22.04.2021

Tawergha: Ten Years of Displacement

Years have passed since the evacuation of the town of Tawergha in northwestern Libya. The predominantly black people of the town have had a tumultuous relationship with the nearby city of Misrata since the outbreak of the revolution.

                    

Created by Ghady Kafala, a journalist and founding member of the Elbiro website. This investigation was published by Elbiro on the tenth anniversary of the Libyan revolution, in cooperation with the Friedrich Ebert Foundation.

 

By a stagnant pool of mud and random pieces of scrap stand cold tents housing families from Tawergha inside the Airport Road camp, south of the capital, Tripoli.

 

Ghady Kafala

Years have passed since the evacuation of the town of Tawergha in northwestern Libya. The predominantly black people of the town have had a tumultuous relationship with the nearby city of Misrata since the outbreak of the revolution.

Today, more than 370 families live in the camp, which is the largest west of Tripoli. Over 12,000 Tawergha residents are spread across other camps in western Libya, while more than 16,000 reside in the eastern regions. There are no precise figures available for the number of families who have returned to settle on the outskirts of the town of Tawergha itself. Flashback!

Misrata and Tawergha have been bound by marital and neighborly ties for many decades. Despite their tribal and clan differences, and Misrata’s renown as an industrial power in Libya, which led decision-makers to prioritize it, the Tawerghans nonetheless enjoyed close cooperation with Misrata in commerce and knowledge. At the same time, the racism towards Tawerghans on account of their “black skin” cannot be overlooked. They continue to bear the stigma of their descent from slaves, and the cruel history endured by their community. This exacerbated the social gap between Tawergha and Misrata, marginalizing the Tawerghans and preventing them from occupying decision-making positions prior to the February Revolution. During the revolution, in early 2011, some Tawerghan individuals joined armed brigades loyal to the leader Muammar al-Qaddafi as these brigades targeted Misrata, which was rebelling against Qaddafi. The brigades did not hesitate to enter the city and perpetrate crimes against its residents. At the time, a large number of so-called “Tawergha volunteers” were accused of taking part in rape and “honor crimes” against dozens of women from Misrata, which put relations between the city and town under heavy strain.

As a result of the war between the two sides at the time, some families were forced to depart towards safer areas, while others were forcibly displaced by armed brigades from Misrata, who saw Tawergha as a hostile town implicated in war crimes against the cities supportive of the 17 February uprising. Thus began the harsh journey of Tawerghans’ displacement from major cities, including Tripoli, Benghazi, and Sabha, towards more remote towns and villages in the surrounding areas.

“According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the number of displaced Tawerghans is estimated at around 40,000, or 8,500 heads of families. They have been distributed systematically across four major camps in Tripoli (the Airport Road camp; the al-Falah I and II camps; the Sidi al-Sayeh camp; and Janzour camp). Of these, the Airport Road camp is the largest. It has come under frequent attack by armed groups. In the eastern region, the Tawerghan community is spread across two large camps; namely the Sports City camp and the Red Crescent’s First Aid and Rapid Response camp; in addition to a third camp, al-Halees, located around 20 km from Benghazi. Elsewhere, more than 470 families inhabit over 60 schools and vacant buildings.”

There are also a number of small camps that vary depending on political developments on the ground. The displacement experienced by Tawerghans changes according to the degree of stability in any given area. A potential renewal of conflict, or resumption of attacks by unknown entities, may force them to relocate multiple times, due to the lack of services or work and income opportunities.

While many city-dwellers have been displaced for political reasons, these were generally temporary situations. Examples include the experiences of the Mashashiya, Kikla, Warshfana, and Ubari tribes. Their situations were later resolved through local, tribal, and international mediation that helped restore stability and return people to their hometowns. Despite the signing of a reconciliation agreement in 2018, intended to reunite displaced families from Tawergha and return them to their homes, numerous difficulties and challenges prevented the agreement’s implementation, including the lack of guarantees of justice for both parties, and the failure to apply fair legal mechanisms to criminals.

Today, some families have tried to reach the outskirts of the town in order to live in some of its neighborhoods, despite the lack of services and infrastructure. However, the widespread destruction inflicted upon the town has prevented them from continuing to live in it, rendering them incapable of repairing the damage that befell their homes.

Six years of darkness!

Between the walls of a cell measuring no larger than two by two meters, eight people spend their day in complete darkness, where the stench of blood and urine mixes with the breath of those present as well as those who came before them. Our interviewee declined to state the name of this prison, for fear of facing persecution and threats once again, having already spent six consecutive years unjustly detained therein. We met 42-year-old Yusuf Khayr, from Tawergha, in the Sports City camp in Benghazi. After escaping what appeared to be a certain death in prison, he could hardly stand on his bony legs, even with the help of a crutch. He spoke about the years prison robbed of his life, and the cruel torture he suffered, the effects of which are visible all over his body, in addition to the damage to his mental health. To this day, he suffers from the pain of the “iron pins” that were inserted into his body throughout his detention, which made him lose sensation in his left foot, after he was hung up for four consecutive days on a window, stripped of his clothes and left without food or drink.

“Because I am a black-skinned Tawerghan, I was accused of rape with no investigation conducted or evidence presented,” he said in a weary voice. “I underwent no trial at all during the six years I was detained. The torture continued day and night without interruption, inflicted on individuals and groups alike. We were given no break from the torture; not for one night. Even the food was meager scraps insufficient to feed children.”

The cruelty of the torture, beatings, and burns also caused Yusuf to lose his penis. Above and beyond the physical and psychological suffering he has endured since his release, his wife decided to leave him, despite his urgent need for her. Today, Yusuf continues to live in the camp, with no clear or sustainable source of livelihood. His poor health and physical condition prevent him from working or even moving. As for the governmental organizations and agencies from which he sought help with treatment, whether inside or outside Libya, they provided him no assistance.

“My body can do nothing, and I have no wife to help me endure my condition. God is victorious.”

The suffering and hardships of this environment were by no means limited to men. Women, indeed, bore an even greater economic, social, and psychological burden. Displacement forced many women to take on greater responsibility for feeding their families and children.

“Women were strong in challenging the situation we went through.”

Between the racism, discrimination, and bitterness of life experienced by 46-year-old Amal Baraka during her journey of displacement—walking for 70 km from Tawergha to the al-Hisha area, and then to the camp in Tripoli—her psychological condition worsened to the point that she was unable to leave the camp for three straight months. Only the need to work and earn a living drove her to eventually head outside the camp.

Amal explains the great burden placed on women, who were forced to bear difficult responsibilities during their displacement, being compelled to go out to work and support their families. “Men were not able to go out at that time, because any man from Tawergha would be arrested on sight immediately.” Thus it fell to women to head out and take care of their family’s needs. In the process, they faced challenges, insults, even extortion. Yet “the Tawerghan women were strong, enduring great difficulties in order to provide for themselves and their families.” After that, Amal worked outside the camp in a private clinic for four months, until deciding to devote most of her time to serving the cause of Tawerghans. She managed to start a small business, the revenues of which provide support to Tawerghan families and the institution she runs to promote peace between Tawergha and Misrata.

“The role of women did not end here during the displacement, but also extended to managing the crisis with Misrata,” she said. “There are certain local institutions who partner with human rights organizations to launch activities involving the women of Misrata and Tawergha, aimed at fostering peaceful coexistence; rejecting violence and hatred; and ending hostilities between the town and city.”

The camps: A fertile environment for harassers!

The precarious living situation inside the camps lends itself to the harassment and molestation of women, wherever they may be. The sharing of bathrooms, drinking water, transportation, and everyday living space puts women in daily contact with men. This can create unsafe environments for women’s bodies and mental health.

 

The founder of the “Youth for Tawergha” organization, Imad Qawia

Imad Qawia, the founder of the “Youth for Tawergha” organization, spoke about the experiences of women, life in the camp, and the violations to which women are subjected without realizing their legitimate right to report or submit complaints against the perpetrators.

“Women are in a position of weakness in such situations,” said Qawia. “Even more so when they are displaced, which makes them ill-inclined to cause trouble or fuss, due to their delicate situation. Unfortunately, this provides criminals a license to continue their unacceptable behavior.”

“The camp is akin to an old company head office, with a shared corridor for large families and a small area designated for smaller families or newlyweds,” said Qawia. “It is an open, non-secure area. The armed group that controls the area has added to the problems for which there are no solutions. In fact, there are often armed clashes right in front of the camp, about which no one can say a word.”

These factors combine to make the camps an environment conducive to harassment. Harassers are able to spot the many women who are shy, confused, and lacking in self-confidence, and take advantage of this. Many families have left the harsh and difficult camp environment as a result, heading for yet harsher and more difficult settings, solely in order to avoid problems seen as bringing shame and dishonor upon them.

An incomplete return!

Although the people of Tawergha were always destined to return from the first moment of their displacement, the road back was not paved with flowers. During their return, they were confronted by military brigades that forced them to dwell for eight months in the Qararat al-Qatf area, on the outskirts of Tawergha, before they were able to return to Tawergha following the reconciliation agreement reached between the town and Misrata in 2018.

After the agreement was signed, and a decree was issued permitting their return, some families did indeed begin returning to Tawergha. They numbered an estimated 700 families, according to residents who have returned. However, a large number are still unable to return, due to the town’s ruined infrastructure, poor services and living standards, and lack of job opportunities and income prospects. These factors have made returning itself yet another challenge for Tawerghans, many of whom continue to be displaced, both inside and outside Libya.

A witness between the town and city

After traveling far away from the camps, we returned to them through live photographic and documentary trips taken by Muhammad al-Musalli from Misrata. Al-Musalli captures scenes depicting the Tawerghan community, in which a large visual and human space emerges, shedding light on what its people are going through today. A documentary filmmaker and photographer, al-Musalli has chosen to document the stories of internally displaced persons (IDPs), and to promote peaceful concepts through these stories.

“Although I am Misratan, I stand in solidarity with the Tawerghan cause. In Misrata, the people know me and understand my position well.”

Those with prior knowledge of the delicate relationship between the town and city are fully aware that speaking out about the Tawerghan cause in public is not easy, let alone advocating for and defending it. Al-Musalli is thus seen as questionable by many of his city’s leaders and elders, and even his own relatives, who find his sympathy for the townspeople strange.

“We are the ones creating change at this sensitive time,” he says. “The situation cannot bear new conflicts and wars. Our documentation of the reconciliation and peace agreements between the two sides is very important at this particular time, to allow the displaced to feel reassured enough to return home again. This suffering must end, and everyone must realize the importance of spreading positive messages for the benefit of both parties.”

Al-Musalli followed the Tawerghans’ movement from the beginning, visiting every camp and observing the hardships of those inside. He documented their tales of misfortune with photos and videos, supporting their right to access their town safely, and strengthening his relationships with those he described as seeking peace and the restoration of friendly relations between the town and Misrata.

In addition, al-Musalli has helped document the culture and arts of Tawerghan society, which he believes is still alive, despite the community’s displacement and tragic situation.

Today, ten years on from the revolution, amidst the ongoing political and partisan conflicts that have exacerbated the displacement problem, not one of Libya’s numerous governments has provided any real or radical solutions for the issue, nor even helped rebuild the country’s destroyed towns and cities. Meanwhile, many are still denied safe and easy access to health and education services in their hometowns, due to the grave violations of IDPs’ rights.

Abd al-Rahman Shakshak, the head of the Municipal Council of Tawergha in the Western Region, said that despite the weak capabilities and the unstable situation in the country, the Council has succeeded in repairing certain buildings and administrative offices in the town, such as the university building and the police stations, as well as reconnecting the water and electricity networks.

“Many entities have contributed to politicizing the Tawergha issue. The reconciliation between the town and city was not in their interest.”

Shakshak expressed complete satisfaction with the security situation in Tawergha, denying the existence of any problems between residents of the town and city. To the contrary, he said, the Misrata Municipal Council assisted in securing Tawergha and facilitated the gradual return of its people. The real crisis today, he says, is the suspension of monetary compensation payments to families to enable them to return and repair their homes and properties.

The Tawergha issue remains a thorny one, with countless social and psychological dimensions casting their shadows upon an entire generation. Even after peace has been restored between the town and Misrata, painful memories remain in the minds of many, the deep scars of which may take a very long time to heal.

###

Ghady Kafala is a journalist and founding member of the Elbiro website. This investigation was published by Elbiro on the tenth anniversary of the Libyan revolution, in cooperation with the Friedrich Ebert Foundation.

Tawergha: Ten Years of Displacement

Created by Ghady Kafala, a journalist and founding member of the Elbiro website. This investigation was published by Elbiro on the tenth anniversary of the Libyan revolution, in cooperation with the Friedrich Ebert Foundation.

 

By a stagnant pool of mud and random pieces of scrap stand cold tents housing families from Tawergha inside the Airport Road camp, south of the capital, Tripoli.

 

Ghady Kafala

Years have passed since the evacuation of the town of Tawergha in northwestern Libya. The predominantly black people of the town have had a tumultuous relationship with the nearby city of Misrata since the outbreak of the revolution.

Today, more than 370 families live in the camp, which is the largest west of Tripoli. Over 12,000 Tawergha residents are spread across other camps in western Libya, while more than 16,000 reside in the eastern regions. There are no precise figures available for the number of families who have returned to settle on the outskirts of the town of Tawergha itself. Flashback!

Misrata and Tawergha have been bound by marital and neighborly ties for many decades. Despite their tribal and clan differences, and Misrata’s renown as an industrial power in Libya, which led decision-makers to prioritize it, the Tawerghans nonetheless enjoyed close cooperation with Misrata in commerce and knowledge. At the same time, the racism towards Tawerghans on account of their “black skin” cannot be overlooked. They continue to bear the stigma of their descent from slaves, and the cruel history endured by their community. This exacerbated the social gap between Tawergha and Misrata, marginalizing the Tawerghans and preventing them from occupying decision-making positions prior to the February Revolution. During the revolution, in early 2011, some Tawerghan individuals joined armed brigades loyal to the leader Muammar al-Qaddafi as these brigades targeted Misrata, which was rebelling against Qaddafi. The brigades did not hesitate to enter the city and perpetrate crimes against its residents. At the time, a large number of so-called “Tawergha volunteers” were accused of taking part in rape and “honor crimes” against dozens of women from Misrata, which put relations between the city and town under heavy strain.

As a result of the war between the two sides at the time, some families were forced to depart towards safer areas, while others were forcibly displaced by armed brigades from Misrata, who saw Tawergha as a hostile town implicated in war crimes against the cities supportive of the 17 February uprising. Thus began the harsh journey of Tawerghans’ displacement from major cities, including Tripoli, Benghazi, and Sabha, towards more remote towns and villages in the surrounding areas.

“According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the number of displaced Tawerghans is estimated at around 40,000, or 8,500 heads of families. They have been distributed systematically across four major camps in Tripoli (the Airport Road camp; the al-Falah I and II camps; the Sidi al-Sayeh camp; and Janzour camp). Of these, the Airport Road camp is the largest. It has come under frequent attack by armed groups. In the eastern region, the Tawerghan community is spread across two large camps; namely the Sports City camp and the Red Crescent’s First Aid and Rapid Response camp; in addition to a third camp, al-Halees, located around 20 km from Benghazi. Elsewhere, more than 470 families inhabit over 60 schools and vacant buildings.”

There are also a number of small camps that vary depending on political developments on the ground. The displacement experienced by Tawerghans changes according to the degree of stability in any given area. A potential renewal of conflict, or resumption of attacks by unknown entities, may force them to relocate multiple times, due to the lack of services or work and income opportunities.

While many city-dwellers have been displaced for political reasons, these were generally temporary situations. Examples include the experiences of the Mashashiya, Kikla, Warshfana, and Ubari tribes. Their situations were later resolved through local, tribal, and international mediation that helped restore stability and return people to their hometowns. Despite the signing of a reconciliation agreement in 2018, intended to reunite displaced families from Tawergha and return them to their homes, numerous difficulties and challenges prevented the agreement’s implementation, including the lack of guarantees of justice for both parties, and the failure to apply fair legal mechanisms to criminals.

Today, some families have tried to reach the outskirts of the town in order to live in some of its neighborhoods, despite the lack of services and infrastructure. However, the widespread destruction inflicted upon the town has prevented them from continuing to live in it, rendering them incapable of repairing the damage that befell their homes.

Six years of darkness!

Between the walls of a cell measuring no larger than two by two meters, eight people spend their day in complete darkness, where the stench of blood and urine mixes with the breath of those present as well as those who came before them. Our interviewee declined to state the name of this prison, for fear of facing persecution and threats once again, having already spent six consecutive years unjustly detained therein. We met 42-year-old Yusuf Khayr, from Tawergha, in the Sports City camp in Benghazi. After escaping what appeared to be a certain death in prison, he could hardly stand on his bony legs, even with the help of a crutch. He spoke about the years prison robbed of his life, and the cruel torture he suffered, the effects of which are visible all over his body, in addition to the damage to his mental health. To this day, he suffers from the pain of the “iron pins” that were inserted into his body throughout his detention, which made him lose sensation in his left foot, after he was hung up for four consecutive days on a window, stripped of his clothes and left without food or drink.

“Because I am a black-skinned Tawerghan, I was accused of rape with no investigation conducted or evidence presented,” he said in a weary voice. “I underwent no trial at all during the six years I was detained. The torture continued day and night without interruption, inflicted on individuals and groups alike. We were given no break from the torture; not for one night. Even the food was meager scraps insufficient to feed children.”

The cruelty of the torture, beatings, and burns also caused Yusuf to lose his penis. Above and beyond the physical and psychological suffering he has endured since his release, his wife decided to leave him, despite his urgent need for her. Today, Yusuf continues to live in the camp, with no clear or sustainable source of livelihood. His poor health and physical condition prevent him from working or even moving. As for the governmental organizations and agencies from which he sought help with treatment, whether inside or outside Libya, they provided him no assistance.

“My body can do nothing, and I have no wife to help me endure my condition. God is victorious.”

The suffering and hardships of this environment were by no means limited to men. Women, indeed, bore an even greater economic, social, and psychological burden. Displacement forced many women to take on greater responsibility for feeding their families and children.

“Women were strong in challenging the situation we went through.”

Between the racism, discrimination, and bitterness of life experienced by 46-year-old Amal Baraka during her journey of displacement—walking for 70 km from Tawergha to the al-Hisha area, and then to the camp in Tripoli—her psychological condition worsened to the point that she was unable to leave the camp for three straight months. Only the need to work and earn a living drove her to eventually head outside the camp.

Amal explains the great burden placed on women, who were forced to bear difficult responsibilities during their displacement, being compelled to go out to work and support their families. “Men were not able to go out at that time, because any man from Tawergha would be arrested on sight immediately.” Thus it fell to women to head out and take care of their family’s needs. In the process, they faced challenges, insults, even extortion. Yet “the Tawerghan women were strong, enduring great difficulties in order to provide for themselves and their families.” After that, Amal worked outside the camp in a private clinic for four months, until deciding to devote most of her time to serving the cause of Tawerghans. She managed to start a small business, the revenues of which provide support to Tawerghan families and the institution she runs to promote peace between Tawergha and Misrata.

“The role of women did not end here during the displacement, but also extended to managing the crisis with Misrata,” she said. “There are certain local institutions who partner with human rights organizations to launch activities involving the women of Misrata and Tawergha, aimed at fostering peaceful coexistence; rejecting violence and hatred; and ending hostilities between the town and city.”

The camps: A fertile environment for harassers!

The precarious living situation inside the camps lends itself to the harassment and molestation of women, wherever they may be. The sharing of bathrooms, drinking water, transportation, and everyday living space puts women in daily contact with men. This can create unsafe environments for women’s bodies and mental health.

 

The founder of the “Youth for Tawergha” organization, Imad Qawia

Imad Qawia, the founder of the “Youth for Tawergha” organization, spoke about the experiences of women, life in the camp, and the violations to which women are subjected without realizing their legitimate right to report or submit complaints against the perpetrators.

“Women are in a position of weakness in such situations,” said Qawia. “Even more so when they are displaced, which makes them ill-inclined to cause trouble or fuss, due to their delicate situation. Unfortunately, this provides criminals a license to continue their unacceptable behavior.”

“The camp is akin to an old company head office, with a shared corridor for large families and a small area designated for smaller families or newlyweds,” said Qawia. “It is an open, non-secure area. The armed group that controls the area has added to the problems for which there are no solutions. In fact, there are often armed clashes right in front of the camp, about which no one can say a word.”

These factors combine to make the camps an environment conducive to harassment. Harassers are able to spot the many women who are shy, confused, and lacking in self-confidence, and take advantage of this. Many families have left the harsh and difficult camp environment as a result, heading for yet harsher and more difficult settings, solely in order to avoid problems seen as bringing shame and dishonor upon them.

An incomplete return!

Although the people of Tawergha were always destined to return from the first moment of their displacement, the road back was not paved with flowers. During their return, they were confronted by military brigades that forced them to dwell for eight months in the Qararat al-Qatf area, on the outskirts of Tawergha, before they were able to return to Tawergha following the reconciliation agreement reached between the town and Misrata in 2018.

After the agreement was signed, and a decree was issued permitting their return, some families did indeed begin returning to Tawergha. They numbered an estimated 700 families, according to residents who have returned. However, a large number are still unable to return, due to the town’s ruined infrastructure, poor services and living standards, and lack of job opportunities and income prospects. These factors have made returning itself yet another challenge for Tawerghans, many of whom continue to be displaced, both inside and outside Libya.

A witness between the town and city

After traveling far away from the camps, we returned to them through live photographic and documentary trips taken by Muhammad al-Musalli from Misrata. Al-Musalli captures scenes depicting the Tawerghan community, in which a large visual and human space emerges, shedding light on what its people are going through today. A documentary filmmaker and photographer, al-Musalli has chosen to document the stories of internally displaced persons (IDPs), and to promote peaceful concepts through these stories.

“Although I am Misratan, I stand in solidarity with the Tawerghan cause. In Misrata, the people know me and understand my position well.”

Those with prior knowledge of the delicate relationship between the town and city are fully aware that speaking out about the Tawerghan cause in public is not easy, let alone advocating for and defending it. Al-Musalli is thus seen as questionable by many of his city’s leaders and elders, and even his own relatives, who find his sympathy for the townspeople strange.

“We are the ones creating change at this sensitive time,” he says. “The situation cannot bear new conflicts and wars. Our documentation of the reconciliation and peace agreements between the two sides is very important at this particular time, to allow the displaced to feel reassured enough to return home again. This suffering must end, and everyone must realize the importance of spreading positive messages for the benefit of both parties.”

Al-Musalli followed the Tawerghans’ movement from the beginning, visiting every camp and observing the hardships of those inside. He documented their tales of misfortune with photos and videos, supporting their right to access their town safely, and strengthening his relationships with those he described as seeking peace and the restoration of friendly relations between the town and Misrata.

In addition, al-Musalli has helped document the culture and arts of Tawerghan society, which he believes is still alive, despite the community’s displacement and tragic situation.

Today, ten years on from the revolution, amidst the ongoing political and partisan conflicts that have exacerbated the displacement problem, not one of Libya’s numerous governments has provided any real or radical solutions for the issue, nor even helped rebuild the country’s destroyed towns and cities. Meanwhile, many are still denied safe and easy access to health and education services in their hometowns, due to the grave violations of IDPs’ rights.

Abd al-Rahman Shakshak, the head of the Municipal Council of Tawergha in the Western Region, said that despite the weak capabilities and the unstable situation in the country, the Council has succeeded in repairing certain buildings and administrative offices in the town, such as the university building and the police stations, as well as reconnecting the water and electricity networks.

“Many entities have contributed to politicizing the Tawergha issue. The reconciliation between the town and city was not in their interest.”

Shakshak expressed complete satisfaction with the security situation in Tawergha, denying the existence of any problems between residents of the town and city. To the contrary, he said, the Misrata Municipal Council assisted in securing Tawergha and facilitated the gradual return of its people. The real crisis today, he says, is the suspension of monetary compensation payments to families to enable them to return and repair their homes and properties.

The Tawergha issue remains a thorny one, with countless social and psychological dimensions casting their shadows upon an entire generation. Even after peace has been restored between the town and Misrata, painful memories remain in the minds of many, the deep scars of which may take a very long time to heal.

###

Ghady Kafala is a journalist and founding member of the Elbiro website. This investigation was published by Elbiro on the tenth anniversary of the Libyan revolution, in cooperation with the Friedrich Ebert Foundation.

 

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