All aboard Bus 70: Traveling a local Libyan route from war to hope and renewal
Posted – 31st March 2021
TRIPOLI, Libya — In a neighborhood once beset by violence and death, Bus 70 crosses an intersection and pulls up by the roadside. A militia fighter in fatigues gets off. A mother and her teenage son with green headphones get on. The doors close, and the bus turns around. Another journey across a tableau of pain and renewal is about to begin.
It’s a journey that Muhammed Juma still finds implausible.
“We were in a war that destroyed everything around us,” said Juma, 41, who takes the bus every day to a mechanics shop. “So, when we first saw the bus, we couldn’t believe it. We thanked God.”
There’s nothing striking about the look of Bus 70, a new blue-and-white vehicle that ferries passengers along Line 83, a long, dusty road connecting downtown Tripoli with its outer suburbs. But along one six-mile stretch, where the conflict shattered countless houses and souls, where Libyans pray that a new government will bring the stability they crave, the bus has become a symbol of hope for a capital sorely in need of it.
“When you see the bus filled with people, it feels like there’s more security and that people are coming back to their houses,” said Majid Abu Khatwa, 23, who watched the bus pass by. He was busy repairing his shell-battered cigarette shop and transforming it into a fast-food restaurant.
Bus 70 started driving its route in September after a company imported the vehicle from China, along with 34 other buses, hoping to capitalize on the war’s end.
“When my passengers get aboard, I smile and always say ‘Good morning’ or ‘Hello,’ ” said bus driver Nasseridine Bayod, a tall, lean man wearing a dark uniform and a blue surgical mask. “Sometimes a kind word brings joy.
Bayod views his job as a calling. The dinar fare, about 20 cents, allows even those hit hardest by the war to get to work, school — or to fix their homes. “And if someone doesn’t have a dinar, I still let them in,” Bayod said.
Every journey adds another layer of faith in a new Libya. “By God’s will and our efforts, we give confidence to people to return to their homes,” he said.
Not long ago, Bayod’s road ran through one of Tripoli’s deadliest battlefields. Mortar and artillery shells rained on houses and shops virtually every day for nearly a year. Snipers perched atop buildings fired at anyone considered an enemy. Thousands fled their homes.
The battle for Tripoli is now over there’s a fresh sense of hope unlike any felt in recent years. A new interim government, formed this month, has replaced two rival governments and promised to deliver elections by the end of the year.
But casting a shadow are those who sabotaged previous peace efforts and still wield influence: lawmakers, tribal leaders, militias, and foreign powers that sent weapons and mercenaries to dictate Libya’s future. And countless displaced families have yet to return.
Bus 70 plies its way through this ravaged landscape, traversing the enclaves of Ein Zara and Wadi Rabia, where normalcy is trickling back. When passengers peer out the dusty windows of the bus, they still see their homeland somewhere between its past and its future.
‘A good step’
Once Bus 70 had swiveled around to start a new trip, it passed back through the intersection and quickly came upon a sign of the new order: a working traffic light, thanks to the partial restoration of electricity in the area.
The bus then continued past the mechanics shop, where Juma was standing outside with his co-workers. The shop had reopened only a month earlier. The roof, ripped apart by a mortar shell, had to be fixed, and tools stolen by militia fighters had to be replaced.
Before the conflict, the shop had serviced as many as 15 vehicles a day. Now, only two cars were in the garage.
“A lot of people who have lost their houses have not returned yet,” said Nisar Juma, 29, the shop owner and no relation to Muhammed. “They don’t have the money to rebuild.”
Still, the establishment of the unity government gave him confidence. “It’s a good step, one government,” he said, standing next to a wall still covered by war graffiti with names of militias, their cities and tribes.
As Bus 70 moved down the road, it sped up, passing a row of torched shops and ghostly houses with collapsed roofs, then a fruit stall and a furniture store, recently opened. Now and then, the sounds of hammering spilled out of stores being rebuilt.
The bus passed a damaged clothing store owned by Fadhy Ghoma’s family. He was overseeing workers hauling wooden beams.
“In other countries, we see such buses, but this is the first time I see one here,” observed Ghoma, 25, broad-shouldered with curly hair and wearing jeans and sneakers. “It’s a sign that things are improving.”
He said he was planning to reopen the store within 20 days.
“We can only pray this will be our last mourning,” he said.
Wary of leaders
Inside the bus, near the back, sat Abdul Razaq Abdo, 61. The rail-thin retired businessman was less optimistic. He was wary of Libya’s new leaders. The new prime minister, Abdulhamid Dbeibah, a billionaire businessman, is dogged by allegations of corruption, which he denies
“We will see in three or four months how Dbeibah will be,” said Abdo. “A human being is neither just an angel or a devil.”
Abdo urged that the United States and European countries be more engaged in Libya’s affairs. Otherwise, he warned, politicians and tribal leaders with a “mentality of looking for their own interests” will block progress. He was also worried about the influence of Khalifa Hifter, the eastern warlord who in 2019 launched the unsuccessful offensive on Tripoli that led to much of its destruction.
And Abdo remained especially concerned about Hifter’s Russian mercenaries from the Kremlin-backed Wagner Group, who remain in the country. “The only obstacle for us is Wagner,” said Abdo. “What’s most important is the Russian bear should remove its interference in our government.”
‘A lot of obstacles’
Bus 70 passed the spot where the road was once bisected by a sand berm marking the front line. On one side were Hifter’s forces, on the other a constellation of militias backing the U.N.-installed government in Tripoli. Overhead, Turkish and Chinese drones had patrolled.
Today, the block is home to a garden-supply shop that sells fertilizer, plants, seeds and lawn mowers. A bakery has opened nearby.
Just down the road appeared a building with holes the size of bowling balls punched in its walls by mortar and artillery shells. It was the Dar Baida school, where efforts were underway to give 1,500 students, ages 6 to 15, an education.
The school reopened in September after teachers and parents paid to clean up the war’s debris, replace books and desks, and fund salaries. Families who could no longer afford their children’s tuition were not turned away.
“We are paying for the poor children out of our own pockets,” said Anisa al-Ghiriyani, the school’s principal, a compact woman who wore an orange headscarf and a stern look. “I hope one day our school will be rebuilt.”
Many teachers, displaced by the conflict, have not returned — their houses were destroyed. Their personal lives, despite some improvement, remain a struggle.
“Life is now very expensive,” said Ghiriyani. “We are facing a lot of obstacles.”
Seeing the future
On the bus, Libya’s future was filling up the seats.
Six students in brown-and-white uniforms and carrying backpacks hopped aboard. Nearby sat a mother and her adolescent daughter, wearing a pink headscarf.
Soon they were joined by Amar Sherif, 24, wearing a black Adidas baseball cap and a wide smile despite the shrapnel he said was still embedded in his back from a mortar attack. “As-Salaam-Alaiku,” — “Peace unto you” — he said, greeting the other passengers.
Sherif was heading to a menial job in a downtown store. Like many young Libyans, he lacked opportunities for a good education or stable profession. “We hope the new prime minister will look after all Libyans,” he said.
Bus 70 soon became caught in heavy traffic, itself an indicator of new life in a city where people have begun to move back and travel around with less fear. The traffic crawled past a shoe store where, a year ago, sandbags had been piled high in front of the large window. Militia fighters had set up checkpoints there. Most were as young as Salim Yasseen, 27, who sat inside the store hoping for customers.
“If we can remove all the militias, our problems will be solved,” he said. But he was skeptical that Libya’s new leaders could disarm and integrate the fighters into the army or police.
Bus 70 soon came to another stop, about 100 yards beyond the store, near a cluster of African migrants clutching tools and seeking work rebuilding homes.
The students hopped off the bus.
As new passengers boarded, Bayod smiled and greeted them.
THE WASHINGTON POST – Sudarsan Raghavan
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