Repaired Benghazi home brings comfort after loss and displacement
When Jalila* first returned to the ruins of her family home in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi after four years of displacement, what struck her more than the gaping empty windows, collapsed walls and piles of ash that used to be their belongings were the memories of lost loved ones that still filled the empty spaces.
“I didn’t know what kind of shock I’d have when I saw it. After I entered, I didn’t eat for three days. I was emotional. I remembered my family,” the 47-year-old charity worker explained.
Before their lives were torn apart, the large house in the Al-Sabri neighbourhood of Benghazi’s old town where Jalila was born was home to her and her mother, who lived on the ground floor, and two of her older brothers, who lived with their families on the upper floors. Family life revolved around a central courtyard with its fountain and shady trees, where the children would play in the warm afternoons while the adults drank tea.
That all changed in 2014, when Benghazi was engulfed by heavy fighting amid the political turmoil that followed the 2011 overthrow of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. Al-Sabri, once home to some 22,000 families, bore the brunt of the clashes, forcing most residents to flee. The resulting destruction is still visible today, with block after block of bombed out or collapsed buildings, many riddled with bullet holes.
Across Libya, more than 168,000 people remain internally displaced as a result of the violence and instability, while a further 673,500 have since returned home to areas often lacking decent shelter and basic services. Benghazi is among the worst affected parts of the country, with around 38,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) and 191,000 returnees.
When the violence first erupted, Jalila and her family moved to another part of the city to stay with her sister, thinking it would only be temporary. “We didn’t take any belongings, we left with just what we had on us. No passports, no family booklets, [no] personal documents,” she said.
But as the violence spread, the family left the city to join relatives in the town of Battah, some two hours east along the Mediterranean coast, where they would spend the next 18 months. A few days after their departure, neighbours from Al-Sabri contacted them to tell them that their home and everything in it had been destroyed in a fire.
“I collapsed and I cried, as if they told me someone had died,” Jalila remembers. “It contained all the details of my life. All my belongings were there, my documents … all gone.”
Tragically, the loss of her home was just the start of Jalila’s suffering. The family returned to rented accommodation in Benghazi in 2016, but in June that year her eldest brother died, followed shortly afterwards by her mother and, five months later, her other brother, all from heart attacks.
“My mother died of anguish, wanting to return. My eldest brother as well,” she said. “When I lost my mother and my brothers, I said to myself I wish I had only lost the house.”
After another year of displacement staying with relatives in other parts of the city, in 2018 Jalila took the decision to return to the only place she had ever known comfort. “I was determined to return to my family’s house,” she said.
She set to work, clearing rooms of debris and investing what little money she had in buying bricks and cement to have collapsed walls rebuilt. But despite her best efforts, the scale of the task was too big to manage on her own.
Support arrived when UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and its partner, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), contacted Jalila as part of a shelter rehabilitation programme, designed to help some of the most vulnerable people in the city to move back into their own homes.
Following an assessment, a team arrived to install new plumbing and electrical systems, fit a new bathroom, renovate the living room, replace windows and doors and repair the leaking roof.
"This is my kingdom."
Jalila is one of more than 130 families in Benghazi that have so far benefitted from the programme, with more families set to receive help this year. As well as renovating individual homes, the agency and its partners have also carried out repairs to schools, clinics and hospitals damaged during the conflict.
While much of the house requires further work, including the upstairs apartment where she hopes her late brother’s family will one day return, Jalila is thrilled to be back in her own home.
Taking tea in her beloved courtyard, she describes a sense of peace that she has not known for years.
“This is my kingdom … I am so happy with it,” she says. “I feel as if my family are still alive. Like their spirits are still here with me.”
*Name changed for protection purposes