Collective Punishment

Security official and a refugee family in Libya (photo: Gaia Anderson/DW)
Security official and a refugee family in Libya (photo: Gaia Anderson/DW)

Ever since August 2011 armed groups from Misrata have been preventing about 35,000 Tawerghans from returning to their homes. They accuse Tawerghans of fighting with pro-Gaddafi forces during the 2011 conflict and committing war crimes in Misrata. A field report by Valerie Stocker

By Valerie Stocker

"Let me tell you a true story," says Mohamed Fortia. Directing Misrata's main hospital put him on the frontline of the horrors of war. "17,000 of Gaddafi's regime troops were attacking us from all sides. We were most terrified of fighters from Tawergha who used rape as war tactic. One man shot his daughter to protect her from approaching troops. Can you imagine his despair?" He leans forward, gauging the effect of his words.

We are sat in the unattractive lounge of the Technical Hotel, once a meeting spot for businessmen and now deserted. Featuring the country's largest commercial port, Misrata has long been an economic hub for Libya's western region. But a lot has changed since 2011. Traces of warfare are everywhere; few of the shelled buildings have been repaired and virtually every wall in town is covered in graffiti that hails Misratans as the most revolutionary anti-Gaddafi of all and denigrates almost everybody else.

Not welcome: Tawerghans fled their hometown in August 2011 as revolutionary armed fighters from the nearby city of Misrata approached. Today, there are many anti-Tawerghan graffitos in the Misrata region

​​"Tawergha – No" or "No to the returnees, their destiny is that of the Tyrant" are frequent slogans. "Returnees" are residents who fled Misrata early on after the outbreak of the fighting, following regime orders to abandon the insurgent city. Those who have returned are being looked at as traitors.

Sub-Saharan Africans as mercenaries of Gaddafi

The violence of attacks against the population is beyond doubt. Up to two thousand Misratans, mostly civilians, died in the course of the three-month siege in 2011 and many more remain scarred for life. "Some cannot bear to see black people," Fortia claims. "I saw a young fighter chase after a migrant worker. So I told him: Let it go. Not all black are Tawergha."

Already rampant before the revolution, racism was exacerbated by Gaddafi 's alleged recruitment of sub-Saharan Africans as mercenaries and the presence of many dark-skinned Libyans among his troops. Not even officials shy back from racial stereotypes.

"Being of African origin, the Tawergha never mixed with the rest of us," claims Mohamed Dharrat, who represents Misrata war victims. "Even the crimes they committed were unlike anything we had seen, like cutting off genitals. What they did was worse than the Holocaust."

Insisting on the right to return

While Misratans clearly exaggerate the extent of crime and abuse, the other side is similarly adamant. "Tawergha is in our hearts," emphasises Hamed, standing by the Mediterranean shore in Janzur, a Tripoli suburb. "Just like the Palestinians we cannot accept any other option than return to our homeland." Behind him tower pyramid-shaped buildings eroded by salt and wind.

This former marine academy is now home to roughly two thousand Tawergha, forcefully expelled from their town in August 2011 by Misratan brigades. It is only one of several dozen camps across Libya and well equipped in comparison to the makeshift tents and shacks set up along the Tripoli airport road, as well as in Benghazi and Sabha.

"Already rampant before the revolution, racism was exacerbated by Gaddafi 's alleged recruitment of sub-Saharan Africans as mercenaries and the presence of many dark-skinned Libyans among his troops," Valerie Stocker writes. Pictured: Unemployed youths in the Tawergha refugee camp at Janzur, a Tripoli suburb

​​In the communal courtyards, sheltered from the blazing sun, young mothers hang up the washing, while their children run about and fetch water from outdoor reservoirs. Elderly women bake bread in tannours, traditional clay ovens. But the displaced are far from self-sufficient. Due to aggressions and arbitrary arrest only very few work outside. "As I was driving through Tripoli today, the judicial police tried to arrest me simply because of my skin-colour," camp leader Ali Al-Harus tells us.

Manhunt revenge by Misratan fighters

His community, however, has seen much worse: last year, Misratan fighters went on a manhunt inside the camp, killing several of its inhabitants, including children. Gruesome images of the victims are on display in the camp's own war exhibition, sparing the viewer none of the ugly details of civil warfare. Last May, a drive-by shooting dispersed Tawergha protesters in front of the National Assembly in Tripoli.

Most families rely on state salaries, which are still paid out to former civil servants and soldiers. There are much more women and children around since many men are still missing after the troubles of the revolution.

Over one thousand Tawerghas are thought to be illegally detained in Misrata. Human Rights Watch is not welcome anymore in the "glorious rebel city" since it began denouncing post-war human rights violations.

Red Crescent day trip to the sea

In a rare moment of joy, young Tawergha are dancing on the cliffs in Janzur. The Red Crescent brought them over from other camps for a day out. They then join camp residents for an award ceremony on behalf of children who are particularly active in the community.

According to Libyan custom, women sit on one side of the conference hall and men on the other. "Our townspeople are very traditional," explains Hamed. "This is why so many don't like being photographed."

Their return to their home is unlikely: The Libyan government said they were concerned about possible confrontations by groups that oppose the Tawerghans' return. "An entire community is being held hostage to crimes allegedly committed by a few," Human Rights Watch declared in a recently published report. Pictured: Children in a refugee camp

​​But throughout the camp visit it is mostly the men who refuse to have their photography taken, responding with blank stares or hateful glances. In the eyes of many here, the West is primarily responsible for their ordeal, having intervened on the side of the rebels.

Anxious maneuvering of state officials

Given the deep mutual resentment, a solution is not easy to come by. Earlier this year, Tawergha representatives announced a peaceful return to their land on June 25th. Knowing they could not proceed unilaterally, they appealed to the National Assembly to back them up with an official resolution. But their pleas went unanswered.

Instead, state officials intensified their dissuasion efforts. "No-one questions that the Tawergha have rights, but a return can only take place in coordination with all parties involved", was Prime Minister Zeidan's response.

Grand Mufti Al-Ghariani joined in, warning the move would result in further bloodshed. However justified the concern may be, his statement played into the hands of Misratans, who consider it a binding religious ruling.

In Misrata the response is unequivocal. "You cannot expect victims and perpetrators to live side by side", exclaims Dharrat. "The only solution is resettling Tawergha elsewhere, as far from here as possible. Libya is large – build them a place in the desert, where they belong!"

Fortia puts it less brutally: "A return cannot happen until Libya is stabilised and criminals have been brought to justice. Even if we reach an official agreement we cannot ensure the security of returnees. Revenge killings are inevitable," he predicts. Indeed, the hostile attitude on Misratan streets is tangible. "If I ever see a Tawergha I will kill him," snarls one resident from a neighbourhood that was most affected from the brutality in 2011.

Truth remains hidden

The Tawergha say they are willing to turn in their "deviant sons" if proof is provided. But the truth may never come out. Evidence is hard to obtain from affected families, for whom the shame of the abuse is unbearable. In the Misrata war museum most faces of female "martyrs" killed during the fighting are blurred. "No reconciliation without justice" sums up the mainstream opinion in post-revolution Libya. But the judicial system is dysfunctional and official investigations into war crimes may take years.

What both sides do agree on is that negotiation at a communal level will not succeed. Misrata maintains it is up to the government to find a permanent solution for its unwanted neighbours. The Tawergha do not expect much from the authorities anymore and draw attention to the fact that Misratan rebel leaders now occupy government positions, allowing them to boycott any peaceful settlement. They even accuse their own parliamentary representative of not being sufficiently committed to their cause.

Rumours have surfaced about Canada granting asylum to fifty displaced families. While this is most unlikely, it highlights the failure of state-led reconciliation efforts. Tawergha leaders have come to believe that only international intervention can lead the way out of the deadlock. According to Al-Harus "nothing will happen unless the international community puts pressure on our government". Although they don't call it that, a sort of payback is what the Tawergha are asking for.

Valerie Stocker

© 2013

Editor: Lewis Gropp/