A revolutionary soldier sits on a rocket mounted on a pickup in the desert near Sirte on Oct. 6, 2011.
A revolutionary soldier sits atop a rocket mounted on a pickup in the desert near Sirte, Libya, Oct. 6, 2011.Fabio Bucciarelli—MeMo
A revolutionary soldier sits on a rocket mounted on a pickup in the desert near Sirte on Oct. 6, 2011.
Smoke rises after an airstrike on the District 3 of Sirte, the last stronghold of Islamic State (IS) on September 28, 2016.
Libyan forces affiliated with the Tripoli government use a mirror to spot ISIS positions in District 3, the last stronghold of ISIS (Islamic State) in Sirte, Libya, Oct. 2, 2016.
A Libyan fighter affiliated with forces of the Tripoli government runs for cover while fighting against Islamic State positions in Sirte, Libya, Sept. 22, 2016.
Revolutionary fighters walk through the streets of Sirte, Libya that were flooded during heavy fighting in a battle against Gaddafi’s soldiers, Oct.12, 2011
Revolutionary fighters hold hostage a soldier loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, Sirte, Libya, Oct. 20, 2011, the day Gaddafi was killed in Sirte.
Libyan revolutionary soldiers fire katyusha rockets towards positions held by forces defending Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, Sirte, Oct 11, 2011.
A destroyed room in the Central Bank of Sirte, Libya, Sept. 27, 2016.
A Libyan revolutionary fighter in a destroyed house, Sirte, Libya, Oct. 9, 2011.
Fighters of the Libyan forces affiliated to the Tripoli government try to spot iSIS positions from a destroyed building close to the frontline in District 3, Sirte, the last stronghold of Islamic State militants, Sept. 23, 2016.
A revolutionary fighter seeks shelter from sniper fire by forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi, Sirte, Libya, Oct. 12, 2011.
A Libyan fighter affiliated with the Tripoli government fires his weapon towards ISIS positions in Sirte, Libya, September 22, 2016.
A fighter loyal to Libya's Government of National Accord is helped by two comrades after he was shot in the leg by an ISIS (Islamic State) sniper on the western frontline, Sirte, Oct. 2, 2016.
A fighter loyal to Libya's Government of National Accord is helped by his comrades after getting shot by an ISIS sniper (Islamic State) on the western frontline, Sirte, Oct. 2, 2016.
The corpse of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in a rebel's home in Misurata, Libya, Oct 20, 2011, the day he was killed.
Libyan women demonstrate in the central square of Benghazi in memory of the death of fighters killed by Gaddafi forces, Feb. 28, 2011.
Women talk with thier housbands, suspected to be Gaddafi's mercenaries, imprisoned in a football field converted into a prison, Tripoli on September 2, 2011.
Suspected Gaddafi's mercenaries were arrested and taken  to a prison in Tripoli on August 31, 2011.
The relative of a victim approaches the body of a revolutionary fighter to recognize if it's its loved one. The victims are killed during the fighting against Gaddafi's forces on March 4, 2011.  Benghazi, Libya.
A libyan man despairs himself inside the warehouse which holds the remains of 50 burned bodies. Suburbs of Tripoli, Libya. August 27, 2011.
A friend is consoling a relative who mourns the death of a fighter loyal to Libya's Government of National Accord, killed by IS (Islamic State) militants on frontline in Sirte on October 2, 2016.
An injured revolutionary soldier is carried to Ras Lanuf ‘s hospital after being injured during the fighting against Gaddafi's forces on March 6, 2011. Ras Lanuf, Libya.
An injured Libyan revolutionary soldier cries after the death of his friend killed in fighting against Gaddafi soldiers, Sirte, Oct.7, 2011.
Mohamed Handia, age 27, wounded in fighting against ISIS in Sirte, recovers in the Misurata Central Hospital, Oct. 3, 2016.
Pro-Libyan government fighters mourn the death of their comrade killed by the Islamic State (ISIS), Sirte, Sept. 22, 2016.
After Friday prayers, Libyan people celebrate in the Square of the Revolution, formerly Green Square, Tripoli, Libya, Aug. 31, 2011.
Fighters loyal to Libya's Government of National Accord, take a break from fighting on the western frontline against ISIS (Islamic State), Sirte on Oct. 2, 2016.
Revolutionary fighters rest near a tank during fighting for control of the Libyan city of Sirte, Oct.7, 2011.
Portrait of a fighter loyal to Libya's Government of National Accord through a Tank's mirrow on the western frontline against IS (Islamic State) in Sirte on October 2, 2016.
An interior of a destroyed house in Sirte, Libya, Sept. 29, 2016.
A revolutionary soldier sits atop a rocket mounted on a pickup in the desert near Sirte, Libya, Oct. 6, 2011.
Fabio Bucciarelli—MeMo
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Now and Then: Photographing the Battles for Sirte

Oct 25, 2016

“The war has changed, but history is cyclical and repeats itself,” says Fabio Bucciarelli.

The Italian photographer has just returned from Sirte, Libya, where Libyan brigades—made up mostly of fighters from the city of Misrata—have been fighting a four-month battle to reclaim the city from the Islamic State. And what he saw felt too familiar.

Five years ago, as revolutionary fighters dared challenge the rule of dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Bucciarelli was one of the many photographers who hitched a ride from Egypt to Libya. It was at the height of the Arab Spring, as many around the world had high hopes for democratic change across the Middle East. The Italian photographer covered it all — from the battles in Cyrenaica to the oil fields of Ras Lanuf, Mersa Brega and Ajdabiya and the advance on Tripoli. He was in Sirte for the final battle, and witnessed the capture and killing of Gaddafi.

Five years later, Bucciarelli was back to document, for the second time, the battle of Sirte.

This time, however, as the dream of democratic freedom turned into a nightmare, the enemy was the Islamic State. “This new war has the same shape and the same suffering as the one in 2011,” Bucciarelli tells TIME. “Sirte has the same neighborhoods, the same streets and buildings — only they are five years older, as are the eyes of those who fought.”

There’s a difference, though. “Today’s war is an even dirtier one,” he says. ISIS militants use booby-traps, IEDs and car bombs in its attempt to hold onto the city, and each offensive from the Libyan brigades leaves many dead and injured.

Journalists have not been spared. Earlier this month, an ISIS sniper gunned down Jeroen Oerlemans, a Dutch photographer and father of three. “His death was incredibly sad and close to me,” says Bucciarelli. “For the journalists who are now working in the field, it has become incredibly risky. We are often targeted by kidnappers or by snipers, and it’s even worse for freelancers — the majority of us — who are not protected by any association.”

But the risk, he adds, is one worth taking.

“We must continue to document these wars," he says, "to have the independent information we need.”

Fabio Bucciarelli is an Italian photographer and co-founder of Me-Mo.

Alice Gabriner, who edited this photo essay, is TIME's international photo editor.

Olivier Laurent is the editor of TIME LightBox. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @olivierclaurent

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