Zeina, 27, was hanging out her washing when the first Grad rocket smashed into a neighbor’s house at the end of her dusty street. The deafening boom was followed by the telltale buzz of more incoming rockets. Libya’s civil war had landed on her doorstep.
“It started as a normal day — then we heard the sound of shelling and rockets,” said the young mother. “Without warning, they hit our houses. We fled with just the clothes we were wearing.”
Zeina is now crammed together with seven other people in a cinderblock outhouse that is part of Tripoli’s zoo. They are just a handful of the more than 400,000 people who are currently displaced inside Libya, which is witnessing its worst crisis since the 2011 NATO-backed revolt that toppled dictator Muammar Qaddafi.
For three years, Libya has been without a functioning government, police force, or army. The country has been ripped apart by warring fiefdoms of ex-rebels who helped oust Qaddafi but have since directed politics with AK-47s and anti-aircraft guns. This summer, as the battle lines began to harden, two rival factions emerged to vie for control of Libya: On one side is the newly elected parliament that has been banished to the eastern city of Tobruk — supported by the fractured remains of Qaddafi soldiers who defected during the uprising, as well as regional powers like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. On the other side is Libya Dawn, a self-described revolutionary coalition of militiamen and Islamist-leaning politicians that originated in the western city of Misrata, allegedly backed by Turkey and Qatar.
Zeina’s hometown of Kikla, which lies less than 100 miles southwest of Tripoli, is on the front line between the two factions, which are battling for control of the capital. With two governments and two parliaments, both of which have a tenuous grip on power and access to funds, there is no one in authority to ask for help.