Tawergha is a ghost town located 38km from Misrata. Its people, also referred to as the Tawergha, fled to camps scattered across the country during the 2011 uprising that overthrew long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
At the time, rebel forces from the western port city of Misrata had a personal vendetta against the Tawergha, blaming them for helping Qaddafi besiege their city for three months. More than a thousand people were killed during the siege and hundreds of others disappeared. The Tawergha – many of whom aligned with Qaddafi during the uprising – were also alleged to have raped numerous women from Misrata.
The allegations were never verified. The International Criminal Court merely said that it had obtained evidence that Qaddafi had ordered the rape of women as a weapon against rebel forces. However, the taboo surrounding sexual violence in Libya made it difficult to estimate the number of incidences or whether the Tawergha were directly implicated. Residents told the BBC that they had never witnessed any rapes but insisted that they had happened.
Regardless, the Tawergha’s role in besieging the city was enough reason for fighters from Misrata to seek vengeance. When they descended on Tawergha in August 2011, they expelled more than 30,000 people and ransacked their homes, vowing never to let them return.
Five years later, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) helped jump-start a reconciliation process between the two cities. An agreement was reached on 31 August 2016, stipulating that the primary condition for the return of the Tawergha is that the victims of the 2011 uprising are compensated. Residents from Tawergha are expecting to receive financial compensation, but so are fighters from Misrata who accepted the deal.
Emad Badi, a Libyan peace activist involved in improving social cohesion in parts of the country, told Fanack Chronicle that there is little transparency around where the money is going and how it will be spent. “It is not clear to the Libyan community [where the money is going], and it won’t be clear to other militias in the country who might assume that money is up for grabs if they consider reconciliation,” he said over the phone. “Maybe it could be used to purchase weapons, but that’s not the point. The problem is that militias [are being] rewarded for uprooting people.”
Despite such concerns, the agreement was ratified in June 2017 by the Government of National Accord (GNA), which is recognized internationally but is challenged internally by a rival government and powerful militias. Martin Kobler, the former head of UNSMIL, championed the news as a step forward in Libya’s reconciliation process. “Tawerghans can finally return home. Ensuring that their return is safe, voluntary and unconditional must be a top priority, and here the United Nations stands ready to support,” he said at the time.
The Ministry of Displaced People’s Affairs (DPA) is now scrambling to restore water, power and other basic services. In December 2017, the GNA announced that the Tawergha could begin returning by February 2018. Yousif Jalala, DPA minister, told the Libya Observer that families whose houses were only partially damaged would return first. The others, he said, could come back after public services had been adequately repaired.
Many are eager to return. The desperate conditions in the camps, which are controlled by militias, have tested their tolerance. A week before the GNA’s announcement, several Tawergha staged a demonstration in the Falah district of the capital Tripoli, demanding that the authorities allow them to return home.
Although that demand has now been met, rights groups fear that the reconciliation process is lacking accountability. So far, Libyan courts have only convicted Tawergha for unlawful killings and the possession of weapons, according to a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW). No militants from Misrata have yet been prosecuted for uprooting the Tawergha, demolishing their city and torturing the people they captured.
Families that are preparing to return also long for the release of their loved ones. Miftah Almabrouk, who represents the Tawergha families of detainees, told HRW that only some of the remaining 160 detainees from Tawergha have been convicted in courts and prisons that have been administered by militias since the revolution. The others are languishing in pre-trial detention.
Worse still, the GNA has little power over these courts and prisons; politicians are at the mercy of militias, not the other way around. If the status quo continues, getting justice will be virtually impossible, at least until the militias are disbanded and a single government controls the country.
Until then, there is little stopping armed factions from violating peace agreements and continuing to commit atrocities. For instance, forces from Misrata could again target the Tawergha once they return. This possibility clearly indicates that reconciliation has not been achi eved, according to Badi.
In his view, true reconciliation is impossible unless both communities acknowledge their wrongdoings and agree on how to administer justice. The current agreement, he says, fails to alter the balance of power between Misrata and Tawergha or address prevailing grievances. “[The current agreement] is a transaction of repatriations,” he said. “One side has all the power, and they are allowing the other side to return. That’s not justice. That’s a very different process.”