Displaced Libyans still dream of home

Accused of taking Gaddafi’s side, Tawargha’s scattered residents struggle to survive and avoid revenge attacks.

Children play at the makeshift refugee camp in Janzur Naval Academy [Karlos Zurutuza/Al Jazeera]

Tripoli, Libya – Nostalgia for the past is painfully evident for 11-year-old Abdul Aziz Omar – one of 400 students at a school holding classes in the rubble of a former naval academy in western Tripoli.

“The labs, the fountain, the swings in the playground … I miss everything from my old school, everything,” Omar said.

The ugly cluster of buildings that once hosted dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s future admirals at the Janzur Naval Academy are today the closest thing to a home for 300 displaced families from the city of Tawargha. During the 2011 civil war, Gaddafi’s forces used Tawargha as a base for a brutal two-month siege of neighbouring Misrata. The twin cities are about 200 kilometres east of Tripoli.

Libyan rebels eventually broke the siege and sought revenge on the people of Tawargha, whom they saw as responsible for Misrata’s suffering. Tawargha became a ghost town, its inhabitants scattered across the country.

Tensions are growing between the army and militias [EPA]

“This is only temporary. I’m sure we’ll go back home one day,” Omar Rajab al-Sahad told Al Jazeera. Like his students, this Arabic-language teacher says he also longs for his old school.

Outside the classroom, a man burned garbage between two blackened, abandoned buildings. A few metres away, laundry hung from the windows, like the sails of beached ships. 

Many of us got stuck on beaches like this one trying to stay away from Misrata militiamen seeking revenge in the streets, recalls Sahad.

Some say the Misrata militia’s gradual withdrawal from the capital Tripoli – the armed group has been pressured to leave after killing dozens and wounding hundreds of peaceful protesters on November 15 – may bring peace to this makeshift town. But camp resident Abu Rahman Musa doubts the militia will ever pull out completely from the capital.

“They often wait outside the camp to arrest us and take us to undisclosed locations. They’re even beating black people just because they think they are also from Tawargha,” said the 47-year-old civil engineer. Most people in Tawargha are dark-skinned, as their city was originally inhabited by freed slaves.

“We wouldn’t suffer such a brutal prosecution if we weren’t black,” Musa added.

Stuck in the mud

Refugees in a second camp near Tripoli’s airport live in plastic and corrugated iron shacks that once housed construction workers. The living conditions here are as dire as for those living in the naval academy’s concrete blocks.

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Mabrouk Suessi is the camp’s spokesman as well as an executive member of the Tawargha Local Council, the umbrella organisation for this displaced community. 

We cannot say that the situation remains frozen for us. Its actually worsening by the day, lamented Suessi, a former physical education teacher. Behind him, a poster showed what this muddy place was meant to be after being completed: a set of luxury apartment blocks set around a square with parks, shopping malls and even swimming pools.

“We are on the brink after LibAid [the Libyan Humanitarian Relief Agency] suspended help five months ago. Moreover, the Turkish construction company has announced its will to restart the work so we might be forced to move elsewhere. And we have nowhere safe to go,” added Suessi.

Libya’s government has already offered to build 500 homes for the refugees. But its proposed location is in Jufra, an inhospitable region in the Libyan desert. The Tawargha Local Council has firmly rejected the idea.

“We have repeatedly stated that we only contemplate leaving our camps to go back to our hometown,” Suessi said.

Meanwhile, the camps housing Tawarghans are dangerous. On November 16, four armed men broke into the al-Fallah camp south of Tripoli, shooting Abu Muntalib, 28, and wounding three others. Eyewitnesses at the camp said the day before a group of three men had approached them asking whether the refugees were from Tawargha.

“They came at night and aimed their guns to the people until one of the shots hit Muntalib in his chest. His pregnant wife is still here with us,” said Aisha Tarhouni, one of the camp’s 1,200 residents.

In a report released on November 20, Human Rights Watch denounced the incidents, calling on the Libyan government to protect the people in Tripoli’s camps and deter further revenge attacks. The report stated that “two years on, there seems to be no end to the brutality of armed groups against displaced people from Tawergha”, labelling the situation “an ongoing crime against humanity that remains unaddressed”.

“These people have been literally abandoned to the elements,” said HRW envoy Hanan Salah at the camp. Salah also denounced what she called the “international community’s lack of interest for Tawargha, and for Libya as a whole”.

‘We cannot control them’

The situation in the country’s west hardly differs from that in Benghazi’s Helis camp, 650 kilometres east of Tripoli. From there, Imad Ergheya al-Tawarghi, chair of the “Youth for Tawargha” group, claims there are 100 recorded cases of Tawarghans who have been tortured to death, 300 who are missing, and 900 prisoners from Tawargha who continue to be held in Misrata.

“These are just the recorded cases, but there surely are many more,” the 33-year-old refugee told Al Jazeera. His claims could not be independently verified. He said the three refugee camps in Benghazi might be dismantled in the coming weeks after a recent decision by the city’s local council to suspend aid and evacuate them.

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The government’s refusal to allow Tawarghans to return to their hometown has led many of them to vow an unannounced “unilateral return”.

But Wafaa Elnaas, chair of the Office of the Internally Displaced in Libya, said such a move could lead to a “massacre at the hands of armed groups from Misrata”.

From her office at the government headquarters in Tripoli, Elnaas elaborated her view on the thorny issue. 

“It is doubtless true that the militias are acting on their own. We cannot control them but they often rely on graphic evidence, [such] as pictures or videos, showing atrocities committed by Tawarghans.”

Elnaas adamantly rejected the possibility of the displaced people returning to Tawargha, but said she did not support the idea of resettling them in Jufra either. The best solution, she said, would be a “gradual reintegration into society, because theirs is not a matter or revenge nor racism” – a view many Tawarghans would vehemently disagree with.

“The Tawarghans are well-aware that the hatred they suffer today is rooted in what they did in Misrata, and wounds still need time to heal. It’s too soon. On the other hand, they wave the flag of racism only to receive the attention of the NGOs,” charged Elnaas, who also blamed the foreign media for “oversizing the issue in order to promote division among Libyans”.

Nevertheless, she admitted that Tawarghans are today almost defenceless. “Unfortunately, we still have neither police nor an army to protect them until we finally find a solution.”

Follow Karlos Zurutuza on Twitter: @karloszurutuza

Source: Al Jazeera