This was a piece for The Telegraph with photographer Will Wintercross from a housing estate in Tripoli. For safety reasons, we didn’t get to hang around long, but even a brief visit was enough to get a glimpse of Libya’s sorry state.
Four years on from the death of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, Omar Saeed Omar still believes in the righteousness of Libya’s Arab Spring uprising. But if he wants a reminder how revolution can can be a long, steep, daily struggle, he only has to walk out his front door.
Last October, in a battle largely unnoticed by the outside world, Mr Omar’s family and hundreds of others fled the western town of Kikla after fighting erupted between the two main factions now vying for power in Libya.
They then squatted en masse in Tripoli’s Airport Road flats, a vast public housing scheme of 10-storey blocks that was still being built when the revolution ground work to a halt in 2011. Today, his family live for free in an apartment on the fifth floor, but a penthouse suite it is not.
Quite apart from the lack of fitted windows and central heating, the lift shaft is still just an empty 200-foot hole, forcing residents to traipse up and down hundreds of unfinished breezeblock steps every day.
“My son stepped on a landmine during the revolution and lost a leg: whenever we want to take him out anywhere we have to carry him up and down ourselves,” said Mr Omar, 56, as he clambered his way up a breezeblock stairwell, past an old woman struggling with the weight of a gas canister.
“But what choice do we have? My house in Kikla is damaged, my son’s house is half-destroyed, and my other son’s house has a Grad missile stuck in the middle.”
Nicknamed the Scrapyard Flats because of their unenviable proximity to the city dump, what was once a showpiece for the Gaddafi regime has now become a symbol of the instability that has come in its wake.
In Mr Omar’s block are families fleeing Kikla, while in neighbouring blocks are families fleeing the fighting in Benghazi, the eastern city that is now a stronghold of Ansar al Sharia, the al-Qaeda-linked group that killed the US ambassador Chris Stevens in 2012.
Many of the Scrapyard Flats’ new residents are young children, the generation in whose name the revolution was fought. Six have fallen to their deaths through the doors of the empty lift shafts, most of which have now been belatedly blocked up.
“This was a fierce revolution, so yes, we expected some problems afterwards,” added Mr Omar. “But now we have an Arab Spring of extremism, just at the time when everybody in Libya should be working together. Things should have been better by now”.
That is a view shared by the Downing Street, which hoped that a “light touch” approach would work in post-Gaddafi Libya, given the relative success of the Nato-backed campaign to unseat him.
Instead, British security officials now openly acknowledge that more should have been done at the time, given the fears that Libya may now become another addition to Middle East’s growing list of failed states.
That was a message also underlined by president of neighbouring Egypt, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, in an interview with the Telegraph this week ahead of his meeting in London on Thursday with David Cameron. “Libya is a danger that threatens all of us,” he said. “It was a mission that was not completely accomplished.”
With hindsight, the shortcomings of that mission became clear right after the revolution, when the failure to disarm the myriad militias that rose up against Colonel Gaddafi turned the desert nation into a series of rival city-states, most more loyal to town or tribe than central government.
Four years on, the country now has not one set of rulers but two. First, there is the self-declared General National Congress, which controls Tripoli and is backed by Libya Dawn, a range of Islamist and non-Islamist militias. Then there is the rival, Western-backed coalition that operates in effective exile from the small eastern city of Tobruk.
Right now, all that the two sides have in common is a mutual tendency to paint each other as Libya’s worst nightmare come true. The Islamists say the Western-backed coalition is merely Gaddafi remnants trying to regain power. Their opponents say Libya Dawn wants hardline Islamic rule.
In fact, both factions contain many biddable moderates, but that has not stopped them spending the last two years in a low-level civil war, save for a rare moment of unity last month when, after months of exhaustive talks, both sides rejected the terms of a UN-brokered peace deal.
As such, there now seems little chance of an end to the mayhem, which has seen prime ministers kidnapped from their offices, leading officials assassinated, and Tripoli’s main airport bombed to a wreck – not that foreigners were exactly rushing in anyway.
For the past year, Libya been declared one vast no-go zone by Britain’s Foreign Office, with Western embassies pulling out from Tripoli en masse after robberies and carbombings.
Meanwhile, as if to remind them that the West cannot simply turn its back on Libya’s problems, Col Gaddafi’s home of Sirte is now home to Libya’s own chapter of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), whose fighters have vowed to infiltrate Europe in the fleets of people-smuggling boats that now leave the country’s unpoliced coastline every week.
True, Libya is not yet another Syria or Iraq. Fighting is confined to a few corners of the country, and when the Sunday Telegraph flew into Tripoli two weeks ago on a local Libyan airline, the only outward sign of tensions was the mild disbelief of the check-in staff that a Westerner deemed it safe to visit.
Indeed, there are now believed to be only a handful of Britons left in the country, thanks partly to the presence of the Isil, which launched a terrorist “spectacular” on the five-star Corinthia Hotel on Tripoli’s corniche back in January, killing five foreigners.
“It was terrifying – they came into the lobby and just started shooting people,” said Ala Shaheen, who was working at the hotel reception desk that day. “The Islamic State is not that active in Tripoli yet, but security is still not very strong, especially at night.”
Otherwise, though, there was at least a surface calm during the Telegraph’s visit. The streets of Tripoli had little visible militia presence, and the souks and tea houses around Martyr’s Square – originally known as Green Square after Gaddafi’s “Green Revolution” – were open until late at night.
“You get more killings in New York than you do here in Tripoli, and more car thefts in Manchester than you do here,” grinned Jamal Zubia, the genial foreign affairs spokesman for the General National Congress, who spent years living in England. “The government here is completely in charge of the city.”
The question, though, as far as the West is concerned, is who exactly is in charge of the General National Congress, a chameleon-like alliance of non-Islamists and Islamists that keeps diplomats constantly guessing as to its true colours.
At one end are urbane expatriates like Mr Zubia, who offers Quality Street to visitors to his Tripoli offices: at the other are elements in the Libya Dawn militias that are loosely allied to Ansar al-Sharia and other radical Islamist groups.
Whichever shade they are, though, their democratic credentials were somewhat tarnished last year when a poor showing by Islamist parties elections saw Libya Dawn despatch militias to seize control of Tripoli from a coalition dominated by secularists.
Libya Dawn says it was simply fending off a counter-coup by the secularists, in particular their main military ally, Khalifa Haftar, a Libyan general who helped to topple Gaddafi, but whom many claim is simply another dictator in the making.
Gen Haftar, who says he is simply standing up for ordinary Libyans against Islamic extremists, is currently waging war against Ansar al Sharia in Benghazi. But in Libya’s ever-shifting faultiness of tribal and militia alliances means the conflict can flare up anywhere.
Last week, for example, a helicopter carrying several senior Libya Dawn commanders was shot down just outside Tripoli by the Warshafana, a tribal army allied to Haftar’s group, prompting warnings of “serious retaliation” from Libya Dawn.
“The Warshafana are being paid by Haftar to this kind of thing, just as Haftar is also paying the Islamic State to do beheading videos,” said Mohammed Mohammed, a Libya Dawn supporter, as he sat drinking coffee near Martyr’s Square. “It is all to make Libya Dawn look like they are extremists, when in fact all they want is development and prosperity. If we were terrorists, you would not be able to walk the streets of Tripoli as a foreigner.”
Certainly, most Tripolitanians acknowledge that things have got safer since Libya Dawn took over, whether they support the group politically or not. The problem is, though, that the more Libya Dawn cements its grip on the capital, the more it resents the refusal of the outside world to grant it legitimacy.
Mr Zubia also drops the odd reminder that the West wants Libya to co-operate on matters like people-smuggling and the Lockerbie investigation – in which two new suspects have now been identified – it will have to deal with Tripoli whether it likes it or not. “If Europe does not want to recognise us, why should we help them with things like stopping migrants?” he asked.
Yet the government in Tripoli needs help from the West too, and without signing up to the peace deal, that will not be forthcoming, making it even harder to rebuild the country than it already is. As Ali Al-Za’tari, a senior UN official, put it: “There is no other way except a further slide into bloodshed and chaos.”
Right now, though, that seems to be the path that both sides in Libya have chosen. And as such, the chances of life improving for Mr Omar and other residents of the Scrapyard Flats seem as far off as the chances of getting a lift installed.