TIME Libya

Now and Then: Photographing the Battles for Sirte

“Sirte has the same neighborhoods, the same streets and buildings — only they are five years older, as are the eyes of those who fought," says photographer Fabio Bucciarelli

“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

Follow TIME LightBox on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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