Libyan re­turnees stuck in desert say no go­ing back

Arab News - - INTERNATIONAL -

The wind whips up sand­storms in Garart Al-Gatef. Snakes and scor­pi­ons lurk among the desert scrub.

But hun­dreds of peo­ple who were stranded while try­ing to re­turn to a town emp­tied in an act of col­lec­tive pun­ish­ment dur­ing Libya’s 2011 revo­lu­tion have sworn to stay put here un­til they are al­lowed home.

The makeshift camp of 250 tents sprang up in early Fe­bru­ary af­ter armed groups from the city of Mis­rata blocked con­voys of dis­placed fam­i­lies try­ing to ap­proach Taw­ergha, a town of about 40,000 that still lies in ru­ins.

In do­ing so, they thwarted — at least tem­po­rar­ily — a land­mark rec­on­cil­i­a­tion ef­fort to re­solve a case that has sym­bol­ized the po­lit­i­cal and com­mu­nal di­vi­sions which sur­faced dur­ing and af­ter Libya’s up­ris­ing.

It was forces from Mis­rata that chased Taw­ergha’s res­i­dents from their homes more than six years ago, ac­cus­ing them of sup­port­ing a mil­i­tary siege of their city by Muam­mar Qaddafi, part of his failed at­tempt to crush the NATO-backed re­volt that over­threw him.

Taw­ergha’s res­i­dents, many of them the dark-skinned de­scen­dants of sub-Sa­ha­ran African slaves, have since been scat­tered in squalid camps across Libya.

Af­ter long ne­go­ti­a­tions, they were told by the in­ter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized gov­ern­ment in Tripoli that they could start mov­ing back on Feb. 1. Of­fi­cials had even or­dered 3,000 meals and a stage for a cer­e­mony in Taw­ergha, said Mustafa Ghrema, a town coun­cil mem­ber liv­ing at Garart Al-Gtaf. Dig­gers had started clear­ing some of the land.

But re­peated at­tempts to ap­proach Taw­ergha and set up camp there were blocked by a com­bi­na­tion of uni­formed forces and mili­ti­a­men in civil­ian clothes, some of whom opened fire, Ghrema said.

“The mili­ti­a­men who shot at us were not the same as the first group, who ap­peared to be or­ga­nized mil­i­tary forces. They talked to us with re­spect and told us it was a prob­lem and we could be ex­posed to dan­ger,” he said.

“The mili­tias used racist words, abuse and re­pug­nant terms, and fired on us.”

Nearly 200 fam­i­lies set­tled on the road­side at Garart Al-Gatef, about 27 km from Taw­ergha. A smaller num­ber try­ing to re­turn from Beng­hazi were blocked east of Taw­ergha.

Lo­cal and in­ter­na­tional aid agen­cies are now de­liv­er­ing food, wa­ter and med­i­cal assistance at Garart Al-Gatef. A nurs­ery has been up in one large tent, and some young chil­dren are be­ing bussed to a lo­cal school.

But con­di­tions are harsh. “You can see the wind for your­selves. It’s dif­fi­cult to de­scribe what the dust does to your eyes,” said Ghaz­ala Awad, 41, as she stood al­lo­cat­ing tents to fam­i­lies at the camp.

“Some­times we can’t even hear, and it doesn’t make a dif­fer­ence if you put a scarf on.”

Taw­ergha, about 200 km south­east of Tripoli, is an eerie col­lec­tion of bombed-out, aban­doned build­ings that have been left all but un­touched.

The UN con­cluded that the town was de­lib­er­ately de­stroyed in 2011 in or­der to make it un­in­hab­it­able, and said Mis­rata’s mili­tias had com­mit­ted crimes against hu­man­ity.

For the past few weeks, the Tripoli gov­ern­ment and the UN have both been push­ing to re­solve the stand­off.

The camp’s res­i­dents say they will only go in one di­rec­tion.

“Th­ese camps are tem­po­rary, not per­ma­nent,” said Salem Ibrahim, 61, a re­tired teacher who ar­rived at Garart Al-Gatef in a con­voy from Tripoli.

“We will not re­lin­quish our land and our home and the soil we grew up on. We will stay here un­til we re­turn.”

A Libyan child dis­placed from the town of Taw­ergha stands at a camp in the Garart Al-Gatef. (File/Reuters)

A woman dis­placed from the town of Taw­ergha pre­pares food at a camp in the Garart Al-Gatef, Libya. (File/Reuters)

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