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Tawergha used to be a city filled with black non-Arab Libyans. Rebel forces emptied the town after they seized Tripoli and residents have yet to return. Refugee camps where the residents had gone are also emptied amid reports that the former residents have been forced out of Libya. David Enders / MCT via Getty Images
Tawergha used to be a city filled with black non-Arab Libyans. Rebel forces emptied the town after they seized Tripoli and residents have yet to return. Refugee camps where the residents had gone are also emptied amid reports that the former residents have been forced out of Libya. David Enders / MCT via Getty Images
A displaced woman from Tawergha sits near her child at a prefabricated house built for workers at a construction site, which is now used as a refugee camp, on the outskirts of Benghazi. Youssef Boudlal / Reuters
A displaced woman from Tawergha sits near her child at a prefabricated house built for workers at a construction site, which is now used as a refugee camp, on the outskirts of Benghazi. Youssef Boudlal / Reuters

Widespread discrimination mars second anniversary of Libya's revolt

For thousands of Libyans, the 'new' Libya is merely the fear-ridden old Libya dressed in different cloth. Maggie Fick reports from Janzur

JANZUR, LIBYA // Fireworks and colourful lanterns have lit the Tripoli night in recent days as Libyans celebrated the anniversary of the start of the uprising that overthrew Muammar Qaddafi. Families packed in cars paraded through Tripoli's streets each evening, waving Libya's new red, green and black standard and shouting "free Libya".

Across town, inside the concrete buildings of an abandoned naval academy, the mood is far less exuberant. Many of the 2,000 Libyans holed up there are scared to venture outside the camp because their dark skin makes them targets of harassment by militias posted at checkpoints around the city.

For tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of Libyans, the "new" Libya is merely the fear-ridden old Libya dressed in different cloth.

Dread still governs their lives because of the colour of their skin. the political choices they made or the region of the country they hail from. They are a reminder that Libya's patchy, post-Qaddafi political system has far to go to deliver justice and national reconciliation.

"Even if I painted myself with the revolutionary colours and left the camp to celebrate the revolution anniversary, the Misurata people would see me and arrest me," said Ali Alhurus.

Mr Alhurus and other residents of the makeshift camp all share the fate of being from the town of Tawergha in western Libya, near Misurata.

In mid-August 2011, the entire population of Tawergha fled their homes, fearing attacks from militias from Misurata. Residents of the town were accused of committing atrocities as they fought alongside pro-Qaddafi brigades during the siege on Misurata that lasted for three months and left up to 1,000 people dead.

Tawerghans in the camp, located in the Janzur district, said this week that they are seeking the help of the international community because they do not trust the shaky transitional government elected in June to ensure their safety when they leave the camp and attempt to return home later this year.

The United Nations high commissioner for refugees estimates that about 35,000 people from Tawergha are dispersed across the country. Tawerghans in western Libya, closer to Misurata, are most at risk of revenge attacks, according to Human Rights Watch.

Tawerghans are one of a number of minority groups widely perceived to have been sympathetic to Qaddafi, if not involved outright in battling rebel forces during the 2011 uprising-turned-civil war.

Mr Alhurus, head of the local council at the camp, denies that Tawerghans committed atrocities, including rape, against Misurata residents. Before the war, he said, he and many other Tawerghans worked in Misurata and did not face threats or discrimination.

Since Qaddafi was killed in October 2011, the "new" Libya has been defined more by deep local and regional divisions - many of them ignited by battles during the uprising - than by unity.

Although the pace of the political transition has frustrated many Libyans, groups such as the Tawerghans and the Mashasha, another dark-skinned ethnic group from the west of the country, have found themselves firmly on the losing end of the uprising.

"Life is a lot worse for us after the revolution. Even children here will tell you that," Mr Alhurus said.

Inside the buildings of the empty academy grounds, the displaced families of Tawergha have hung plastic sheeting in an attempt to create a semblance of privacy. To ease the chill from the winter wind whipping off the nearby Mediterranean, they huddle around charcoal burning in small metal containers. The air is rank with the smell of urine.

"We want the government to find a solution for us. We don't deserve this," said Ghetia Mahat, shivering as she hunched over a fire in one of the buildings.

The predicament of the Tawerghans underscores weakness of the transitional government.

Mr Alhurus described Libya's new justice minister, Salah Marghani, as a "good man" who has tried to fix the problems between Tawergha and Misurata. He and the government, however, do not control the well-armed militias in Misurata and other cities and towns across the country.

"The government can't even protect itself, so how can they protect us?" Mr Alhurus sighed.

A year ago, militias from Misurata stormed the camp in Janzur, killing seven people, six of them women and children, Human Rights Watch said. The Tawerghans were "exposed to the violent whims of militias in western Libya", the group said, calling for the interim government to deploy security forces to protect camps and to investigate the killings.

This week, a single uniformed man stood at the camp entrance, and residents there said they had received no word about any government investigation.

This month, Mr Marghani and the Justice Ministry issued a public response to a report by Human Rights Watch highlighting the threats facing groups viewed as aiding Qaddafi during the civil war.

"The ministry feels very saddened that the new Libya has so far failed expectations of the Libyan people who revolted against the tyranny of the Qaddafi regime in the hope that the new Libya would never allow human rights abuses unchecked," the statement said.

Another camp resident highlighted a different challenge preventing reconciliation between rival groups.

"Now Misurata is the government," said Omar Mubarak, arguing that the General National Congress elected last July will refuse to acknowledge the Tawerghan problem because it views the Tawerghans as Qaddafi loyalists.

Whether or not this is true, the perception that the new government does not serve all Libyans is a sensitive issue that leaders have made attempts to acknowledge.

In the eastern city of Benghazi on Sunday, president Mohammed El Magariaf called for national unity. He urged Libyans to "join ranks and resolve our differences to build our nation".

Back in the Janzur camp, Kheera Ahmed said that she and other residents of Tawergha do not feel welcome in their own country.

"People in our camp feel that no one cares about them."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

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