Hanan Salah, senior Libya researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), said the scale of property seizures “appeared to be substantial”
“Families or individuals perceived to oppose the Libyan National Army (LNA) paid dearly and were hunted; scores remain detained, were disappeared, tortured or even killed and their properties were confiscated,” she said.
Ahmed Mismari, spokesman for Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), denied houses had been seized. Residents loyal to Haftar said some houses abandoned by people they described as terrorists were now inhabited by families whose own homes had been destroyed.
“Those families who run away from Benghazi, their sons were from terrorist groups,” said Mismari. “Their sons carried out acts of kidnapping, killing, assassination, explosions, and destroyed families.”
He said the displaced families could come back as part of national reconciliation provided their cases were settled from a legal point of view involving community elders.
Haftar has threatened severe consequences for refusing to return houses to their owners, but critics say he is unable to control all LNA forces, a mixture of soldiers, tribesmen and youth who joined up.
“I don’t have a problem with Haftar but I fear going back because in Benghazi everyone who left in 2014 is seen as ‘Daesh’ (Islamic State),” said an oil engineer called Mahmoud who hails from the same tribe as Haftar.
He had not joined Islamists but left the city for Tripoli in 2014 when fighting hit his district. “My house got destroyed by an air strike and I also have an apartment which some people have occupied.”
The United Nations has begun meetings to bring together rival communities in various parts of Libya and pave the way for presidential and parliamentary votes it hopes will be held soon.
Tarek Orafi, head of the Benghazi municipal council replaced by Haftar by a military governor, said only a few families who fled the city in 2014 had gone back. A U.N.-led group of aid agencies involved in protection of civilians in Libya put the number of people still displaced from Benghazi inside Libya at 27,000 but Orafi said others had gone abroad like Sagizly, many to Turkey.
The council has registered some 13,000 displaced families but its members said the number was higher, since many people did not want to add their names, fearing reprisals.
Reuters did meet some Benghazi residents living in Tripoli who travel home without getting questioned, however.
Orafi said those arriving in western Libya find themselves in legal limbo. The east refuses to send documents such as birth certificates, often citing ongoing security investigations, and officials in western Libya will not issue new ones without them.
“I couldn’t enrol at the (state) Tripoli university,” said Fatma. “I lost my university documents”
Her father has been unable to get his public salary routed from his old Benghazi account, now unaccessible, to a new one in Tripoli, a problem reported by other displaced too. Another brother could not marry as his civil registry is in Benghazi, another problem described by others.
Parts of western Libya became less welcoming after Islamist suicide bombings began in 2015 – another of Fatma’s brothers was detained in Misrata after a video surfaced where he voiced support for Ansar al-Shariya, she said.
Alongside the legal struggles is the trauma of feeling cut off from a home city just a one-hour flight from the capital.
“I had to restart my life in Tripoli from zero,” said a 26-year female friend of Fatma who only gave her family name, Saghili. She fled with her mother and sisters in 2014 after her home was destroyed in an air strike.
“We manage financially but I miss my friends in Benghazi, my house and my bed,” she said. “But I fear going back.”
(Editing by Philippa Fletcher)