A Libyan fighter runs from a landmine explosion which injured three of his comrades, Sirt, Libya, July 2016
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A Libyan fighter runs from a landmine explosion which injured three of his comrades, Sirt, Libya, July 2016Lorenzo Meloni— Magnum Photos
A Libyan fighter runs from a landmine explosion which injured three of his comrades, Sirt, Libya, July 2016
Libyan fighters carry a comrade injured by an IS landmine, Sirt, Libya, July 2016.
Libyan fighters advancie through sniper fire in the Hay Dollar district, Sirt, Libya, July 2016.
Libyan fighters unearth an ISIS mass grave, Sirt, Libya, July 2016
Libyan fighters carry a comrade injured by an ISIS sniper from the battlefield, Sirt, Libya, July 2016.
Libyan fighters try to ascertain an ISIS sniper position as they advance through the Hay Dollar district, Sirt, Libya, July 2016.
Two Libyan fighters taking cover from sniper fire on the westernmost frontline against ISIS, Sirt, Libya, July 2016.
A Libyan spotter identifies ISIS positions on the westernmost frontline against ISIS on the Sirt seafront, July 2016.
A view of the westernmost frontline against IS(S on the Sirte, Libya, seafront, July 2016.
Libyan fighters advance through a minefield in the Abu Hadi district, Sirt, Libya, July 2016.
LIBYA. Sirte. July 2016. A Libyan fighter washes before prayers on the easternmost frontline
A group of Libyan fighters refuel their vehicle from a tanker at a petrol station outside Sirt, July 2016
Two Libyan civilian volunteers who are fighting on the frontline against ISIS, Sirt, Libya, July 2016.
The black flag of ISIS is painted on the wall of a living room in a complex of buildings occupied by ISIS fighters, Sirt, Libya, July 2016.
LIBYA. Sirte. July 2016. Hair cuttings and beard trimmings from IS fighters who shaved before fleeing the premises they occupied, to be able to be disguised amongst ordinary civilians
A Libyan sniper in Sirt’s Hay Dollar district, Libya, July 2016.
A Libyan fighter checks a kitchen for IEDs in a villa in a newly-liberated district, Sirt, Libya, July 2016.
LIBYA. Sirte. July 2016. Two fighters on the frontline in a newly-captured building in the grounds of the Ougadougou Complex
LIBYA. Sirte. July 2016. The son of a family who stayed in their home both under the rule of IS and throughout the recent fighting
Two Libyan fighters who were wounded on the frontline against ISIS were taken to the emergency room of Misurata Central Hospital, Misurata. July 2016.
A relative of a wounded fighter waits outside the emergency room of Misurata Central Hospital Sirt, Libya, July 2016.
A burned-out room in a premises used as an ISIS car-bomb manufacturing facility in an industrial district on the outskirts of the town, Sirt, Libya, July 2016.
General-Brigadier Mohamed Al-Ghossri surveys the damage an ISIS suicide bomb wreaked upon a field hospital, Sirt, Libya, July 2016.
The corpse of a slain IS fighter lies beneath a eucalyptus trees in Sirte, Libya, July, 2016
A Libyan sniper and his spotter in the Hay Dollar neighborhood, Sirt, Libya, July 2016.
A Tuareg fighter with an RPG on the frontline against ISIS in the Hay Dollar neighbourhood of Sirt, Libya, July 2016.
LIBYA. Sirte. July 2016. A burned-out room in territory newly-liberated from IS by Libyan fighters
A Libyan fighter guards the Abu Grain checkpoint at night, July 2016.
Mourners line up to give condolences at the funeral of a fighter killed in Sirte, July 2016, Misurata, LIbya.
A Libyan fighter runs from a landmine explosion which injured three of his comrades, Sirt, Libya, July 2016
Lorenzo Meloni— Magnum Photos
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Inside ISIS' Last Bastion in Libya

Aug 18, 2016

“They are like ghosts.” That’s how a Libyan sniper described ISIS fighters in Sirt to Lorenzo Meloni. The Italian photographer recently returned from the front in the group’s last stronghold in Libya, as pro-government forces battle for control.

Meloni arrived in Misrata in mid-June and was on the outskirts of Sirt the next day. Many buildings there had been destroyed by mortars or airstrikes over the years, perhaps never restored after the fighting in 2011. The photographer, who is represented by Magnum Photos, has spent significant time in Libya in recent years. He documented the revolution that ousted the ex-dictator Muammar Gaddafi, the civil war that followed and the migrant-smuggling crisis. He has no parallels for what he experienced in Sirt. Not with an enemy like ISIS.

“Anything can happen,” he tells TIME. “That’s the most terrifying.”

Meloni stayed with several militias aligned with the U.N.-backed unity government. He left shortly before the U.S. launched airstrikes, announced in early August, to help the pro-government forces reclaim more territory. The fighters didn't engage every single day, but there were several major offensives when the central command coordinated larger efforts. A fair amount of time was spent waiting for something to happen, the photographer admits, but when it came time for battle, it sometimes meant just wading into the direction of ISIS. “Everything can change very quickly,” he says. “Maybe there’s a sniper on the other side who spots you.”

Meloni was surprised by how littered Sirt was with mines and booby traps. “They are everywhere, everywhere,” he says. In one area, they found a mass grave.

He put a lot of trust in the Libyans who he embedded with and grappled with the fact that even if he did everything he could to protect himself, others may not be as cautious. He tried to figure out who was best to follow and who was on “a suicide mission,” and adds that luck is important. On one of his final days in Sirt, Meloni was following a group of Libyan fighters who told him they planned to run through a field toward a target—while under sniper fire. If he ran, he might encounter a mine. If he didn’t, a sniper could take him out. “I would have to be too aware of my life. It’s not just about ‘go, go, go,’” he says. “You have to realize the limits of your job.”

Meloni says that oft-hazy balancing act of pictures you want to make versus pictures you need to make was clear in Sirt. “I tried to calculate the risk based on what I needed,” he says. “I don’t want to get killed for a picture.”

Lorenzo Meloni is a photographer represented by Magnum Photos.

Alice Gabriner, who edited this photo essay, is TIME's International Photo Editor.

Andrew Katz is TIME’s International Multimedia Editor. Follow him on Twitter @katz.

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