April 15, 2011 / 3:00 PM / 7 years ago

War takes toll on lively Benghazi Friday market

BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - Below the raucous surface of Benghazi’s Friday market, the economic toll of Libya’s eight-week revolt is beginning to show.

Vendors still set up cardboard boxes and plywood tables on the dust-swept outskirts of this eastern rebel stronghold, shouting out the prices of goods from shampoo to bananas, cactuses and lamps as hundreds of shoppers file by.

But the migrant workers who once shopped at the market are largely absent, the prices of goods like eggs and cooking oil are rising, and green, red and black rebel flags -- as well as some maroon and white Qatari emblems -- are now on sale.

War has cut the market off from traditional supply routes to the capital Tripoli and other western cities, and the merchants who came to buy and sell livestock and produce no longer arrive.

“Traders used to come from Tripoli to buy sheep. Every day, ten big cars would leave,” Mohamed el-Aroufi, a 55-year-old farmer, said. “Now, there’s none.”

More local shoppers are buying sheep now, largely because chickens and cows are harder to find, but Aroufi said it wasn’t enough to keep his monthly income from falling by about half.

Deliveries of eggs that used to come from the besieged city of Misrata have also halted. The price of a carton of eggs has risen from five dinars ($4.17) to seven, vendors said.

The Benghazi-based national council has struggled to restore normality in eastern Libya since casting off Muammar Gaddafi’s rule in February.

Wages up to 700 dinars a month are being paid and bank withdrawals of the same amount allowed, but many of the migrant workers who cooked food, swept streets, pumped oil and built homes have fled. The constant threat of renewed fighting has kept many stores and other businesses in Benghazi shuttered.

“There used to be more foreigners here - Bangladeshis, Turks. They would come down from the companies to buy things here, but there aren’t any now,” said one chicken farmer who had set up crates of eggs on the trunk of his car.

RISING PRICES

Significantly, the war has hamstrung Libya’s lucrative oil industry. Rebels were forced to shut down production after forces loyal to Gaddafi attacked fields under their control last week, blocking a vital source of revenue.

One shopper, Mohieldin el-Biggo, a 52-year-old engineer, said he came to Benghazi after he was forced to leave his job at the Sirte Oil Company in the town of Marsa El Brega, where rebels have been trying to oust Gaddafi’s forces for two weeks.

Like others at the market, he said the prices of foodstuffs like sugar, meat and oil had been rising since the revolt began.

“We’re short on some goods like cooking oil,” he said. “The price is almost double now. I ... bought two bottles for three and a half dinars. Before, you could get it for two dinars.”

Down the road, 19-year-old Amran Zarouk was hawking a typically sundry assortment of wares, including scissors, combs, key chains, batteries and umbrellas. Waving a rebel flag, he said his business had not changed much since the revolt.

“The market is doing fine, we’re living a normal life,” he said, taking a break from shouting prices to passing shoppers.

Others were less cheery. Apart from supply issues, inflation been fueled by a depreciation in the value of Libya’s dinar.

“One dollar used to get you 1.25 dinars, now it’s worth 1.90 dinars. Everything is expensive,” Ahmed Abdelrahman, a 19-year-old physics student standing near Zarouk’s table said.

(Editing by Sami Aboudi and Lin Noueihed)

$1=1.200 Libyan Dinar

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