Libya’s Tawerghans stuck in limbo

Since 2011, about 40,000 displaced Tawerghans have been arrested, tortured, and scattered to seek informal shelters.

Misratans say Tawerghan fighters committed heinous crimes during the revolution [Narciso Contreras/Al Jazeera]

Tawergha, Libya – Tawergha remains a desecrated ghost town more than three years after the Libyan revolution, when armed groups from Misrata, nearly 40km to the west, drove their neighbours from their homes.

A desolate silence hangs over Tawergha’s empty residential flats, schools and shops, which have been looted and smashed by mortar and bullet shells. Graffiti covers the charred concrete walls, including tributes to revolutionary fighters and caustic insults about the town’s former residents.

Since August 2011, an estimated 40,000 displaced Tawerghans have been arrested, tortured and scattered to seek informal shelters in volatile Libyan cities, from Tripoli to Benghazi. Caught between the heavy artillery of the warring Misratan and Zintan factions around the Tripoli airport this summer, the 1,200 Tawerghans at a Turkish construction site, known as al-Falah camp, crouched in an open basement for cover as their food storage building went up in flames.

“Everyone says Tripoli is now safe, but we cannot move,” Salim, a 50-year-old Arabic teacher who was shot in the arm by fighters, told Al Jazeera. “Checkpoints are random; you never know where they are. Misratan forces get excited if they find someone from Tawergha.”

Displaced Tawerghans found shelter at a Tripoli construction site [Narciso Contreras/Al Jazeera]

After winning the ferocious battle against Zintan fighters, Misrata has consolidated its power in Tripoli under the Libyan Dawn alliance. Misrata backs the renewed General National Congress (GNC), led by Prime Minister Omar al-Hassi, which was legitimised by the Libyan Supreme Court last month. Much of the international community still recognises Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni and the House of Representatives exiled in the northeastern town of Tobruk.

Misratans accuse Tawerghan fighters of committing heinous crimes against them during the revolution, including rape and torture, while Tawerghans say their entire community is being collectively punished for the deeds of pro-Gaddafi fighters among them. High unemployment, insecurity, crowded makeshift schools and clinics, and limited electricity and water have exacerbated the misery of the impoverished Tawerghan community. Many adults rely on their old government salaries to survive.

“Our representative in the government wanted to speak out about the Tawerghan camps, but he was later sent a death threat,” Salim said.

This block of flats was partially destroyed in heavy clashes during the 2011 uprising [Narciso Contreras/Al Jazeera]

According to Human Rights Watch, the widespread and systematic nature of this ongoing forced displacement amounts to a crime against humanity. Last year, the international community and local leaders warned the Tawerghans about possible deadly confrontations with armed groups if they unilaterally returned en masse. An attempt by Tawerghans in Benghazi to return was stymied by local officials in the coastal port of Ajdabiya.

“Unfortunately the situation of the Tawerghans today is worse than it was nearly four years ago,” HRW researcher Hanan Salah told Al Jazeera. “I do not see any kind of development, or taking up of the issue for these people who are still displaced.”

Mohammed, 56, is a Tawerghan schoolteacher who moved to Misrata years ago so his wife could finish university. He said relations were good between the two towns before the revolution, and Tawerghans often had jobs in factories.

“I have many friends who are Misratans,” Mohammed told Al Jazeera. “I phone some of them still, but they are afraid to talk to me. The militias are controlling Misrata now.”

Tawerghan children chant the national anthem outside of their makeshift school [Narciso Contreras/Al Jazeera]

Meanwhile, downtown Misrata is bustling. A strong local government and business environment is bolstered by a military presence in a large swath of Libya’s west and south, including the main cities of Tripoli and Sebha, and an allegiance with fighters in the east. Surveillance cameras and guards monitor the checkpoints that ring the city. Along the main thoroughfare is the Misrata War Museum, a grim reminder of the bloody battle between Misratans and forces allied with former leader Muammar Gaddafi.

Aiman al-Mani, who runs the memorial and lost friends in the battle, says he had worked and studied with Tawerghans and was surprised that many of them joined Gaddafi in the war.

“We have captured a lot of Tawerghans on our wanted lists,” he told Al Jazeera. “We are not denying attacks in Tawergha happened, and the allegations against Tawerghans didn’t help. If we are in a new Libya, we want a new, just Libya. A lot of people in Misrata will say the same thing – we just don’t want Tawerghans living near here again.”

Until now, reconciliation efforts and solutions have failed. “You need a reformed Libyan judiciary handling this and that hasn’t happened yet,” Libya expert William Lawrence told Al Jazeera. “I have heard of alternative locations suggested for them but I don’t think it’s realistic, and I don’t think it’s necessary. Unless the Tawerghans themselves and whoever is in that community want the Tawerghans there, that seems unworkable.”

Source: Al Jazeera