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Unravelling the Mystery of Tawargha | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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An abandoned settlement in Tawargha, Libya. (Asharq Al-Awsat/Hannah Lucinda Smith)

An abandoned settlement in Tawargha, Libya. (Asharq Al-Awsat/Hannah Lucinda Smith)

An abandoned settlement in Tawargha, Libya. (Asharq Al-Awsat/Hannah Lucinda Smith)

Tawargha and A’alam, Libya, Asharq Al-Awsat—There were moments when the wind whipped up the dust on the scrubby desert plain and the grains formed a dirty orange veil across the sun. The gusts set the limp doors banging in their frames, and in those seconds it felt like there was still life in Tawargha—that at any moment the people would come back to their houses, scrub off the graffiti and fix up the windows, put on the shoes they had left scattered on the stairs and pick up what they had been doing when they left. But the sandstorms died down as quickly as they came. When the dust cleared the town came back into focus: an endless vista of dying date palms, burned out houses, and the rusting skeletons of cars.

Some people call this the shame of the Libyan Revolution. Tawargha is where the rebels of Misrata, 25 miles (40 kilometers) to the west, exacted their revenge for the bloody three-month siege of their city. The town paid the price for its loyalty to Gaddafi; for six months it hosted the regime’s forces as they launched shells and grad rockets towards Misrata. But when the rebels broke the siege and advanced towards the town in August 2011, Gaddafi’s army retreated without a fight, leaving the civilians alone and unarmed. When the rebels reached Tawargha they chased the people out, and then they torched their homes to make sure that they would not come back. There used to be 40,000 living here; today the town lies empty and rotting.

The UNHCR estimated that around 170,000 people were displaced during the conflict in Libya, but the resettlement process has largely been swift. More than two thirds of those people have now returned to their homes or been permanently rehoused elsewhere. But nearly all of the people who fled Tawargha are still living in squalid temporary camps in Tripoli, Bani Walid and Benghazi.

On a parched patch of land next to a busy motorway on the outskirts of Tripoli, a bumpy, unmade access road leads to a huddle of cinder block barracks that have housed 300 Tawarghan families for the past two and a half years. These blocks were never designed to be permanent homes—they were temporary workers’ accommodation units built by a Turkish construction company that left Libya hastily when the gunfire began. The heat inside them was already stifling in the February sun. There were no private bathrooms and no waste disposal systems, and the acrid stench of burning garbage drifted across the entrance to the camp. The tank that provided the camp’s drinking water was brand new; before it was brought here the people were drinking salt water from a nearby river.

The women were holding the families together. In one block after another, wives stood in their rough-hewn doorways as their children clung around their legs, and described how their husbands and adult sons had been arrested and detained by militias from Misrata. “Enough blood, we just want our sons who are in jail now to come back,” said one woman. Then she broke down in tears. The most shocking thing was how quickly her tears had come; just a minute before she had been smiling broadly as she welcomed us into her home. But when she started crying, noiselessly, it became clear that her tears were never too far from the surface.

Zahara and her children in the Tripoli camp. (Asharq Al-Awsat/Hannah Lucinda Smith)

Zahara and her children in the Tripoli camp. (Asharq Al-Awsat/Hannah Lucinda Smith)

Zahara did not even have that hope to cling on to. Her husband had been driving through Tripoli in the messy days following the fall of the city to the rebel forces when he was stopped at a checkpoint run by a Misrati militia. He was arrested and taken away, and the family heard nothing of him for a month. When Zahara finally got the call, it was to tell her that her husband was in a hospital in Misrata, and that he was dead. When his body was brought back to the camp, she saw that it was covered in signs of torture.

She insisted that her husband’s only crime was that he was from Tawargha. “He wasn’t in the military and he didn’t fight in the war,” she said. “They caught him randomly in the street because of his black skin.”

Like Zahara, many Tawarghans believe that racism lies at the root of their plight. The town’s residents are the descendants of West African slaves and are darker skinned than the majority of Libyans. Although they have lived in the country for centuries, speak Arabic, are practicing Muslims and lived peacefully alongside other Libyans before the revolution, they believe that they have been tarred by association with the black African mercenaries Gaddafi hired to fight alongside his army during the conflict.

But the issue is more complex. “All the Tawarghans said ‘Long Live Gaddafi!’” said Mabruk Medewesi, a Tawarghan community leader, in his small office on the outskirts of the camp. “All Tawarghans are poor, but when Gaddafi asked us what we wanted, we said ‘Your health only.’”

Gaddafi saw the people of Tawargha as his allies. A couple of years before the revolution, the government built 1,500 new houses for the people of the town, and Gaddafi himself made an official visit there in 2010. When the revolution started, the people were largely happy to host the regime’s forces. The women cooked food for them, and many of the men joined in the fighting against the rebels of Misrata. “They considered that they were protecting the country against the rebels and the militias,” said Mabruk. “And now this is the problem, because some people from Tawargha joined in the attacks, the whole community is being punished.”

But the people of Misrata insist that racism is not the issue. In their neat living room in a house on the outskirts of the town, Samira and her husband, Saleh, sat on their sofas underneath framed photos of their son, Fouad. His RPG launcher was propped up in one corner. “One day he came back with it and hid it behind the door,” said Samira. “I found it when I was cleaning the next morning. I would have been surprised if he even knew how to use a pistol before the revolution, but he became famous for his RPG skills. People used to call him up when they wanted to take out a regime tank.”

Fouad returned from his job in Sirte to join the Martyrs’ Brigade in his hometown of Misrata when the revolution started. Throughout the siege of the city, as Gaddafi’s forces pounded the trapped and starving civilians, he fought alongside his friends on the frontlines. As the fighting intensified his visits home became shorter, and Samira and Saleh grew increasingly worried about him. On the worst days, when the fighting was heaviest, Saleh would go to the hospital to check the lists of casualties.

One of those photos above the sofa shows Fouad with his rebel comrades. His desert fatigue cap is pulled low over his face, but not low enough to conceal his broad white smile, or the fact that he—like the people of Tawargha—is dark skinned. “Tawargha had nothing to do with skin color,” said Saleh. “There are a lot of dark skinned people in Misrata. It is difficult to accept the people who are responsible for what happened here. At the moment we can’t live in the same area as the Tawarghans. If they move back to their town, then it will end up with Tawarghans killing Misratans and vice versa.”

There is another photo of Fouad on display in Misrata. His headshot is lined up alongside hundreds of others on the walls of the town’s Revolution Museum, a building on Tripoli Street that is filled with weaponry used by the rebels during the revolution, mementoes from Gaddafi’s Bab Al-Aziziyah compound including the famous fist clutching the US plane, and memorials to the men and women who lost their lives during the conflict. On June 12, Samira and Saleh got the news they had been dreading. Fouad had been killed in action, just two months before the end of the siege of Misrata. His photo is up there, alongside all the others.

Away from the war loot and the tributes, there is a corner of the museum that was dedicated to Tawargha. But this was not a place of memorial—it was an indictment. The photos here were mug shots, pinned up next to handwritten lists of names of people from Tawargha who, the Misratans claim, committed acts of organized rape against civilians. The Misratans say that it is the Tawarghans’ use of rape as a weapon of war that differentiates them from the residents of any of the other towns that supported and hosted Gaddafi’s forces during the revolution. And it is these accusations that have blackened the relationship between the two communities to such an extent that any reconciliation seems, at this point, impossible.

Just to the west of Tawargha, on the road back towards Misrata, there is another town that suffered the same fate during the revolution. The people of A’alam also hosted Gaddafi’s forces during the siege, and were also burnt out of their town when the rebels advanced. But the people have returned to A’alam. They have been rehoused in the same areas they lived in before, in neat rows of new prefabricated houses that are eerily identical to the blocks that lie desolate in Tawargha.

Aimenn, a young Misratan who fought with the Martyrs’ Brigade, explained why these two neighboring towns had been dealt with so differently. “There were people who were accused of rape in A’alam,” he said. “But those people were handed over and are in prison now. There are a lot of people from A’alam who are working in Misrata, and there have been no problems at all—and they are also darker skinned. With the Tawarghans, it is the fact that they just left and refused to hand anyone over.”

Underneath its veneer of high-powered cars, hip-hop, and American-style milkshake bars, Libya is still a deeply conservative country. Rape is an issue that tends to be covered up rather than talked about, and women who are sexually assaulted can often be treated as pariahs rather than victims. A single woman who has been raped might find it difficult, if not impossible, to find a man who is willing to marry her. This social stigma means that rape victims would often keep their ordeal secret rather than bring their attackers to justice. Investigators have struggled to find women in Misrata who will testify that they were raped by men from Tawargha during the conflict, but the accusations will not go away. And until the alleged perpetrators are handed over for trial, the Misratans insist that the people of Tawargha will not be allowed to return to their town.

Mabruk Medewesi (R) in the Tripoli camp. (Asharq Al-Awsat/Hannah Lucinda Smith)

Mabruk Medewesi (R) in the Tripoli camp. (Asharq Al-Awsat/Hannah Lucinda Smith)

Meanwhile, the Tawarghans are adamant that they will not be resettled anywhere else. If they are to be rehoused, it will be in one place only: Tawargha. “The government says don’t come back, if you come back the Misrata forces will attack you,” said Mabruk Medewesi. “Everyone says that we will have to resettle somewhere else. But all we want to do is return. How can I believe in this revolution when I stay outside my home?”

Tawargha has become the stickiest issue for Libya’s Justice Minister Salah Al-Marghani. Although the conflict in Libya was relatively short it was deeply divisive, and there are rifts that must be healed before the country can move on and become a united and functioning democracy. “The victims’ rape is a source of hatred in this society,” he said. “Things are OK until you touch on this subject, and then you hit a wall.”

Marghani admits that the country’s transitional parliament the General National Congress (GNC) has been slow to tackle the issue, even though it is known that rape was used as a regime sanctioned weapon during the revolution. A decree issued by the Ministry of Justice last week outlined a number of options for helping the victims in this deeply Islamic society to testify and move on from their ordeals. One suggestion is to offer the victims’ parents money to make the Hajj to Mecca, thus improving their social standing and increasing their daughters’ chances of finding husbands. “We have to address the two simultaneously and not just talk about Tawargha, because Misrata also suffered a lot during the revolution,” said Marghani. “We have no experience in dealing with mass rape cases, even during the colonial era, and you can see how difficult it is to deal with. But the victims are being neglected, and that is fuelling more desire for revenge.”

Perhaps inevitably, Misrata’s militias have stepped in to fill the gaps in Libya’s faltering justice system. Hundreds of men from Tawargha have been arrested and detained in rebel run prisons, without trial or access to lawyers. Mohammed, a middle-aged man with haunted eyes, claimed that he had no idea why he was being detained in one of Misrata’s detention centers, much less when he might be freed. He had escaped the chaos in Tawargha and was working in a bank in Tripoli when he was arrested by two soldiers from Misrata in September 2011. “They came to my office and asked me if I was from Tawargha,” he said. “I said yes, and they told me that I had to go with them to answer some questions, and that after that they would bring me back. But I am still here.” He said that he had not taken part in any of the fighting. “I don’t know what I am accused of, I’ve not been told. Only that I am from Tawargha,” he said.

Back in the camp, Mabruk reiterated his point. “The problem is that the Misratans have many videos showing that the Gaddafi army came to Misrata, and all of them are dark skinned,” he said. “So when the women from Misrata say that dark skinned men raped or attacked them, the people are just going to say that he is from Tawargha.”

There are signs of progress towards reconciliation, but they are small. Marghani said that cases are being prepared against thirty-eight high profile figures from Gaddafi’s regime who are accused of inciting, encouraging and organizing mass rape against civilians during the revolution. It will be much harder to bring cases against the individuals who carried out those rapes, but until that happens Tawargha will remain the black spot of the new Libya—a burned-out, empty and echoing reminder of the wounds that cannot heal.