“Qaddafi used you and then he ran away.” The graffiti on a wall next to a looted grocery store neatly sums up the plight of a small Libyan town whose entire population fled in fear of reprisals by the rebel forces now in power.
The people of Tawarga -- who are mostly black-skinned Libyans -- are accused of having played a major role in the siege by Muammar Qaddafi’s forces of nearby Misrata, the bloodiest event in Libya’s revolution.
Misratans, who say men from the town of around 30,000 people eagerly signed up to kill and rape, like to show mobile phone footage of uniformed Tawargans climbing aboard trucks and chanting that they are ready to take Misrata.
The same images are repeatedly shown on Misrata’s television station, fanning the animosity that many Misratans feel -- and readily express -- towards their departed neighbors.
As Qaddafi forces retreated from Tawarga last month, the town’s residents quickly fled en masse, terrified that their neighbors would take revenge. They sought refuge in Tripoli and Sirte and other cities.
Tawarga is now a ghost town, with goats, donkeys and a few cows wandering streets whose buildings are pockmarked by bullets and rockets. Shops and many homes have been looted, and some have been torched.
In one home, above which two green flags of the Qaddafi regime still flutter, photos of children adorn the wall of a ransacked bedroom and a portrait of the parents lies among the debris on the floor in the next room.
Abandoned goats and chickens jostled in a pen in the yard, trying to reach the fruit on a pomegranate tree.
The town lies on the road between Misrata and Sirte, where fighters loyal to the new National Transitional Council regime are battling the remnants of Qaddafi’s loyalists.
At a checkpoint on that road on Monday, NTC fighters gave a typically angry reaction when asked about Tawarga. We don’t want them living next to us, they said.
“They raped our women, killed our children, they cut their throats. They’re not normal human beings,” said Yusuf Ali Mohamed. “We want to take those who killed to court. Those who raped, we will never forgive them.”
One of his colleagues then produced a mobile phone and showed a video of dark-skinned men in Qaddafi uniforms slapping prisoners, and he said these were Tawargans abusing rebel fighters.
Tawargans admit that many of their men did fight for the Qaddafi forces but they are angry about what they see as a collective punishment being inflicted upon them.
They point out that other pro-Qaddafi towns captured by the rebels did not suffer the same fate and say they were singled out because most of the residents are black and therefore associated with the sub-Saharan mercenaries the dictator employed.
Suleiman Mohammed Saleh, 46, was raised in Tawarga but lived in Tripoli over the last few years. He has brought five families -- around 50 people -- from his hometown to live with him in the capital.
He said a clan from Tawarga had fought with Qaddafi forces in Misrata and that “60-70 percent of people (in Tawarga) were for Qaddafi.”
“It’s a small town, if you didn’t put the flag up for Qaddafi they would torture and kill you,” he told AFP in Tripoli.
“They (the new NTC authorities) should do something, they should help us. No-one can go back to their homes, they are too scared. We need to be protected,” he said.
A group of around 150 Tawargans who had moved to Sirte took refuge in a mosque just beside an NTC frontline position a week ago when fighting there intensified.
“A human being doesn't do the things our people did in Misrata. It’s not right,” said one of them, Sabri Saad. But he insisted that many Tawargans, like the group in the mosque, had done no wrong.
The NTC fighters holding the frontline position nearby have been supplying the group in the mosque with food, water and medical aid.
While many Misratans vehemently insist they will never let Tawargans return home, the new authorities are taking a more conciliatory approach.
“We have a list of people who committed crimes and they will be tried. As to those who committed no crimes, they will be allowed to return to their city,” said Ibrahim Bait al-Maal, a spokesman for Misrata military council.