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Minority's Gadhafi ties halt return to Libya ghost town in peace setback

Tawergha, photographed on Sept. 12, 2011, used to be a city filled with black non-Arab Libyans. Rebel forces emptied the town after they seized Tripoli.

DAVID ENDERS/TNS

By GHAITH SHENNIB AND CAROLINE ALEXANDER | Bloomberg | Published: February 8, 2018

At a handful of all but forgotten camps across Libya, up to 40,000 men, women and children have been waiting seven years to go home.

They aren't drawn from the impoverished migrants who cross Libya on often-fatal treks toward Europe. Rather, they're members of an ethnic minority co-opted by Moammar Gadhafi and then thrust into some of the most brutal fighting of the 2011 civil war only to end up on the losing side.

A reconciliation deal that looked set to end their plight, and serve as a model for other intractable disputes in Libya, was halted last week amid violence. It was a striking reminder of the deep-seated animosities thwarting United Nations-led efforts to reunite the fractured country, a major oil producer where Islamist militants have exploited the turmoil.

"Our situation doesn't please friend or foe," said Emad Jaballah, among a group of the so-called Tawerghans sleeping in the desert last week after the touted accord had encouraged them to head homeward from their refuge on the outskirts of Tripoli, the capital.

Early in Libya's uprising, Gadhafi's forces retook most major cities in the country's west. The exception was Misrata. As the fighting there intensified, regime loyalists turned to Tawergha, 30 miles (about 50 kilometers) to the south, for combatants they needed to besiege and attack rebel forces. Later, just before Gadhafi was forced from power and killed, mostly Misratan militias entered Tawergha, demolishing and torching homes and evicting those who hadn't already fled. It's been a ghost town ever since.

The agreement initially struck between representatives of Misrata and Tawergha in mid-2017 spurred hopes a solution was in reach. It fell apart on Feb. 1, when armed groups burned tires on a main road linking the towns and set buildings alight.

Many aspects of Libya's predicament were evident in the attempted return of Tawerghans and the reaction of Misratan armed groups, Wolfram Lacher, a researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, said on Twitter. "The government's impotence and hubris; Misrata's internal divisions; the skill with which spoilers instrumentalize grievances for their own ends."

The Presidential Council, the leadership committee of the U.N.-backed government in Tripoli, condemned the violence and accused those responsible of deepening Libya's chaos.

At the weekend, members of the largest population of Tawerghans outside Tripoli protested in Benghazi, underscoring the tensions. "Tawergha is waiting for us!" they chanted.

"We waived everything to get this agreement with Misrata, and were shocked to see they used weapons to threaten us," said Jaballah, who like many Tawerghans is a descendant of black slaves brought north centuries ago.

He says he didn't fight during the war, was captured when Tawergha fell to the Misratans, and witnessed summary executions. He spent a year in jail, and when freed headed to Benghazi and then Tripoli.

Gadhafi preyed on Tawerghans' unease over their social standing to persuade them that their survival was tied to his. Many supported his regime -- and then fought to preserve it. Misratans say they committed grave crimes during the four-month siege, including rape and torture. In Tripoli and other western areas, Tawerghans have been subjected to attacks, arrests and harassment, primarily by militias from Misrata.

"It would have been a good reflection on the reconciliation project in Libya if this had succeeded," Misrata municipality official Abu Bakr Lahriesh said of the return accord. "What the Tawerghan citizens are going through isn't humane and no one accepts it," he said. "But what happened in 2011 was not easy."

To make lasting progress, Libya needs a "reconciliation first between those who want to lead the reconciliation," said Lahriesh, in a clear reference to the feud between the Tripoli-based government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and the eastern administration where a former general in Gadhafi's army, Khalifa Haftar, holds sway.

The U.N. wants to plot a road map toward a new constitution and elections, but there's little agreement between east and west. Deprived of much of its pre-war oil revenue, the economy is collapsing, leaving many struggling to survive.

Jaballah's family is back in the camp but he intends to head to the desert. "Either we die there or we return to our homes," he said. "We've had enough of this life of humiliation."

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