x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Inhabitants chased out of base for Qaddafi forces

Families forced to flee to refugee camps by fighters who want Tawergha wiped off the map for providing a support base for Qaddafi's soldiers.

BENGHAZI, LIBYA // Hunted by fighters from the Libyan city of Misurata, it took the Ali family 64 days, hiding out in a half a dozen cities and towns, to make it to the safety of a refugee camp in Benghazi.

The family is from Tawergha, a town of 30,000 inhabitants seen as loyal to the former dictator Muammar Qaddafi after it was used as a staging ground for some of the regime's troops during its long assault on nearby Misurata.

More than 1,300 Misurata residents were killed and thousands wounded in the fighting, according to city officials.

The 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.

When Misurata fighters seeking revenge captured Tawergha in mid-August, the Ali family, including seven brothers, three sisters and their children, fled in a confusion of bullets and explosions.

"They came to our homes with guns and rockets," said Mohammed Ali, 50, interviewed at a ramshackle refugee camp inside a Turkish building site in Benghazi.

"There were some young men who were fighting Misurata, but most people from Tawergha stayed home," he said.

His 52-year-old brother, Salem, said: "They won't let us come back. They want to destroy everything. They want to kill us."

Human Rights Watch said in a report on Sunday that Tawergha had been abandoned and Misurata militias had shot unarmed Tawerghans and committed "arbitrary arrests and beatings of Tawerghan detainees, in a few cases leading to death".

"Revenge against the people from Tawergha, whatever the accusations against them, undermines the goal of the Libyan revolution," said Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East and North Africa director of Human Rights Watch. "In the new Libya, Tawerghans accused of wrongdoing should be prosecuted based on the law, not subject to vigilante justice."

Tawergha's refugees say they not only want to go home, they also want the release of innocent villagers from Misurata prisons and compensation for their looted possessions.

Not only were the Tawergha families forced to flee their homes, said Mohammed Ali, but they were "hunted" in the towns and cities where they fled: Waddan, Hun, Hisha, Sirte, Zella, Masda. Convoys of Misurata lorries would show up, firing guns into the air and abducting some of the young men.

"They come after us everywhere we go," he said.

Libya's divisions, between tribes and neighbours, will be one of the largest challenges for Libya's new government, the Transitional National Council.

While Libya's Arab Spring-inspired revolution ended more than four decades of Qaddafi rule, failure toresolve such conflicts and bring regime supporters into the fold could destabilise the country and hamper the attempted transition to democracy, a western diplomat warned recently. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive subject matter.

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.

Mohammed Taleb, the head of a committee planning the future of Libyan State Television, said the ability to heal the rifts would depend largely on a free media to air grievances and allow open criticism of the government.

"The social wounds are very deep," he said. "For one year, we have to just work on the healing … Before we can embrace the future, we need to embrace everyone as Libyans."

Mr Taleb said he was pushing for a BBC model of state funding with institutional independence for Libyan State Television. But for now the goal is conveying a message of reconciliation to people such as the Ali family from Tawergha.

"The challenge for us is how can we include people who were for 10 or 15 years stuck in the old way of doing things," Mr Taleb said. "They are Libyans and if this is a democracy then we have to include them. We want them to be convinced that this revolution was a good thing for everyone - not just the people who started it."

Meanwhile, Tawergha remains a ghost town, with access roads blocked by earthen mounds and other obstacles. Road signs pointing to Tawergha have been painted over. About 10,000 Tawerghans live in two camps on the outskirts of the eastern city of Benghazi, while thousands more have sought refuge near Tripoli, Tarhouna and in remote areas of the south.

Ibrahim Beitelmal, a spokesman for Misurata's military council, said he believed Tawergha should be wiped off the map, but that the final decision was up to the national leadership.

"If it was my decision, I would want to see Tawergha gone. It should not exist," said Mr Beitelmal, whose 19-year-old son was killed in the fighting.

 

bhope@thenational.ae

* With additional reports from Associated Press