Score-settling after Libya’s war casts shadow
TAWERGHA: This town once loyal to Moammar Gadhafi is no more: its 25,000 residents have fled, fearing retribution from vengeful victors from the neighboring city of Misrata who have burned and ransacked homes, crossed out Tawergha’s name on road signs and vowed not to let anyone return.
Tawergha, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) south of Misrata, is just one casualty of score-settling following Libya’s 8-month civil war that ended with Gadhafi’s Oct. 20 capture and death.
The country’s interim leaders have appealed for restraint, but seem unable to control revolutionary forces whose recent vigilante acts, including the suspected killing of Gadhafi while in custody, have begun to tarnish their heroic image abroad.
A Western diplomat said Libya’s new leaders need to come out more strongly against the culture of revenge, and hold the former fighters accountable for their actions.
Failure to resolve such conflicts and bring regime supporters, including in the badly damaged loyalist towns of Sirte and Bani Walid, into the fold could destabilize Libya and hamper the attempted transition to democracy, the diplomat warned, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive subject matter.
However, people in Misrata, which was heavily damaged during the war, are in no mood for reconciliation. The port city of 300,000 rose up early against Gadhafi and came under a weekslong siege by Gadhafi fighters, many from Tawergha which served as a staging ground for the loyalists. Nearly 1,300 Misrata residents were killed and thousands wounded in the fighting, city officials say.
Misrata officials have accused the Tawerghans, some of them descendants of African slaves, of particular brutality during the war, including alleged acts of rape and looting. During the siege, Gadhafi fighters sniped at residents from roof tops and shelled the city indiscriminately.
Ibrahim Beitelmal, spokesman for Misrata’s military council, said he believes Tawergha should be wiped off the map, but that the final decision is up to the national leadership. ”If it was my decision, I would want to see Tawergha gone. It should not exist,” said Beitelmal, whose 19-year-old son was killed in the fighting on Tripoli Street.
Misrata fighters captured Tawergha in mid-August, just days before the fall of the capital Tripoli dealt a fatal blow to the Gadhafi regime and forced the dictator into hiding in his hometown of Sirte.
Most of Tawergha’s residents fled as the Misrata brigades approached, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Human Rights Watch said in a report Sunday that more than 100 civilians stayed in their homes, but that the militias quickly forced them out.
For the past two months, Tawergha has been a ghost town, with access roads blocked by earthen mounds and other obstacles. Road signs pointing to Tawergha have been painted over. Misrata brigades have scribbled slogans on the walls of abandoned homes.
”The Tawergha are the rats of Gadhafi,” read graffiti on one facade, using Gadhafi’s derogatory name for his opponents. The fallen regime had tried to ensure Tawergha’s loyalty with promises of jobs and investment, and while some of the homes there were ramshackle, the town also boasted a modern school, medical clinic and rows of new apartment buildings.
A tour of Tawergha on Friday showed widespread vandalism. The school, clinic, small shops and modern apartments had been ransacked, with some rooms burned and contents of closets strewn on the ground.
Human Rights Watch said its team saw militias and individuals from Misrata set 12 homes on fire during a three-day period in early October. On Oct. 25, the team saw trucks drive out of Tawergha with furniture and carpets that had apparently been looted, and that Misrata fighters who claimed to be guarding the town did not intervene.
Two Misrata fighters driving through Tawergha on Friday said the town’s residents are no longer welcome. ”They will have to find a different place and build houses there,” said 22-year-old Naji Akhlaf, standing outside a small grocery that had been largely emptied out, with cartons of juice strewn across the entrance.
”This is the best solution so we can relax and get on with our lives,” he said.
Tawerghans also lived in other parts of Libya, including in Misrata where a rundown apartment complex that once housed hundreds of them is to be razed. City officials say the complex is also home to non-Tawerghans and is being torn down because it’s unsanitary and unsafe. Tawerghans have fled those apartments and their neighbors said they won’t allow them back.
Human Rights Watch, citing interviews with dozens of Tawerghans, said they gave credible accounts of arbitrary arrests and beatings of detainees by Misrata militias, including descriptions of two deaths in custody.