Libyan gunman and civilian authorities in the coastal city of Misrata have blocked tens of thousands of people from returning to their hometown of Tawergha, after seven years of forced displacement. Reports of armed groups burning their tents in their makeshift desert camps and threatening families with heavy weapons highlight the deteriorating conditions for the Tawergha community.
Thousands of displaced people attempted to return home after the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli initiated a return process based on a reconciliation agreement between the Misrata authorities and Tawergha. Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj ratified the agreement in June 2017.
Emad Ergeha, a spokesman for the Tawergha Local Council, the main body representing the displaced community and coordinating relief, said that “when Tawerghans tried to reach their village on February 1, armed groups from Misrata burned tires, harassed people, and shot in the air to intimidate them.”
Tawergha local, Haithem Saleh Mashry Nasr, described the happiness radiating from the groups who set out on the long desert journey for the first time in seven years. However, Mr. Nasr explained that “the laughter and the smiles changed to crying and sadness” once they reached the heavily armed militia blocking the town’s entrance.
Families attempting to return are now stranded in makeshift tent-camps created by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Qararet al-Qatef, 35 kilometres east of Tawergha. The United Nations and the GNA Government have critical roles in challenging these spoilers of peace from Misrata. “The authorities in Tripoli should act to ensure that people already on their way to Tawergha reach it in safety and help them to rebuild their lives,” explained Sarah Leah Whiston, the Middle East and North Africa Director of Human Rights Watch. “After accepting a generous compensation package, it’s deplorable that the Misrata groups are still trying to violently sabotage a long-negotiated agreement.”
The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) strongly criticized the blockade as financial extortion, but many have condemned both the GNC and UNSMIL for continuing with the return without fulfilling the deal or providing necessary security of the Tawerghan’s safe return.
Tribal loyalties are strong in Libya, and rumours of African armed groups supporting Gaddafi ignited deep-seeded racism during the 2011 Arab Spring uprising. Many Tawerghan men fought for Gaddafi’s national army and took part in attacking Misrata and the six-month siege of the city, as did Libyans from across the country. Even though human rights abuses were committed on all sides of the revolution, the Tawerghan community has born the brunt of Misratan anger over the losses and crimes in 2011.
Once rebel groups overthrew Gaddafi’s nearly 40-year authoritarian rule, Tawergha was attacked. Rebel commander, Ibrahim al-Halbous, infamously told reporters before the attack that “Tawergha no longer exists, only Misrata.” As a result, an estimated 40,000 people were forced from their homes. Tawergha has been a ghost town ever since, with many jailed as ‘collective punishment’ and its residents living in makeshift camps across the country. Armed groups from Misrata have been responsible for a range of violent abuses against Tawerghans, including arbitrary detention, shooting at camps of displaced Tawerghans, torture, and enforced disappearances. Unfortunately, there has been a lack of accountability for these crimes. Libyan authorities have only prosecuted the crimes committed by Tawerghans, sentencing them for murders, unlawful possession of weapons, and even imposing death penalties. No one has been prosecuted for the wide range of violent abuses against the Tawerghans.
The GNC and UNSMIL continues to urge parties of the agreement to ensure the safe return of the community, but this is little assistance to the tens of thousands of Tawerghan’s stuck in limbo. As the political process and brokered agreement breaks down, distrust and anxiety between the two cities is on the rise again.