‘Which Death Is Going to Be Worse?’ Coronavirus Invades a Conflict Zone

“Everyone is thinking about their lives. They don’t know what to do anymore because whenever there’s a shelling, you can’t leave your house. So you just have to sit and wait for your fate.” After years of civil war, many Libyans have come to expect the bombings, the airstrikes, the clashes. But now Libya faces the coronavirus pandemic. Now life in this conflict zone that seemed like it couldn’t get any worse, suddenly has in just a matter of weeks. “The war should stop in order to have a better chance of dealing with the virus. It doesn’t mean that we will easily beat it.” But the war hasn’t stopped. Years of conflict have not only led to conditions that make it easier for the virus to spread, but forces pushing to seize the capital city now seem to be exploiting the pandemic to inflict maximum terror on civilians by shelling areas where people are clearly trapped at home under curfew, and by attacking Libya’s already overwhelmed hospitals. There are 25 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Libya as of April 12, but testing is extremely limited, and the number is likely to grow. In the capital of Tripoli, residents face a dire choice: Do they stay in their homes and risk getting hit by shells or do they flee and risk contracting the virus? “Everyone’s worried. They don’t know what’s going to happen with their lives. Is it going to end because of the coronavirus? Is it going to end because of the continuous shelling? People are just lost.” Libya’s civil war began six years ago. And the fighting is between two main groups: the U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord, based in the capital of Tripoli, and the Libyan National Army led by a military strongman who’s based in Benghazi to the east. For the past year, the L.N.A. has been attacking Tripoli on its push to control the country. The front line has moved into the suburbs, sending residents fleeing deeper into the city, crowding closer together. We spoke to one resident who’s had to move twice, from this area further and further into the dense city. She asked that we only use her voice. These conditions will likely make it much easier for the virus to spread. When the pandemic began, both sides of the conflict imposed curfews. They readied hospitals and public areas. They put on masks and continued fighting. Eventually they agreed to pause the fighting because of the virus, but the agreement didn’t last. The L.N.A. had pledged on Facebook to halt its advance on Tripoli … … but we found that its forces resumed attacks on the city within minutes. And just one day after the first confirmed coronavirus case was announced, the L.N.A. began its worst shelling on residential areas that anyone could remember, despite the fact that people were clearly stuck in their homes under curfew and self-quarantine. “I’ve never felt so close to death as I am feeling right now, right here in Tripoli. You’re living in confusion, and you don’t know — you’re just very lost.” It’s in moments like this, under mandatory curfew and under a rain of shells, that many feel there’s no way out. It’s not just people at home being hit. It’s doctors at work too. The L.N.A. has rarely attacked major civilian hospitals over the past year, but since the pandemic, one hospital complex has been struck three times in less than a week. The hospital was well known for treating coronavirus patients. It was evacuated and forced to briefly close. The international community condemned the hospital attacks, but to little effect. The war continues to rage. One analysis found that violence in Tripoli over the past year has spiked during the pandemic. “And the fighters, I mean, you cannot really quarantine them. They are moving from a city to another. Despite the situation that we have, they are going to take their share of the hospitals’ beds, and that will make dealing with coronavirus patients even harder.” Some international aid has reached Libya, but the world at large is mostly focused elsewhere on fighting the pandemic in their own countries. And so, many Libyans are left to fend for themselves as they wait to see just how far the war and the virus will spread.

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