After The War, A Bitter Feud Remains In Two Libyan Towns

May 29, 2013
Originally published on May 29, 2013 7:04 pm

Little boys play soccer in the afternoon heat at a makeshift camp near Libya's capital Tripoli. Their homes, or what's left of them, are in Tawargha, a small town about 20 miles from the Mediterranean coast.

The town has been empty since August of 2011. Its residents fled in cars and on foot, under fire from rebel militiamen from the nearby town of Misrata.

The siege of Misrata was one of the bloodiest battles of the Libyan war. Forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi shelled Misrata relentlessly, killing hundreds.

When it was over, the people of Misrata, especially its powerful militia, accused residents of Tawargha of colluding with Gadhafi's forces. The militia attacked the town, burned and looted its homes and vowed that the residents would never be allowed to return.

About 40,000 displaced Tawargha residents now live in camps in the south, west and east of the country. They've had enough, they say, and will return on June 25, despite the concern that they'll be met with violence.

The bitterness between the two towns illustrates the chronic difficulty of ending a civil war and forging reconciliation. For now the Tawarghans are the victims, but many of them say too that they will not forgive or forget.

'We Must Go Back To Our Homes'

One camp of displaced Tawargha residents is in a former marine academy, where people get by with barely any electricity or water, afraid to leave because men who go outside the camp often don't come back.

Ali Arroz, a resident of the camp and a leader of the community, was a radiologist in Tawargha. Now he's trying to help his community return home. He denies that the entire population of Tawargha colluded with Gadhafi's forces, and he says the town's residents are targeted in part because they are black.

"The Misratan militiamen are hunting us in every corner of Libya," Arroz says, "and they are saying on television that they will rid Libya of black people."

He says Tawargha residents decided to return with the support of some Libyan tribes and are hoping the government will support the decision.

"They won't welcome us with flowers," he says, referring to the Misratans, "but we must go back to our homes."

Arroz walks through the camp, pointing out a family of 12 that lives in one room. The walls of the room are made of cardboard.

Like so many at the camp, Arroz fled Tawargha with nothing but the clothes he was wearing. When he leaves the camp, his son cries, worried that he won't come back. Men disappear every day, he says.

In one building, Saad Omar, a woman in her 70s, sits on a blanket on the floor, with two others. Her son is missing, and she believes he was detained by one of the militiamen from Misrata.

According to Human Rights Watch, about 1,300 Tawarghan men are listed as missing, dead or detained. A Commission of Inquiry for the United Nations Human Rights Council concluded that crimes against humanity have been committed against the Tawarghans.

Saad pulls one child after another toward her and says, "This one has no father. This one, too, and this one.

"It was a war between tribes, and we are being punished," she says. "I will never forgive the Misratans."

But despite the continuing threat from the militia, Saad Omar and the others in this camp plan to return to Tawargha next month.

Concerns Of More Violence

The government is concerned that if the Tawarghans return, Misratans will respond with force.

"I think it's very reckless; I think it's irresponsible," says Mohammed Abdallah, a member of Libya's General National Congress from Misrata. "That does not mean that we accept the living conditions and the suffering of the people of Tawargha or any displaced people — this is something that is not acceptable regardless of what's happened."

Abdallah says the government has failed to reconcile the two towns with a process of transitional justice that would bring pro-Gadhafi criminals to account for their crimes.

"There is a crime, a very deep wound that still bleeds in Misrata and in many other cities that have been carried out by pro-Gadhafi people," he says. "And the city of Tawargha should not pay the price for the actions of some criminals."

But Abdallah says the deep wounds the people of Misrata suffered will make it difficult for them to forgive their neighbors and allow them to return.

"From a human standpoint, to go and convince a father whose daughter has been raped by these criminals to say, 'By the way, their relatives are coming back to live in their homes as if nothing had happened,' " Abdallah says.

Back in the camp, a woman washes the floors in one building where makeshift apartments are divided by pieces of cardboard. She calls the Libyan revolution a disaster for Tawarghans but vows that she, too, will return home.

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And let's stay in Africa for a reminder that the upheaval of the Arab Spring has left many open wounds. This is the story of two towns in Libya, just miles apart. One was largely against Libya's former dictator, Moammar Gadhafi. The other mostly supported him. When the Gadhafi regime was overthrown in 2011, it triggered a chain of events that saw one town's residents flee.

They say their forced departure had as much to do with race as politics. NPR's Leila Fadel reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN PLAYING)

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Little boys play soccer in the afternoon heat at a makeshift camp near Libya's capital. Their homes, or what's left of them, are in Tawargha, a small town about 20 miles from the Mediterranean coast. The town has been empty since August of 2011. Its residents fled in cars and on foot, under fire from militiamen from the nearby town of Misrata.

The siege of Misrata was one of the bloodiest battle of the Libyan war. Forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi shelled the town relentlessly, killing hundreds. When it was over, the people of Misrata, especially its powerful militia, accused residents of Tawargha of colluding with Gadhafi's forces. The militia attacked the town, burned and looted its homes, and vowed that the residents would never be allowed to return.

Now Tawerghans live in camps like this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN)

FADEL: It's in a former marine academy where displaced Libyans get by with barely any electricity or water, afraid to leave because men who go outside the camp often don't come back.

DR. ALI ARROZ: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: Ali Arroz was a radiologist in Tawargha. Now he's an activist in the camp, trying to help his community of about 40,000 people return home. He denies that the entire population of Tawargha colluded with Gadhafi's forces. And he says that the town's residents are targeted in part because they are black.

ARROZ: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: The Misratan militiamen are hunting us in every corner of Libya, Arroz says. And they are saying on television that they will rid Libya of black people. They won't welcome us with flowers, he says, but we will go back to our homes.

(SOUNDBITE OF A CONVERSATION)

FADEL: Arroz shows us around the camp. He, like so many here, fled Tawargha with nothing but the clothes he was wearing. And now when he leaves the camp, his son cries, worried that he won't come back. Men disappear everyday, he says.

SAAD OMAR: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: He introduces us to Saad Omar, a woman in her 70's sitting on a blanket on the floor. Her son is missing, and she believes he was detained by one of the militiamen from Misrata. Hundreds of Tawarghan men are listed as missing, dead or detained. A commission of inquiry for the U.N. Human Rights Council concluded that crimes against humanity have been committed against the Tawarghans.

OMAR: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: Saad pulls one child after another towards her and tells me: This one has no father, this one, too and this one.

OMAR: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: It was a war between tribes and we are being punished, she says. I will never forgive the Misratans.

But despite the continuing threat from the militia, Saad Omar and the others in this camp plan to return to Tawargha on June 25th. But the government is concerned that if the Tawarghans return, Misratans will respond with force.

Mohammed Abdullah is a member of Libya's General National Congress from Misrata.

MOHAMMED ABDULLAH: I think it's very reckless. I think it's irresponsible. That does not mean that we accept the living conditions and the sufferings of the people of Tawargha or any displaced people. This is something that is not acceptable regardless of what's happened.

FADEL: Abdullah says the government has failed to reconcile the two towns with a process of transitional justice; that would bring pro-Gadhafi criminals to account for their crimes.

ABDULLAH: There is a crime. A very deep, deep wound that still bleeds in Misrata and in many other cities that have been carried out by pro-Gadhafi people. And all the city of Tawargha should not pay the price for the actions of some criminals.

FADEL: But Abdullah says the deep wounds the people of Misrata suffered will make it difficult for them to forgive their neighbors and allow them to return.

ABDULLAH: From a human standpoint, to go and convince a father whose daughter has been raped by these criminals; to come and say by the way their relatives are coming back to live in their homes, as if nothing had happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF A CONVERSATION)

FADEL: Back in the camp, a woman washes the floors in one building where make-shift apartments are divided by pieces of cardboard. She calls the Libyan Revolution a disaster, but vows that she, too, will return to Tawergha.

Leila Fadel, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.