Most of you don’t know war.  I certainly do not know what war is.  Nick Turse reports on it, but like reporters, can leave and return to the relative safety of home.  But an Libyan citizen nails down what its like in just a few short sentences:  “I drive by myself. I don’t know where I’m going and don’t have any place to go. My life has stopped. This is the only way to keep moving, but I’m not going anywhere.”

Crushing.  Exhausting.  Existential dread and uncertainty in a decidedly untidy package – all part and parcel of what war is.

 

“One hundred and fifty years after Henry became the first civilian casualty of the Civil War, Libyans began dying in their own civil strife as revolutionaries, backed by U.S. and NATO airpower, ended the 42-year rule of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Before the year was out, that war had already cost an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 lives.  And the killing never ended as the country slid into permanent near-failed-state status. The current conflict, raging on Tripoli’s doorstep since April, has left more than 4,700 people dead or wounded, including at least 176 confirmed civilian casualties (which experts believe to be lower than the actual figure). All told, according to the United Nations, around 1.5 million people — roughly 24% of the country’s population — have been affected by the almost three-month-old conflict. 

“Heavy shelling and airstrikes have become all too common since early April,” said Danielle Hannon-Burt, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross’s office in Tripoli. “Fierce fighting in parts of Tripoli includes direct or indiscriminate attacks against civilians and their property. It also includes attacks against key electricity, water, and medical infrastructure essential for the survival of the civilian population, potentially putting hundreds of thousands of people at risk.”

In this century, it’s a story that has occurred repeatedly, each time with its own individual horrors, as the American war on terror spread from Afghanistan to Iraq and then on to other countries; as Russia fought in Georgia, Ukraine, and elsewhere; as bloodlettings have bloomed from the Democratic Republic of Congo to South Sudan, from Myanmar to Kashmir. War watchers like me and like those reporters atop the Caravelle decades ago are, of course, the lucky ones. We can sit on the rooftops of hotels and listen to the low rumble of homes being chewed up by artillery. We can make targeted runs into no-go zones to glimpse the destruction. We can visit schools transformed into shelters. We can speak to real estate agents who have morphed into war victims.  Some of us, like Hedrick Smith, Michael Herr, or me, will then write about it — often from a safe distance and with the knowledge that, unlike Salah Isaid and most other civilian victims of such wars, we can always find an even safer place.

War has an all-consuming quality to it, which is at least part of what can make it so addictive for those blessed with the ability to escape it and so devastating to those trapped in it. A month of war had clearly worn Isaid down. He was slowly being crushed by it. 

In the middle of our conversation, he pulled me aside and whispered so his boys couldn’t hear him, “When I go to bed at night, all I can think is ‘What is going on? What does war have to do with me?’” He shook his head disbelievingly. Some days, he told me, he gets into his car and weaves his way through the traffic on the side of the capital untouched by shelling but increasingly affected by the war. “I drive by myself. I don’t know where I’m going and don’t have any place to go. My life has stopped. This is the only way to keep moving, but I’m not going anywhere.”

I kept moving and left, of course. Isaid and his family remain in Tripoli — homeless, their lives upended, their futures uncertain — pinned under the heavy weight of war. “