This town once loyal to Muammar Qaddafi is no more: its 25,000 residents have fled, fearing retribution from vengeful victors from the neighboring city of Misrata who have burned and ransacked homes, crossed out Tawergha’s name on road signs and vowed not to let anyone return.
Tawergha, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) south of Misrata, is just one casualty of score-settling following Libya’s 8-month civil war that ended with Qaddafi’s Oct. 20 capture and death.
The country’s interim leaders have appealed for restraint, but seem unable to control revolutionary forces whose recent vigilante acts, including the suspected killing of Qaddafi while in custody, have begun to tarnish their heroic image abroad.
A Western diplomat said Libya’s new leaders need to come out more strongly against the culture of revenge, and hold the former fighters accountable for their actions.
Failure to resolve such conflicts and bring regime supporters, including in the badly damaged loyalist towns of Sirte and Bani Walid, into the fold could destabilize Libya and hamper the attempted transition to democracy, the diplomat warned, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive subject matter.
However, people in Misrata, which was heavily damaged during the war, are in no mood for reconciliation. The port city of 300,000 rose up early against Qaddafi and came under a weekslong siege by Qaddafi fighters, many from Tawergha which served as a staging ground for the loyalists. Nearly 1,300 Misrata residents were killed and thousands wounded in the fighting, city officials say.
Misrata officials have accused the Tawerghans, some of them descendants of African slaves, of particular brutality during the war, including alleged acts of rape and looting. During the siege, Qaddafi fighters sniped at residents from roof tops and shelled the city indiscriminately.
Ibrahim Beitelmal, spokesman for Misrata’s military council, said he believes Tawergha should be wiped off the map, but that the final decision is up to the national leadership. “If it was my decision, I would want to see Tawergha gone. It should not exist,” said Beitelmal, whose 19-year-old son was killed in the fighting on Tripoli Street.
Misrata fighters captured Tawergha in mid-August, just days before the fall of the capital Tripoli dealt a fatal blow to the Qaddafi regime and forced the dictator into hiding in his hometown of Sirte.
Most of Tawergha’s residents fled as the Misrata brigades approached, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Human Rights Watch said in a report Sunday that more than 100 civilians stayed in their homes, but that the militias quickly forced them out.
For the past two months, Tawergha has been a ghost town, with access roads blocked by earthen mounds and other obstacles. Road signs pointing to Tawergha have been painted over. Misrata brigades have scribbled slogans on the walls of abandoned homes.
“The Tawergha are the rats of Qaddafi,” read graffiti on one facade, using Qaddafi’s derogatory name for his opponents. The fallen regime had tried to ensure Tawergha’s loyalty with promises of jobs and investment, and while some of the homes there were ramshackle, the town also boasted a modern school, medical clinic and rows of new apartment buildings.
A tour of Tawergha on Friday showed widespread vandalism. The school, clinic, small shops and modern apartments had been ransacked, with some rooms burned and contents of closets strewn on the ground.
Human Rights Watch said its team saw militias and individuals from Misrata set 12 homes on fire during a three-day period in early October. On Oct. 25, the team saw trucks drive out of Tawergha with furniture and carpets that had apparently been looted, and that Misrata fighters who claimed to be guarding the town did not intervene.
Two Misrata fighters driving through Tawergha on Friday said the town’s residents are no longer welcome. “They will have to find a different place and build houses there,” said 22-year-old Naji Akhlaf, standing outside a small grocery that had been largely emptied out, with cartons of juice strewn across the entrance.
“This is the best solution so we can relax and get on with our lives,” he said.
Tawerghans also lived in other parts of Libya, including in Misrata where a rundown apartment complex that once housed hundreds of them is to be razed. City officials say the complex is also home to non-Tawerghans and is being torn down because it’s unsanitary and unsafe. Tawerghans have fled those apartments and their neighbors said they won’t allow them back.
Human Rights Watch, citing interviews with dozens of Tawerghans, said they gave credible accounts of arbitrary arrests and beatings of detainees by Misrata militias, including descriptions of two deaths in custody.
About 10,000 Tawerghans have reached two camps on the outskirts of the eastern city of Benghazi, until recently the seat of the National Transitional Council, and U.N. officials say that number is growing. Thousands more have sought refuge near Tripoli, Tarhouna and in remote areas of the south.
An NTC-funded aid group, LibAid, is providing food and other supplies to some of the displaced, said Mohammed el-Sweii, an official in the group. El-Sweii said guards have been stationed at the camps to prevent acts of revenge.
A similar conflict has been brewing between the town of Zintan in Libya’s western mountain range and the nomadic Mushashya tribe which settled nearby after being awarded land by Qaddafi several decades ago.
The Mushashya sided with the dictator in the civil war and fled their homes with retreating Qaddafi forces in the summer. Zintan officials said at the time they would not let the Mushashya return to their homes which, as in Tawergha, had been ransacked and in some cases burned. The U.N. said some 8,700 Mushashya have been reported displaced.
Aid officials believe it’s unlikely the Tawergha and Mushashya will be able to return home anytime soon because emotions are still running high.
Tens of thousands who fled Bani Walid and Sirte, the two last Qaddafi bastions to fight the revolutionary forces during the war, likely stand a better chance, once their towns have been rendered habitable again. The two towns are home to the Warfala, Libya’s largest tribe with some 1 million members, or one-sixth of the population.
Many former rebels are also Warfala and the sheer size of the tribe would likely protect its members against retribution.
Libya’s interim leader, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, has called for restraint, specifically mentioning the Misrata-Tawergha and Zintan-Mushashya conflicts in a news conference earlier this month. He promised that those guilty of abuses during the war would eventually be punished by the authorities, though it’s unclear how quickly a justice system could be set up.
“Taking the lives of people in an illegal manner will set back our revolution,” he warned at the time. “The law should be the decisive factor and ... we must believe God will dispense justice in the appropriate manner.”