By Valerie Stocker and Maha Ellawati
Tripoli, 8 November:
Over a year after the former regime was overthrown, the people who fled from the town of Tawergha last August are still by excluded from the rest of society. The situation is deteriorating and needs to be tackled urgently, according to a spokesperson for the community, who ruled out foreign intervention but called upon the government to present a viable solution.
An estimated 30 to 40 thousand Tawerghans are scattered across the country, living in makeshift camps. Following the liberation of Tripoli in August 2011, raids by Misratan forces, in retaliation for wartime crimes thought to have been committed by Tawerghan fighters, forced the townspeople to leave.
Fourteen months later, the issue is far from resolved. While the town of Tawergha is in tatters and former inhabitants are prevented from returning to their homes, the precarious living conditions in the temporary shelters have not seen much improvement. Moreover, no political solution to their plight has been found, with Libyans still divided over the question and decision-makers lacking effective power to tackle the issue.
Ali Salem Bileid Abu Jried, the Coordinator of Tawergha’s Town Council, refutes allegations that his people committed war crimes against neighbouring communities and accusations of loyalty to the old regime. Speaking to the Libya Herald, Abu Jried recalls last year’s events, emphasizing that locals were not able to put up any resistance when about twelve thousand-strong regime troops invaded their town in order to entrench themselves and launch attacks against neighbouring Misrata. Regardless of this, he says Tawerghans were driven out of their town by Misratan rebel forces after the regime had been defeated.
Fearing retaliation by Misratan fighters, Tawerghans temporarily settled in camps across Libya, most in Tripoli and Benghazi. Abu Jried is especially concerned about the current situation of in Benghazi, where about eleven thousand displaced people are spread across seven camps, some of which were originally set up for construction companies and are, in his opinion, unfit for human habitation. He worries that already dire health conditions will be further aggravated by rain and cold during wintertime, recalling that some children died as a result of the cold last winter. In addition, he is concerned that schools and universities are rejecting applications from Tawerghan students.
The government has provided no financial assistance, fearing, Abu Jreid claims, that the Tawergha might use aid money to purchase weapons. Both Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the former president of the National Transitional council, and interim Prime Minister Abdurrahim Al-Kib told the Tawerghans that it was not the right time for them to return to their town since the authorities were not yet in a position to guarantee their safety. Abu Jried and representatives of Benghazi local council have since met with Mohammed Mugarief, the president of the GNC, who assured him that the Tawergha issue was a priority for the new congress. The Bani Walid crisis, however, seems to have taken precedence.
Meanwhile, according to Abu Jreid, some Tawerghans have attempted to return home by their own means, but were held up by Misratan brigades who threatened to kill them and burn the remains of their houses.
Although it has been out of the limelight recently, the Tawergha issue is symptomatic of the divisions in post-revolutionary Libya, where the wounds of revolution have not yet healed and discourse is largely dominated by tribal and local feuds. Given the turmoil the country has been through and the lack of adequate infrastructure to bring about justice, forgiveness is not an easy task. However, public opinion does appear to have shifted over the past few months, with an increasing awareness of Libya’s internal displacement problem. In the eyes of many, the failure to assist the Tawerghans amounts to collective punishment and is deeply unjust.