Displaced Tawerghans continue to suffer at the hands of militias

The Tawerghans' plight reflects the ethnic, regional and political fault lines in Libya.
Sunday 29/04/2018
Displaced people from the Libyan town of Tawergha at a temporary refugee camp, last February. (AFP)
Dire conditions. Displaced people from the Libyan town of Tawergha at a temporary refugee camp, last February. (AFP)

TUNIS - Powerful militias from the Libyan city of Misrata have blocked Tawerghans from returning to their town despite a government-brokered deal to facilitate re-entry.

The renewed accord, reached between the neighbouring towns of Misrata and Tawergha last year, would see the return of about 40,000 Tawerghans who were driven away by militias in retaliation for their presumed support of former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.

Militias from Misrata overran Tawergha in 2011 after repelling an attack from Qaddafi loyalists based in the area. The militias destroyed houses and buildings and terrorised residents, vowing to keep them out of the town. Human rights groups said the Tawerghans’ displacement was a form of collective punishment and that militias had committed crimes against humanity.

Arab League envoy to Libya Slaheddine Jemmali, at a gathering of activists April 25 in Tunis, said the effect on Tawerghan children has been devastating.

“It is not a badge of honour for politicians to hold children hostages,” Jemmali said. “The children have been out of schools for seven years. They have lived with their parents in squalid conditions for seven years.”

“Tawerghan children played no role in what happened and they are suffering very much, away from their homes and their town in squalid refugee camps,” he added.

Tawerghans often worked as soldiers for Qaddafi. The animus directed at their community reflects the ethnic, regional and political fault lines in Libya.

“There were many poor in Tawergha,” Jemmali said. “They got jobs in the army to earn a living. They are not to blame for the abuses of the regime. They took orders as simple soldiers.”

Resolving the Tawerghan issue, he added, would help in making a big step towards broader peace in Libya.

“Tawergha is the barometer of the situation in all of Libya… If Tawergha’s problem is resolved and its population returned home to live in peace that will breathe new life into the whole process of reconciliation in Libya,” Jemmali said.

Tawerghans are scattered across refugee camps in eastern Benghazi, Hun and Sabha in the south and in the outskirts of Tripoli.

The United Nations has brokered two deals to return the displaced since 2013 but the plans stalled. Last June, Libya’s UN-backed government in Tripoli endorsed a renewed reconciliation accord between Misrata and Tawergha that would ensure the return of the displaced. Militias from Misrata, however, failed to respect the accord, blocking thousands of Tawerghans from returning home in February.

“When the first returnees reached the edge of Tawergha in February, Misratan militias came out to meet them with weapons and abuse before they were banished again,” said former Tawergha Mayor Abdelmoumen Addouma.

“Our children in the refugee camps are suffering from being uprooted from their homes and town,” he added. “They are living in dire psychological conditions.

“If that situation continues, we fear our children will become easy prey for radical Islamist groups. They do not understand why they are treated differently from other children in Libya.”

Lebanese rights activist Nadaa Sabbar, who was part of a fact-finding mission in the town, said racism — Tawerghans are dark-skinned — plays a large part in the Tawerghan issue.

Amina Abdelkarim, a Tawerghan woman who lives in a refugee camp with her children, said children have lost ties to their home and family.

“Children are suffering as they are aware that their city is a ghost town,” she said. “They have lost the warmth of family ties. They have not seen their grandmothers or brothers or uncles for seven years as they are either scattered in several camps or in jails or missing.

“Their social and familial fabric has been destroyed and they have been deprived of proper schooling for seven years.”

Some Tawerghan activists urged the Arab League and other international bodies to pressure Misrata militias — with force if necessary — to allow the displaced to return.

“Should these children be punished as if they were part of the Jamahiriya’s regime of Qaddafi?” asked Ali Mohtar Bousif, a Tawerghan activist. “Tawergha is suffering from racism in Libyan society and neighbouring countries. We are thrown in the middle of the Sahara Desert and no one cares about us.”

“Our adversaries in Misrata have never wanted dialogue. After rounds of dialogue and reconciliation we reached a dead end.

Misratans set impossible conditions for reconciliation each time and we are at an impasse,” he added.

Jemmali, however, said the use of force would make the issue worse.

“The government of Tripoli gives the highest priority to protecting the lives of the people and safeguarding the security of Libya,” he said. “The militias do not care about the life or the security. They are only interested in money.

“Dialogue is continuing and hope is alive that a solution will be reached to end the ordeal of the population of Tawergha who have our full support.”