/ 1 February 2012

Libya’s ‘forgotten hostages’ continue to live in fear

‘Fitna’ is widely used in Arabic but difficult to translate directly into English. Roughly defined, it means the intentional stirring of chaos between people.

Fitna is why Muammar Gaddafi occupied the town of Tawergha, held its residents hostage and used it as a base to besiege and shell the coastal city of Misrata in last year’s civil war, refugee Kareem al-Barra said.

“He wanted to turn Libyans on each other, to divide and rule,” said Barra, one of thousands of displaced black Libyans who have suffered revenge attacks from victorious anti-Gaddafi forces since the war ended.

Barra and his family were forced from their homes and driven out of Tawergha in August and now live in a refugee camp on the outskirts of Benghazi.

“We consider ourselves war hostages,” he said.

Gaddafi’s strategy last year stirred suspicion and hatred between the ethnically Arab people of Misrata and the black Libyans in Tawergha, refugees say. It worked so well that even after the dictator’s death, it interferes with Libya’s new rulers focus on rebuilding and reconciliation.

Although no-one will admit it, a number of Tawergha’s residents did serve voluntarily in the Gaddafi forces. Barra says his people are being persecuted for that supposed collaboration and being mistaken for the sub-Saharan African mercenaries who fought for Gaddafi in the war.

Too scared to return
“Everyone wants to return but we are too scared. The rebels from Misrata think we fought with Gaddafi but we were trapped inside Tawergha,” Barra said, sitting in a corrugated iron building at the centre of Gargounis camp, one of five camps in Benghazi that house more than 19 000 Tawergha residents.

“Now [fighters from Misrata] are still destroying Tawergha and attacking black Libyans on sight.”

The more than 28 000 displaced people from Tawergha and its surrounding villages add to the difficulties of Libya’s interim rulers tasked with creating a democratic state from scratch.

In addition to addressing the refugee issue, the National Transitional Council (NTC) must quell regular clashes between rival militias, bring down youth unemployment and secure its borders against arms traffickers, al-Qaeda insurgents and migrants trying to reach Europe illegally.

Elections are promised for June but many here say they will have to be pushed back.

Barra paints a dark picture of life in Tawergha when Gaddafi’s forces set up a base there at the start of the war in February 2011.

The electrical engineer-turned-refugee says 12 000 Gaddafi-loyal soldiers arrived in the quiet coastal town over the course of two nights.

‘Impossible to escape’
“They were all black like us, some of them African mercenaries and some from Saba city, in Libya’s Sahara desert,” Barra explained, gesturing vividly with his hands.

“They seized fuel and set up checkpoints, making it impossible to escape,” he added. A few tried one night but were caught, given on-the-spot trials and found guilty of treason: “Seven entire families were killed. Nobody could get out and if people were sick or injured, they would die in the street.”

Other men from Tawergha, sitting idle in the refugee camps in Benghazi, said Gaddafi promised the town’s elders that he would turn the city into a “paradise” after the war.

“Really he was scared about the rebels reaching Sirte,” said a volunteer from a local religious charity working at the camp, referring to Gaddafi’s hometown where he was killed in October.

Tawergha, known for its fertile soil and salt mines, lies between Misrata and Sirte.

After five months, the Misrata rebels pushed the brigades out of Tawergha but raised hell as they did, Barra said.

‘Revenge attacks’
“Then the Misrata problem started,” he said, his eyes focused on the memory. “There were revenge attacks in retaliation for the siege of Misrata. People were killed in front of their families. The entire city fled between August and October.”

Once inhabited by almost 30 000 people, Tawergha is now a ghost town. Horses, camels and goats roam the streets, feeding on rubbish and shrubs.

Above the doorways and windows of each of the concrete buildings — some five or six storeys high — black soot from fires paints the wall. Houses are splattered with bullet holes and many buildings have collapsed. The detritus of spent rockets-propelled grenades line the streets.

Human Rights Watch’s emergencies director Peter Bouckaert, who has worked on and off in Libya since the war started, said Misrata rebels have looted and destroyed homes in Tawergha as well as the neighbouring farming villages of Kararim and Tomina.

“Every time we visit the area, we have witnessed rebels looting and burning homes,” he said.

“The civilian and military leadership should remember that the International Criminal Court has full jurisdiction over war crimes being committed in Libya, and forcibly displacing a civilian population and destroying their homes are war crimes.”

Documenting abuses
At a second refugee camp in Benghazi, Tawergha resident Ahmed Ali Farhat has been documenting abuses against his countrymen as the “fitna” continues.

“People fled from Tawergha to all over Libya but they are still being harassed, especially by roaming Misrata rebels who pursue them,” the elderly man said as he walked through the camp, the grounds of a empty cement factory.

“Two days ago some rebels from Misrata roughed up some Tawergha here in Benghazi,” he said. A line of black men stood waiting in front of a USAid truck handing out clothes nearby.

“Another group of eight Tawergha people were caught in Sirte. One was stamped to death,” he said. He plans to file a report on the incident to the interim government.

As rain started to beat down, Farhat looked at his townsmen, miles from home and cowering under makeshift huts. He was pessimistic Libya would address the atrocities committed before and after the war, or that he would ever be able to return home.

“There is no security as the Libyan government is still not in control of the country,” Farhat said. “They have not looked seriously at our case.” — Reuters