Resolution of Tawergha issue shows Libyan reconciliation is possible

The plight of the Tawerghans generated a deep sense of shame and discomfort among most Libyans and fuelled resentment against Misrata.
Sunday 17/06/2018
A new chapter. Libyan children displaced from the town of Tawergha attend class in their camp in Benghazi. (Reuters)
A new chapter. Libyan children displaced from the town of Tawergha attend class in their camp in Benghazi. (Reuters)

TUNIS - Of all the divisions and difficulties that Libya has faced in the past seven years, none has been more intractable than the issue of Tawergha. As punishment for helping the Qaddafi regime in besieging and attacking Misrata, the entire population of Tawergha was driven out at the end of the 2011 revolution by the Misratans.

Forced into internal exile across Libya and prevented from returning home, most of the 40,000 inhabitants of Tawergha have a life of misery and squalor in insanitary and rudimentary camps, not to mention attacks — sometimes fatal — by vengeful “revolutionaries” intent on collective punishment for their former pro-Qaddafi activities.

The situation has been complicated by allegations of racism and ethnic cleansing on the part of their persecutors. The Tawerghans are said to be the descendants of slaves taken from sub-Saharan Africa to be sent to other parts of the Ottoman Empire but were never sold.

The plight of the Tawerghans generated a deep sense of shame and discomfort among most Libyans and fuelled resentment against Misrata, particularly in the east, further entrenching divisions in the country.

Aware of this, moderates in Misrata, led by the municipality and the business community, tried to resolve the issue. An agreement in May 2015 brokered by the United Nations between the municipality and Tawergha representatives came to nothing as did the promise last December by Tripoli-based Presidency Council head Fayez al-Sarraj that the Tawerghans would be allowed to return as of February 1.

Hundreds of them tried to do so but were blocked by Misratan militiamen. Determined that they would not go back to the miserable camps, many set up a tent city in the sandy wastes at Qararet Al-Qatef, not far from Tawergha, waiting for Misratan hearts to change.

It seemed it was never going to happen. Hardliners in Misrata said the Tawerghans supported eastern Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar and would never be allowed to return.

Even Misratan moderates had conditions: Tawerghan criminals must be handed over to Misrata; Tawergha must never have its own municipal council, it must come under Misrata; Misratan militias must police Tawergha; Misratan companies must have the contracts to rebuild Tawergha.

Then, halfway through Ramadan, Misratan and Tawerghan officials signed an agreement allowing a return.

Many said the June 3 deal had as much chance of success as the others but for once there is reason to believe the clouds of the last seven years were clearing and the sun would shine on Tawergha. Within a couple of days of the deal being signed, Tawerghans entered their town, without hindrance from anyone.

Since then, a handful have been camping out at the main mosque, preparing for the town’s rebirth. On June 12, Presidency Council member Ahmed Maetig, who is from Misrata, visited the town and promised to help with reconstruction. Electricity authorities have said they would reinstall power and a special ceremony was scheduled to formally reopen Tawergha. Members of the town’s Shura Council called on residents to return.

The reality, though, is that the state of the looted and damaged town, as well as the presence of massive numbers of explosives, make it impossible for anyone to live there. Without electricity, water or other basic infrastructure, it is uninhabitable and the most Tawerghans are doing is visiting and starting reconstruction efforts, such as installing lighting using solar panels. Officials, though, said that, after Eid, some families will try to stay.

“I don’t think it will be a comfortable return in the near future,” said one Misratan official, “but they can come and go freely and move without fear of being harmed.”

In March, the same official who was then only half sympathetic to a return said that “if we can resolve this (the Tawergha issue), we can resolve anything.”

There are some who fear that the deal could fall apart but it appears that the opposition to a Tawerghan return that existed just a few weeks ago has largely dissipated.

Despite the many problems they face and the divisions in the country, Libyans are taking comfort from this, seeing in it proof that national reconciliation is not just a dream.

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