonetheless, the municipality is cooperating with UNDP to lead post-war reconstruction efforts in line with the Benghazi Master Plan and supported by the Benghazi and Derna Construction Fund.

In January 2023, Libya’s House of Representatives amended the composition of a new “Committee for the Reconstruction and Stability of Benghazi” to include also the Undersecretary of the Ministry of Interior and the Spokesperson of the Government of National Stability (GNS), governing the eastern region, including Benghazi. The mandate of this new Committee is to centralize financial contributions for the reconstruction of Benghazi. That decision (2/2023) states that the Committee is exempt from the regulations set by Libya’s administrative law.

In early March 2023, the Libyan National Army (LNA) and affiliated have carried out a series demolitions without judicial order, or any prior consultation with the residents, and without coordinating with the Benghazi and Derna Construction Fund.

The resulting forced evictions and demolitions have targeted important areas in the old city center of Benghazi. Initially, the oldest neighbourhoods around Suq al-Hut and Sidi Khraibish were targeted, including `Umar al-Mukhtar Street, Municipal Square, al-Khalisa Square, al-Zawiya al-Rifa`iya Street, al-Siyaj area, Suq al-Rabe`a, and Suq al- Hut. Subsequently, similar patterns of forced evictions and demolitions have followed in other areas of Benghazi, extending toward the sea front and in other directions.

In early March 2023, members of the Tarek Ben Ziyad Brigade and Brigade 20/20 started ordering residents (both homeowners and renters) of Benghazi’s old city center of Benghazi to vacate their homes within 3 days, as those buildings would be demolished. The militias did not provide any information on the reasons for the evictions and demolitions, nor any assistance with finding new homes.

A compensation of LYD 100,000 (approx. US$20,000) was offered in cash to homeowners, allegedly to pay for future rent, but that amount does not correspond to the cost of their properties that would be lost. The compensation in the amount of LYD 100,000 is being handed to owners only. Women living alone were provided a smaller amount of LYD 70,000. When receiving cash, the owners were asked to surrender their property or ownership documents.

Evictions swiftly proceeded, supported also by women prison guards who assisted to forcibly remove women residents. When residents refused to leave, they were threatened with water and electricity disconnections, and told that the houses would be destroyed anyway, even with the residents inside.

Residents who are not owners are not given any compensation. Residents find themselves in varying forms of tenure, ranging from occupancy and ownership. Some who are being forcibly evicted, particularly in Sidi Khraibish, had only recently returned to and refurbished their homes, after having been internally displaced and their homes damaged in 2014 during the LNA’s Karama Operation. Other homes being targeted are properties of internally displaced persons who have not returned, but may be rented out to others who have made them their home. Still other residents have been allocated homes under Qaddafi’s notorious Law 4, which confiscated properties from people who owned more than one home and gave these to others who did not have any property. Those inhabitants have lived in their homes for as many as 40 years, but do not have any documents to prove it.

Most displaced families are now either renting apartments in other areas of Benghazi, or staying with relatives. Some decided to stay in their homes, but continue to be threatened, and live in dire conditions with no electricity and water, surrounded by rubble, making it difficult for them to buy water or food. Others are moving from place to place, and single women, in particular, have encountered difficulties to find a place to rent.

Residents of the affected Benghazi downtown and old city areas are mostly of Misratan origin, or other tribes from western Libya, so the current evictions appear to have a disproportionate impact on these distinct groups. Some estimates indicate that around 20,000 people may be displaced by the forced evictions, but the number could be higher.

Destruction of urban quarters, including of cultural heritage

Demolitions are conducted by an unspecified operator, and the affected areas remain closed to the public. Masked men allegedly operate the machinery demolishing buildings in the area which, besides a great number of homes, includes shops and restaurants, as well as historical buildings from the colonial and Ottoman era.

The areas targeted by the ongoing destructions include heritage neighborhoods, which bear witness of the history and development of the population that have lived there continuously over centuries. They also include buildings, streets and areas that are in acceptable condition and that do not need urgent renovation or reconstruction. It is alleged that the destruction is conducted without prior consultation of the concerned residents and without any publicly communicated decision-making process.

The perpetrators have provided no information about the reasons for the evictions and demolitions, though it is presumed that they are taking place under the guise of reconstruction. On 2 March 2023, old colonial-era buildings, such as the Italian Bernici Cinema and the Spring Market, were demolished, while the demolition of the old Bin-Katu mosque was stopped at the last moment. The demolition also targeted cultural heritage sites, in particular parts of the Archaeological Site of Cyrene, which is on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage list. Specifically, at the end of March, the lower part of the 4 Hesperides archaeological site – part of Cyrene, containing ruins and mosaics dating back to 525 BC, was completely covered by sand and cement.

Around 3 April, both the directors of the Antiquities Department of Benghazi and the Archaeological Department of Benghazi University issued public statements condemning the demolition and lodged a complaint with the Public Prosecutor in Benghazi, and the Attorney-General in Tripoli. There has been no response since.

In addition, many artefacts may have been illegally destroyed or looted in the course of works in the old town of Benghazi, where experts say an archaeological team should have been present during the work to prevent illegal demolition. Other archaeological sites could be similarly at risk of being destroyed or damaged, including the higher part of Hesperides and the Birniqiya site in Sidi Khraibish.

The demolitions are ongoing and there is no public information available about the next areas that will be affected. However, residents have reportedly noticed blue fences being installed in newer areas of Benghazi where housing is in good condition, not previously affected by fighting. Similar blue fencing had been installed in areas earlier targeted for demolition.

Public protests against the demolitions and evictions and resulting intimidation of protestors

In April 2023, residents, human rights defenders and civil society, including local leaders, denounced the demolition and forced evictions through petitions, highlighting how they contravene Libya’s obligations under national and international law, including the protection of cultural rights and heritage, and the rights to housing, land and property.

On 7 May 2023, the Undersecretary of the Ministry of Interior of the GNS, member of the Committee for the Reconstruction and Stability of Benghazi, published a statement condemning any obstruction of the ongoing “construction” work and calling on the judiciary to take any necessary steps to prevent it. The GNS is recognized by Libya’s House of Representatives, but not by the international community.

On 7 May 2023, a group of residents who had previously filed a complaint before the Public Prosecutor in Benghazi were informed that their file had been rejected and the Prosecutor refused to meet them. Similarly, the police refused to register complaints of those residents that approached them on the same issue. Activists and residents who have shared information about the demolitions or spoken against them on social media have been arbitrarily detained and released after different lengths of time in secret detention, either by the Tarek Bin Ziyad or 20/20 brigade.

Reports about those arbitrary detentions mention violence against the victims, including forced shaving of their heads to force them to silence on this issue. Several demonstrations have allegedly been prevented by the LNA or one of the two mentioned brigades.

On 8 May 2023, residents organized a demonstration which lasted only a couple of hours as it was dispersed by the Tarek Bin Ziyad Brigade. Several persons were intimidated, and at least three persons were briefly detained for a few hours and then released.

Tarek Ben Ziyad Brigade and Brigade 20/20 have also intimidated residents taking pictures of the demolition works, forcing them to delete them. On 28 May, at least two other activists and human rights defenders were allegedly arrested in Benghazi by the Tarek Ben Ziyad Battalion, allegedly for protesting against, posting about the forced evictions and ongoing demolition of the city center on facebook and claiming reparation. Both persons remain missing ever since; their families could not find them in any detention center of the city. Due to the number of threats received and the highly sensitive nature of this case, very few inhabitants dare to speak.

Alleged business involvement

While the demolition works are being carried out in complete lack of transparency and without any accountability, some allegations and speculation have surfaced about the involvement of different domestic or foreign companies. Some claim that the bulldozers being used for the demolitions belong to the Tarek Bin Ziyad Agency for Services and Construction; others, to an Egypt-based company called “Nile Valley.” Both of these companies have been linked to Saddam Haftar, commander of the Tarek Bin Ziyad Brigade and son of Khalifa Haftar.

On 11 May 2023, news outlets featured an announcement that the government of Prime Minister Fathi Bashagha, appointed by the House of Representatives, had on 10 May 2023, signed agreements with several international companies, namely BFi Limited coalition, China Railway International Group, and Arub International Engineering, to implement “infrastructure reconstruction projects,” including in Benghazi.

Download the Special Procedures’ full communication

Photo: Berrenici Theater (1928) and today, after destruction. Sources: Libyan Wanderer and Marsad Libya.