BENGHAZI, Libya, March 7 (Reuters) - In Benghazi’s historic centre, many of the landmark Ottoman and Italian-era buildings have been wrecked by years of war.
Officials say they are determined to restore this architectural heritage, but face a daunting challenge in a country with a crippled economy still mired in conflict and politically divided.
“The municipal council’s goal is to restore any building that still has its soul to its natural state,” said Osama al-Kaza, projects manager at the city authority. He has his work cut out.
The front of the Italian-built palace from which King Idris declared Libya’s independence from Italy in 1951 is riddled with bullet and shell holes, its wooden window frames blown out and its plaster blackened by smoke.
In a building dating to 1865 that housed the city’s first printing press, a carved stone doorway has been filled with grey breeze blocks and the facade is badly chipped.
Historic Ottoman-era mosques lie empty and strewn with debris.
Benghazi, about 650 km (400 miles) east of the capital Tripoli, is where Libya’s uprising started seven years ago, triggering a nationwide revolt that toppled Muammar Gaddafi after four decades in power.
That moment of hope was soon eclipsed as Libya fell into turmoil and Benghazi witnessed a campaign of bombings and assassinations, followed by a war that lasted from 2014 until late 2017.
The eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA) fought Islamists and other opponents in protracted street battles in parts of the city. The final months of fighting were focussed in the Benghazi’s oldest neighbourhoods between the city centre and the port.
The LNA used heavy artillery and air strikes to try to root out rival fighters holed up in downtown residential streets.
The LNA’s opponents used bombs and booby traps, some of which are yet to be cleared so that residents can return and reconstruction work begin.
The city is due to stage international conference this month in an effort to drum up support for the restoration effort.
“We need to bring the old city back to life and mobilise all our efforts and endowments,” said Benghazi historian and writer Fathi al-Sahli. “The situation isn’t easy and will require billions” of Libyan dinars of funding.
“These buildings show that Benghazi had a special cultural legacy. As guardians of Benghazi we hold the competent authorities responsible for maintaining these buildings and we will not let them disappear.” (Writing by Aidan Lewis Editing by Andrew Heavens)