I’m bumping along on a bad road in western Libya, where fighting raged a few weeks earlier during an offensive launched from the east by rebel general Khalifa Haftar. I came here from Misrata, to the west, and head west again after touring an immense killing field where 47 bodies—men, women and children, some with hands tied behind their backs—were exhumed from a mass grave on June 10. The murders are attributed to militia groups that favor the Haftar forces.
I double back through an unremarkable intersection I’d crossed an hour earlier. Suddenly I encounter a group of armed men in sand-colored uniforms, accompanied by men in plainclothes armed with Kalashnikovs. They begin firing and shouting “Jewish dog!”
A pickup truck fitted with an antiaircraft gun screeches to a halt in front of my convoy. Another, lighter pickup gives chase, manages to pass, and stops at the end of the straightaway 300 yards ahead. The driver flings open both doors, jumps out, Kalashnikov in hand, and takes aim at me.
At full speed, my driver takes to the narrow shoulder, skirting a ditch. “Don’t stop, don’t stop!” screams my security man in the front passenger seat, as he grabs his AK-47. As everyone prays the fanatic on the roadside won’t open fire, the GMC carrying my photographers accelerates and tears a door off the pursuer’s pickup as it passes. A third car—an escort provided by the Misrata police—spins around and lets us past before coming to a halt athwart the road.
When our license plate shows up on social networks, my driver gets an order to come into an unmarked police station a few miles away. There, behind a high metal wall, we hurriedly change vehicles.
But the plate of the new vehicle, a pickup, appears almost immediately on Facebook and Twitter. From the shouts coming through walkie-talkies, I realize I’ve been sold out and am being monitored. A “terrorist,” a “snitch,” has given the pack pursuing me the information to find and stop me. I’ll have to take another route.
I made it. Back in Misrata a few hours later, the plane I came in on awaits, its engines idling before takeoff.
What just happened? By the time I reached Tarhouna, it had probably already begun.
The city of Tarhouna is unknown to the world and ignored in most of the reports of wartime Tripolitania. For decades it has been under the control of the Al Khani clan, who’ve made political reversal both a favored weapon and a governing technique.
“There’s not just one mass grave,” the young soldier in a desert ranger’s uniform told me. “Here in this first ring, you have the ones killed this year, from the war with Haftar, with a little flag to mark certain individuals or groups or the place where the dismembered body of a young woman was found.”
He pointed at the endless sea of sand, dotted with little piles of rubble and rectangular graves outlined with quicklime: “Over there, the casualties from two years ago.” Then, the militias were fighting and “Fathi [Bashagha], our current interior minister” hadn’t yet “imposed order.” (Mr. Bashagha is with the Government of National Accord, based in Tripoli and recognized by the United Nations.)
“And then here”—we stepped under red tape meant to block entry—“this is the place where the victims of 2010 were dug up, from when the Al Khanis and their militia, Al Khanya, were working for [Moammar] Gadhafi and doing his dirty work.”
I can’t see the young man’s face. He wears an ocher scarf up to his eyes, molded so closely to his features that he looks like the Invisible Man. But from his educated manner of speech, I sense the story he tells is a little beyond him, that he doesn’t understand the “why” of this litany of murders, though he knows the precise dates and sites.
I have seen Libya’s martyred cities. I saw little else during the 2011 war in which I placed so much hope, when nearly every day brought news of the discovery of a new mass grave dating from Gadhafi’s 42-year tyranny. But few cities are martyred so many times—their vanished citizens piling up like geological strata attesting to a succession of crimes, each committed to avenge the previous one.
Is it because of what I have seen and heard that I became, for some, an undesirable? These repeated crimes, committed in common—might they be the guilty secret of a city that can never free itself of its executioners, let alone punish them? Might Tarhouna be a Libyan Thebes, whose dead souls haunt not only the city’s survivors but also outsiders who try to break the silence?
Before Tarhouna, I was 50 miles east, in Al Khums, once known by the Romans as Leptis Magna, the largest ancient city on the south shore of the Mediterranean. In this magnificent and inspired place, where East and West crossed paths, I did something that must have provoked the evil spirits already irritated by my visit to Libya.
I climbed onto the proscenium of an empty theater in the company of a small group of young Libyans who told me how they, their fathers and grandfathers defended the site against earthquakes, pillagers, Gadhafists and Islamic State. Intimidated by the silence, overcome by my audience’s emotion and my own, I read out the “Appeal to People of Good Will,” which I drafted a few days earlier in Paris with a handful of Libyan exiles, and had just rewritten with the young people accompanying me.
“It is up to Libyans, and Libyans alone, to rid Libya of occupying forces,” I said. “Nine years ago, friends came to your aid when you rose up against tyranny. . . . “Now it is up to you to take the initiative once again. . . . Libya is big enough, and rich enough, for all her children. Throughout the world, and particularly in France, you have friends who hope that you will make this leap.”
This strange appeal fell into the silence of the ruins. I’m inclined to think it wasn’t heard beyond the small circle of those present and that the local television station that had organized this little ceremony decided on reflection not to broadcast it—but that enemy ears had gotten wind of it.
What is certain is that after the ambush in Tarhouna, these words are a dead letter.
Earlier still was my return to Misrata. For nine years I had wanted to see it again. I first visited on assignment for the Paris Match newsmagazine in the days following the deaths by mortar fire of photojournalists Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington.
Arriving in 2011 by sea from Malta on the ship of a privateer who knew how to get around the blockade, I discovered the spirit of resistance of a city as besieged as Sarajevo had been in the mid-1990s. I realized that with the right arms the Misrata brigades alone could liberate Tripoli.
Back in Misrata nine years later, I am visited at my hotel by a member of Libya’s House of Representatives, who tells me how much he misses the time when France stood for a free Libya. I make the acquaintance of Mohamed Raed, a manufacturer of dairy products who hasn’t missed a single day of delivering yogurt to the Libyas of both Gen. Haftar in the east and Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj in the west.
I meet representatives of the Misrata youth who in 2015, alone and without international support, retook Sirte and Sabratha from ISIS. I listen as they recount the inglorious flight, and their continuing pursuit, of the terrorist leader responsible for the decapitation of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christian construction workers that February. I ask about the death in combat, at the gates of Sirte, of Abdel Rahman al-Kissa, president of the city’s bar association, who came to Paris a few weeks earlier to invite me back to Misrata on behalf of the City Council.
I reunite with Gen. Ramadan Zarmuh, whom I’d brought to France amid the siege to secure from President Nicolas Sarkozy the equipment his units needed to swoop down on Tripoli. The Patton of 2011 has become a fragile, melancholy Cincinnatus. None of the “national reconciliation committees” he’s been asked to chair, year after year, can substitute for the time when Libyans got along nine years ago.
Finally I retrace my steps down Tripoli Avenue. In 2011 it was the image of devastation—gutted buildings, incinerated cafes, minarets blasting recorded airplane noise to make the attackers believe that the allies were approaching. Now, life has returned. A little open-air war museum has given way to a real museum. The power plant outside the city, whose ruins we filmed back then, now operates again as if nothing had happened.
My sole regret—though the advice that produced it proved prescient—was to have forgone a pilgrimage to the deserted, silent pier where in 2011, after a 36-hour voyage with no navigational instruments or landmarks, we had waited for the city authorities. Now, I’m told, that’s where “the Turks” operate night and day in defiance of the international embargo, unloading their illegal cargo. I believe, now, that the reason for the ambush lies there.
Contrary to what I’ve read since the Tarhouna ambush from many conspiracists writing from both north and south of the Mediterranean, I entered Libya with a valid visa, duly issued. I was no one’s guest and had no intention of immersing myself in disputes between this faction and that, between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica—clashes infinitely less important than seeing Libya’s civil society reclaim its destiny.
I had no other agenda but to reconnect with Libya’s people, to sound an appeal for unity and peace, and to bring back from my trip the report you read here.
Yet I might have had something else in the back of my mind—the mistake the West makes by leaving the field open, in Libya and elsewhere, to Turkey and its Islamist ambitions.
I knew all too well that this idea would displease the local janissaries of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who did me the dubious honor, when Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood fell in 2013 to the coup by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, of publicly naming me one of those responsible for the event.
What I didn’t imagine, given my enthusiasm for the trip and possibly my naiveté, was the infernal machine that had been set in motion as soon as I informed Tripoli’s Interior Ministry of my reporting plans. The minister, Mr. Bashaga, is the country’s top cop. He is also one of the few who have expressed the desire to see the European Union and Paris offer a counterweight to Moscow and Ankara. Yet he must defer to the prime minister, Mr. Sarraj, who is a client of the Turks.
Before I arrived in Libya or made any public announcement of my intention to visit, an Algerian newspaper ran a headline calling me a “criminal Zionist returning to the scene of his crime.” Then a post appeared on Turkish and Qatari Facebook pages, offering the itinerary that I had been required to provide.
I marvel at the hysteria of the social networks that present me as an emissary of France and the accomplice of its allegedly unnuanced commitment to Gen. Haftar’s forces, at other times as a provocateur and a warmonger who has come to help dismantle a great Arab country, and, of course, as a pro-Israel agent secretly working against the Muslim Brotherhood.
The result is that I might have had pinned on my back a target representing a settling of accounts within the government, between those who wish to bring the militias to heel and replace them with a sovereign force, and those who derive power and profit from the maintenance of the militias.
Libya was the site of a moment of greatness nine years ago, when Western powers for the first time showed that they weren’t fated to support tyrants against their own people. To mark and celebrate that unprecedented event, I returned. In the hope of seeing that event repeated, I will go back again—next time to Benghazi and Derna.
Libya is once more under the boot, but not purged of the intoxicating taste of freedom. Here, on Libya’s shores, a key part of the future of the Mediterranean—and of Europe and the West—is at stake.
Mr. Lévy is author, most recently, of “The Virus in the Age of Madness.”