Tawergha is a small Libyan costal town roughly 300 kilometres east of the capital Tripoli. Its estimated that 40,000 of its inhabitants are black Libyans who have lived there for hundreds of years and never had any problem integrating into the rest of the country and were never discriminated against. They are as Libyan as any other citizen in any part of the country. Historically, their ancestors are believed to be part of the salve trade from sub-Saharan Africa.
Before 2011 the town used to be just like any other Libyan town; it benefited from free education, free health care, public services, government subsidised housing, infrastructure, businesses and above all security. The town was famous for its handcrafts of clay and handmade home furniture and used to be a hub for trade as it sits on the highway junction that connects the south, east and west of Libya. No one discriminated against the town and its inhabitants, and Libya’s successive governments, since independence in 1951, always considered Tawerghans as Libyans.
All that changed in August 2011 when the NATO supported rebels of armed militias, including terrorist groups, toppled the Gaddafi regime and in the final days of the civil war forced whoever remained in the town to flee at gun point and never allowed them to return.
Since then an estimated 40,000 inhabitants, the entire population of Tawergha, have been living as refugees in dozens of camps scattered around Libya with little hope of peaceful return any time soon. At one point roughly 2,000 people of 355 families lived in a make shift camp on the airport highway just south of the capital Tripoli. When I visited the camp the people I spoke to only wished for one thing – to be allowed to go back to their town and be left alone to live in whatever remained of their homes. It is true that most people of Tawergha cherish the late Gaddafi but the overwhelming majority took no part in the civil war of 2011 at all. One elderly person told me that he remembers how Gaddafi used to stop his convoy at Tawergha and chat with people every time he passed by as he shuttled between Tripoli and Sirte, his hometown.
In August 2011, hundreds of Tawerghan young men were jailed and an unknown number still missing with little information available to their families. International rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have published well documented reports of what happened in August 2011 and how Tawerghans were forced into internal exile inside Libya.
Libya’s successive governments since 2011 have so far failed miserably to tackle the tragedy either because the militias, who dominated all governments, do not want to provide practical arrangements to help people return to their homes.
In the early days of the war in 2011 the regime was accused of using paid black African mercenaries to fight the NATO supported rebels but like many other wild accusations it turned out to be part of a propaganda campaign to further demonise the regime. Since Tawerghans are black skinned Libyans it was easy to portray them as mercenaries making them legitimate targets by the rebels even after they fled their town. The whole town was destroyed and its entire buildings, including schools and mosques, were deliberately and extensively damaged. Today, Tawargha is not only a ghost town but an open landfill as nearby Misrata militias deliberately make the town uninhabitable again.
Between 2012 and 2014 it was almost a taboo to talk about Tawergha openly inside Libya but the atmosphere relaxed in later years as it became apparent that the so-called revolution is no more than a disaster for Libya as whole, not just for Tawergha.
So why are Tawerghans still displaced after so many years and who could be held responsible for their misery? The primary responsibility for this crime rests with militias and politicians of the city of Misrata which is less than 30 kilometres west of Tawergha and whose militias took the initiative in forcing the civilian population out in 2011. They still refuse to allow them to go back in peaceful manner despite agreements worked out between the two sides between 2015 and June 2018.
In justifying their criminal position Misrata militias claim that people from Tawergha committed heinous crimes, including mass rape, within Misrata itself during the war. However no proof has been produced to support such a claim and not a single judiciary proceeding has ever been initiated against any person from Tawergha based on such allegations.
Misrata recently accepted a deal whereby it allows Tawerghans to return home but only if, among other conditions, the Government of National Accord (GNA) agree to compensate Misrata for the suffering it claims to have endured during the 2011 war, despite the fact that Tawerghans are not collectively responsible for whatever crimes claimed to have been committed.
According to the latest deal, signed last June between the local councils of both Misrata and Tawergha with the help of the GNA, Misrata accepted the return of civilians to Tawergha while receiving an undisclosed sum thought be worth millions of US dollars in compensation. The deal was hailed as a good step on the long road to national reconciliation in war shattered Libya. However, three months later and the number of returnees is far smaller than expected.
Marbuk Eswasi, an activist from Tawergha and director of a local charity named Patience, told me that no more than 100 people have actually returned and all of them live in a school yard as their homes are uninhabitable. He also pointed out that over 90 per cent of homes and business in town are damaged beyond repair and have to be rebuilt if they are ever to be used again.
Some observers also believe that NATO is partially responsible for this humanitarian disaster and is an accessory to such crime against humanity. They say, had it not been for the huge military help provided by NATO to the rebels they would not have been able to win the war and eventually displace thousands of civilians.
Others think that Misrata will never allow the return of the Tawerghan to live next to them simply because the accusations against Tawerghans for being mercenaries for the former Gaddafi regime is still widely believed as an important source of legitimacy for the entire so-called revolution of Libya in 2011, however false it has been proved.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.