The Islamic State Diary: A Chronicle of Life in Libyan Purgatory
Only 300 kilometers (186 miles) separate dream from nightmare. On the coast of Crete, tourists enjoy their carefree summer holidays. But just across the water, at the southern edge of the Mediterranean in Libya, Islamists are committing murder in the name of Allah.
Very little unfiltered news is making its way out of the contested regions. Most of the images we get are from terrorists, who are spreading their chilling propaganda on YouTube and Facebook. But what is really happening inside the isolated country? What is life like there?
Since the toppling of Moammar Gadhafi, the coastal city of Derna has been ruled alternately by an offshoot of al-Qaida and by the Islamic State terrorist militia. One young resident kept a diary for us for over five months. Its publication presents a not-insignificant risk to the 26-year-old. In order to protect his identity, we have changed his name and are instead calling him Farrah Schennib.
The two Islamist groups are engaged in a brutal battle for power. In July, al-Qaida fighters drove the IS extremists out of Derna, but now they are trying to return.
In this special report, you will find 22 entries from Farrah Schennib’s diary. They are filled with a sense of fear and resignation. But they also show a lust for life and a desire to resist.
Sunday, March 8, 2015
A large crowd has formed in front of the al-Harish hospital. I get out of the car. “It’s Muhannad!” a woman cries out. I move closer and I can see the dead boy on a stretcher. He’s wearing a yellow jacket covered with mud. I stare at the lifeless body of a child of about the age of 10. The boy’s head is missing. He has been decapitated.
I have been a photographer since the beginning of the revolution. Back then, the world wanted to know what was happening in Libya. These days, no one cares any longer what has become of Derna, a slaughterhouse where the butchers are swapped out every few months.
They found Muhannad’s head a week later. The news spread throughout the entire city. We asked ourselves what kind of person would decapitate a child? Why? At least Muhannad’s parents are now able to bury their child.
An agency in Tripoli asked me for pictures from Derna. At first, I wanted to reject the assignment, but I can’t afford to lose my last clients. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be any work for me here.
Fighters with the Islamic State are unable to differentiate between journalists and members of militias. They shoot at anyone who looks suspicious to them. That’s why, most of the time, I only take photographs from my car. I seldom get out.
I used to walk through the streets without worry. People would wave at me. After 2011, there was even a brief period of euphoria and freedom. I gave colleagues from abroad tours through Derna. At one point, I even had a visit from a blonde-haired woman, a journalist from Australia.
Now, anyone who doesn’t work for a particular militia is suspected of being a spy. But I don’t work for any side.
I stand for a while in front of the morgue. I don’t feel anything. When I get home, I realize that I haven’t even taken a single photograph.
Wednesday, March 11
Maryam walks over to me merrily. She’s wearing a black and white school uniform. My Uncle Faruk asked me to pick her up from school at Al-Khadra Market. Maryam is 11 years old. Like me, many other male relatives, brothers and fathers, wait until the girls exit the school. And as always, the Hisba, the IS’ moral police, patrol in their white Hyundai vans.
It used to be that teenage boys would lurk in the alleyways trying to attract the attention of one of the older girls. But no one dares do that anymore.
The watchdogs wear long robes like the ones in Afghanistan and long beards. These days, they are even forcing shop owners to close their businesses during prayer times — five times a day, just like in Saudi Arabia.
They also closed the schools for two months. The curriculums were purged of any “un-Islamic” material. Biology, chemistry, physics, physical education and music are no longer taught. For Maryam, school is the only place where she still gets a chance to meet with other girls, her friends. Girls are barely even allowed to leave their homes anymore.
We hated Gadhafi. He and his sons ruled brutally, and we were afraid of his thuggish police. But there were no Islamists back then.
For a moment, I’m happy. I’ve found a steel container that I can use to store more than 100 liters of gasoline.
Gasoline is strictly regulated here, which might sound like a joke in one of the world’s most oil-rich countries, but when the city is sealed off, it is impossible to find fuel. My Uncle Faruk advised me to immediately drive from one gas station to the next to collect gasoline.
Gas Station 115 is guarded by IS fighters in an SUV. The black IS flag is planted above the station.
A dispute breaks out as fighters from another militia, the Mujahedeen Shura Council of Derna (SRMD), drive past all the people waiting in line and head straight for the pumps.
Members of SRMD have sworn their allegiance to Egyptian al-Qaida boss Ayman al-Zawahiri.
We don’t like Islamic State or the SRMD. Nevertheless, the Islamic State is far more barbaric than the others.
I believe they are so callous because they don’t know us or our country. They include Tunisians, Yemenis, Chechens and Pakistanis. Almost all the men from SRMD are from Derna, which makes it more difficult for them to kill people.
I want to leave this gas station immediately. When the militias encounter each other, it is often quickly followed by shooting. IS and SRMD have divided the city among themselves. They have reached a kind of cease-fire with each other. But how long will it hold for? I put the car into reverse and ram into the front of the car behind me.
I get back home safely. During the evenings, I give flour to Ahmed, the baker, who then bakes tannour bread for me and my neighbors.
Monday, March 16, 2015
Nadya calls me. “Is this how you want to feed our children?” she asks, jokingly, as I pick up the telephone half asleep. We’ve been engaged for six months. I want to marry her as soon as possible. Nadya is gorgeous. She’s 22. We call each other every day, at least when there’s electricity. She’s the youngest cousin of my aunt and wants to become a doctor.
Since IS has ruled the city, she can no longer attend university. I am the only one of my friends who has his own apartment – two rooms, a kitchen, a bathroom. But I don’t make any money and weddings are expensive.
Thursday, April 2
When the IS arrived in Derna six months ago, anyone who had worked together with the government was ordered to appear at the Tawba Station, or “Penance Center,” and hand in their weapons. The traffic cop Saleh from the Al-Khadra Market hasn’t been seen since. He was an institution. Everyone knew him.
Journalists were also forced to issue an “apology” for their “transgressions” in the past. I told the man at the IS media center that the times after the revolution were disorienting and that we didn’t immediately find the right path, but that we were now happy that the Islamic State had liberated us.
Of course we are all depressed. Journalists have lost their courage. It’s only very seldom that I carry my camera with me.
Monday, April 13, 2015
People are disappearing. Flyers are posted in the city with photos of the missing. New ones are added every day. My friend Ali Ibrahim is selling his car, his mother’s jewelry and the house in order to pay the ransom demanded by the people who have kidnapped his father.
We are certain that Islamist militias are behind the kidnappings. For people who don’t pay the ransoms, the next time they see their missing relative is in the morgue.
There’s no authority we can turn to for help either. The city’s highest justice official is a killer named Ayman Kalfa who had been sentenced to death. He had been imprisoned and, like so many other criminals, only got out because of the revolution. We are being ruled by murderers.
Tuesday, April 14, 2015
Derna has been sealed off. I am only able to eat one meal a day and I am worried that there soon won’t be anything to eat at all.
I haven’t left my apartment for days now. We haven’t had any electricity for 35 hours. No Internet. No information.
Wednesday, April 15, 2015
Yesterday one of the armed groups with IS executed two officers of our army.
They call them “halal” killings. What this means is that IS fighters believe it is OK to kill if someone disagrees with the ideology of their militia leader.
They simple annihilate you if you have a different opinion – in the name of Allah.
Monday, April 20, 2015
Today they crucified three brothers from the Mansouri family (also known as the al-Harir family). The whole city listened to the shots being fired back and forth between the Mansouris’ compound and the IS fighters. It began yesterday at 6 a.m. in the morning and ended at 3 a.m. at night. The Mansouris knew they would die. But they stood up against the savagery. For us, they are heroes.
The IS’ rule is unjust and brutal. The Libyans will not go on accepting this for an eternity. As of today, we know this with certainty.
They had been searching for Hamida, one of the four Mansouri brothers, because he had allegedly killed a person. They wanted to try him in an IS court.
It could be true that Hamida committed the murder, but he refused to be convicted by an IS judge.
An IS courier delivered an ultimatum to the family. If Hamida didn’t turn himself in, he warned, the Mansouris’ home would be destroyed. The Mansouri brothers fought until the very end. They shot and killed three important IS leaders, including the highest ranking, a Yemeni, and they wounded 40 fighters. It was an historical moment. Was it also a turning point?
It’s likely the IS will seek to take revenge on friends of the Mansouris.
I wonder if my number is still saved on one of their phones?
Friday, April 24, 2015
As I do every Friday, I visited my grandparents in the Ambich neighborhood today. My grandfather studied agriculture at university many years ago. We went together to the small village mosque, not the big new one. We have been doing this since the IS enthroned its own imams, their prayer leaders in the main mosques. It’s a form of silent protest.
My grandmother made couscous. The whole family was there, including my uncles, aunts, cousins and Maryam. My grandfather is 72 years old. He says we can’t lose our courage, because wrongful regimes can’t maintain power forever.
He tells us about the Italian occupation and the good times of Libyan independence under King Idris I. It was chicken soup for our sad hearts.
Grandfather says that life in Derna in the 1970s and 1980s was shaped by artists and poets. Women would walk around the city on their own, they didn’t wear headscarves and they wore fashionable skirts that weren’t even knee-length. He showed us just how high with his hands, prompting everyone to laugh. It’s good that Gadhafi is away, he says. Then he throws a scarf over his shoulder and grimaces imperiously in a way that we immediately understand to be a caricature of Gadhafi.
Grandfather is funny, but he’s also smart. Libya is rich, he explains to us, and that is both a blessing and a curse. The people in the West wanted access to the oil, but so too do the religious fanatics. That’s why we went to war. That’s why all the foreign fighters came from Africa and Asia.
The families in Libya now need to stick together. It’s the only way the country can be returned to reason.
Tuesday, May 26, 2015
It’s 2 a.m. and I am awoken by the sound of rockets exploding. I go out onto my balcony and see clouds of smoke billowing over the city center. People are dying there again. Do I know them?
My friend Faisal calls me. “They’ve attacked Daesh headquarters!” he says. Daesh is the Arabic acronym for IS.
A suicide attacker had allegedly smuggled a bag with explosives into the old City Hall, which now serves as IS headquarters. The bomb was detonated using a mobile phone.
I’m suddenly feeling exhilarated. I call Nadya. We speak to each other for an hour. I feel hopeful again and I finally fall asleep.
Wednesday, May 27, 2015
There are dozens of entries on our local Facebook page. The heart of the IS government in Derna has been hit.
Granddad was right. There will be a time after the IS.
Thursday, June 4, 2015
Every Thursday, my friends and I meet up at my place. We’ve known each other since kindergarten. Ashour became a dentist. Said Ahmed works as a car mechanic. We call him the “German machine expert.” Salhin studied management and Nizar lived for a long time in Misrata. We drink lemonade. Nazir slices onions and tomatoes. I put on water for the pasta.
If the crisis persists, Salhin says, he will never be able to earn the money he needs to marry the girl he has loved since he met her on his first day at university. She has warned him that she wouldn’t be able to keep rejecting the offers of other candidates forever.Salhin says a solution needs to be found soon. Only a second intervention by the West can save us now, he says. The West needs to finally take our expectations into consideration, says Ashour. And if they do come, they need to remain in Libya for the long-term and reform the country from the bottom up. Nizar disagrees. “Only we can save ourselves,” he says.
“The Europeans have to intervene at some point,” I argue. “Otherwise the gate from Africa to Europe will remain open.” “What are they waiting for?” asks Said Ahmed. “For us to all be dead?”
Nizar calls from the kitchen. The pasta is ready.
Friday, June 5, 2015
The IS’ militia members drive through the city in pick-ups outfitted with loudspeakers. They order everyone to gather to view the public execution of a postal worker. They say the man worked for the Libyan army and that he’s a traitor.
Those who don’t show up for executions are immediately suspected of opposing Daesh. We all go there – Nizar, Said Ahmed, Salhin and I.
The condemned man is wearing orange overalls, as is so often the case. His executors are covering their faces. I want to take a photo when they sever his head.
When it’s over, I look down to the ground. Then I sneak back home.
Monday, June 8, 2015
The corpses always arrive early in the morning. The grounds of the Harish Hospital are guarded by members of the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade, which belongs to SRMD. Their leader is called Salim Derbi. He is as broad as grandmother’s wedding chest and he has a dark beard. Naturally Salim Derbi is a hardliner, but the residents of Derna view him as a righteous adversary of the IS fighters.
I am looking for Fatallah, a former schoolmate. His brother tells me he has been missing for three days. Fatallah took over my dad’s grocery store two years ago. Things were going well. Perhaps too well.
People disappear because they have money or because they made disparaging remarks about the leaders of certain militias. When they reappear, it’s in the morgue. I hope this won’t be the case with Fatallah.
I pass by the SRMD checkpoint at the entrance to the hospital. The flag of Abu Salim’s militia is flying there, white with black text. IS uses a black flag with white text.
Some of the militiamen are 15 or, at most, 16 years old. They only have thin whiskers on their faces and yet they are carrying fairly expensive radio equipment and weapons. They would rather patrol the streets than go to school.
A man wearing a long shirt and a pointy beard is sitting at the entrance to the hospital. He runs his finger down a handwritten list. I announce myself as a family member. “Fatallah?” the man asks. He then leads me to the examining room. These days, they are even bringing dying people to Harish Hospital, even though there isn’t even an emergency room here.
The more modern Al Wahda Hospital has been closed for months now. Foreign companies stopped sending replacement parts for the high-tech equipment there and the MRI device from Germany is no longer working. The company no longer has any representatives in Libya.
Five men are lying next to each other on blankets on the floor — old men with gray beards — and a child. Their clothes are dirty, covered in blood and full of dust. Three of the old men look as if they may no longer be alive. One moans and groans. Fatallah isn’t among them.
“Do you want to go inside the morgue,” the bearded man asks, pointing to a steel door behind him.
I start to feel sick to my stomach. I thank him and I hurry back to my car.
Wednesday, June 10, 2015
The battle between IS and the Shura Council of the Mujahedeen in Derna is in full swing. We hear shots and the impact of rockets. I stay at home, where it is safest.
Deash has killed Salim Derbi, the leader of the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade. Although not everyone liked him, they all respected him. Members of SRMD are unlikely to stand for what has happened. (Editor’s note: It was later determined that Derbi had actually been the victim of friendly fire from his own men.)
I call Faisal. We analyze who we think is stronger: IS or SRMD? And, of course, we hope that SRMD will prevail.
Sunday, June 14, 2015
Salah is back. He’s standing at the Al-Khadra Market where he is directing traffic. I holler with delight when I see his photo on Facebook. I jump into the car and drive to the old city center. People are in a festive mood. They wave at Salah as they drive by his pedestal.
Daesh is no longer in Derna. SRMD has driven them out. IS will try to return, but for now the Islamists are sitting in the mountains. Armed SRMD fighters stand at the side of the street.
Never would I have thought that I would ever be pleased that my city was now being governed by an al-Qaida militia.
Wednesday, July 15, 2015
A YouTube video shows a uniformed IS fighter. He admits defeat. He says they lost Derna but that they will take revenge for their comrades who have been killed very soon.
We know the threat is still very real. We continue to live in purgatory.
I call Nadya and tell her that I love her more than anything else.
Monday, July 27, 2015
I would have loved to have seen it with my own eyes. The leader of IS was captured and they dragged him naked through the streets of Derna. They later hanged him. I laughed until I had tears in my eyes when I heard about it.
It only occurred to me later that night that I had laughed about the humiliation and death of a human being.
What has become of us is shameful. But Islamic State – they aren’t people.
Saturday, August 1, 2015
Alcohol is available for sale again. I don’t drink alcohol myself, but I think that is something each person has to decide himself together with his God. All I know is that those who ban alcohol and cigarettes aren’t popular in Libya.
The most important thing is that there are no longer any “Tawba,” or repentance, stations where IS forced police and officials to make “atonement” payments.
Friday, August 7, 2015
My friend Ashour was here today. His cousins are fighters with the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade.
From them he learned about the real reason local fighters from Derna decided to challenge the Islamic State.
IS wanted to grab the list of all the young widows of our perished fighters. They wanted to force them to marry their fighters. The bastards.
The men of Derna didn’t let them. They fought for the honor of the women here.
Sunday, August 9
The IS is back. Nadya told me. She’s beside herself. Her Aunt Asma lives in the eastern part of the city and the IS is attacking Derna from the mountains.
There was a major explosion right behind Asma’s house, a car bomb with many dead and injured. Asma is a nurse and she ran over to help them. Now she’s sitting at home crying.
IS won’t enter the city. It’s now just trying to free a path for itself through the desert, but it is surrounding by SRMD militiamen.
And General Haftar, the leader of the official government army, is cutting off their supply lines so that they are unable to bring any new fighters or weapons via the coast near Derna, Misrata or Sirt. He is cutting off the desert paths as well. Haftar’s troops are at the gates of the city, where they are controlling the sea routes. Islamic state has become a lion in a cage.
If Asma leaves, then the house will be left empty, but if she stays she will be in danger. Would should Nadya advise her to do?
Who knows what will happen next.
On August 9, we lost contact with Farrah Schennib. Since then, there has been no contact by telephone, no email. It has been reported that all connections to Derna are dead because there is no electricity there.
A friend of our translator, Salah Ngab, is soon expected to travel from Derna to Benghazi. We hope that he will bring back news of Farrah Schennib.
Susanne Koelbl is a reporter with SPIEGEL’s foreign desk and is often on assignment in crisis regions. She last traveled to Libya during the summer of 2014.
Salah Ngab is a Libyan politician who fled from extremists and came to Germany five months ago. Ngab assisted with the translation of this diary and the difficult task of keeping up contact and passing on information about precise events in Derna.
How the Diary Came into Being
Derna? Very difficult! That, at least, is what human rights organizations and journalists say who are still conducting research and reporting on the ground in Libya. It’s too remote, they said of the city, which became the first to fall into the hands of Islamist extremists after Gadhafi’s fall and was then taken over by Islamic State (IS) in autumn 2014. But we wanted a better idea of what is happening there.
The three had little idea how difficult it would be to maintain contact and to impart what was happening on the other side of the Mediterranean. Over the course of five months, they had telephone conversations in which they had to scream in order to be heard. They exchanged emails and even Skyped when there was electricity. The diary ends on August 9, the day we lost contact with Schennib.
In his last entry, he wrote: “Islamic State has become a lion in a cage. … Who knows what will happen next.”