LIBYA: The Making of a Ghost Town By Karlos Zurutuza

25 November 2011 — IPS


The abandoned Latam district in Tawargha. / Credit:Karlos Zurutuza/IPS.

TAWARGHA, Libya, Nov 25, 2011 (IPS) – Embarka Omar crumbles when she sees the pictures of the Libyan city where she was born and lived until two months ago. ‘We will be back in Tawargha one day,’ the 25-year-old repeats to herself. The images say otherwise.

Tawargha had been Muammar Gaddafi’s headquarters during the terrible two-month siege of the rebel enclave of nearby Misrata,187 km southeast of capital Tripoli. Once a vibrant city of 30,000 inhabitants, the vast majority of them black, Tawargha has turned into a huge ‘supermarket’ where families from nearby Misrata load their vehicles with the spoils of looting, and militias torch the houses, probably to prevent Omar Embarka and others like her from returning some day. Today, Tawargha – ‘green island’ in the Amazigh language – is just a ghost town in the middle of the Libyan desert.

Tawarghans who survived the war gather today at refugee camps like the one in Fallah, a district south of Tripoli. Embarka belongs to one of the hundred families who have found refuge in the former barracks which housed the workers of a Turkish construction company. The broken voices echoing off the corrugated iron walls help reconstruct one of the missing pieces in the Libyan war’s puzzle.

‘When the war started in February, many Tawarghans living in Misrata came back home,’ recalls Embarka. ‘Gaddafi had turned our city into a stronghold from which they led the assault against Misrata and, overnight, there were almost as many soldiers as civilians,’ she says.

Embarka, who was a medical student, volunteered at the hospital in Tawargha to help in the surgical department. ‘In early summer, supplies began to fail; food, medicines … we didn’t even have anaesthesia for the amputations. We suffered heavy shelling almost all the time and our last five doctors, all of them from North Korea, left in July,’ says this young woman, who still volunteers at the camp’s humble medical centre.

Bashir Youssef will never forget the lack of medical care. He might have been a father in July had he been able to take his pregnant wife to the hospital in Hisha – 80 km south of Tawargha.

‘Gaddafi’s soldiers had blocked the way out of Tawargha and they did not let us go. They said it was for our own safety,’ remembers this former taxi driver, today without a vehicle or a city to drive it around in.

The situation in Tawargha was becoming increasingly unbearable for everybody.

The final assault over Tawargha started ‘officially’ on Aug. 10, when NATO aircraft ‘hit three Command and Control Nodes and two Military Storage Facilities In the vicinity of Tawargha,’ according to the military coalition’s press release. However, witnesses from this refugee camp and the one in Tarik Matar, five kilometres south of Tripoli, say that the NATO attacks started much earlier, and that even the city centre was pounded.

On Aug. 12, Tawargha shifted from chaos to a nightmare that everybody was struggling to leave behind.

‘People tried to stop our car, begging us to let them inside. We were eight in the car and we couldn’t take anybody else with us,’ recalls Ahmed Farthini, a former resident of Tawargha now living in Fallah refugee camp.

Many of his neighbours fled on foot. Mohammed Jibril walked across the desert for two days until he reached Hisha. The 28-year-old says he’ll never forget that journey.

‘I think that there were more than 300. Many fell down due to exhaustion and dehydration, but I could not do anything for them. It was a matter of sheer survival,’ says Jibril. He wonders whether the families of those who died in the desert ever got back the bodies.

Hisha, a little town halfway between Misrata and Sirte, became a safe haven for many refugees until it was also attacked. The attacks would continue towards the east, all the way down to Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte.

‘We were lucky enough to have relatives in Sirte so we could all stay with them,’ says Ahmad Wail. ‘But many of the refugees were told that their wives and children would be hosted at the local school only if they (the men) jumped into a truck bound for Brega, 250 km southwest of Benghazi, the rebel capital, and fight over there.’

But Brega would also fall soon afterwards. Some Tawarghans would then leave for Sirte, where many would die during the massive obliteration of the town. The luckiest ones ended up in rebel-controlled Tripoli.

‘When we arrived in Tripoli,’ recalls Embarka, ‘we were 60 living in a flat for a whole month. The men wouldn’t go out unless it was strictly necessary and we women never left the apartment. Many chose to stay on the beach because Tripoli is a very dangerous city for us.’ Embarka refers to the terrible harassment that the black population suffered in Tripoli over the last months.

On Sep. 4, Human Rights Watch warned that ‘the widespread arbitrary arrests and frequent abuse have created a grave sense of fear among the city’s African population’. Amnesty International also published several reports in this regard, many of which point to worrying cases like that of a patient from Tawargha who was taken from Tripoli’s Central Hospital to be ‘interrogated in Misrata.’

For the time being, the National Transitional Council of Libya – also known by its French acronym CNT – has repeatedly stated that ‘any abuse coming from whatever side should be thoroughly investigated.’ However, recent statements by Mahmud Jibril, former prime minister of the Council, have caused even deeper concern among the refugees.

Jibril reportedly told a public meeting at Misrata town hall: ‘Regarding Tawargha, my own viewpoint is that nobody has the right to interfere in this matter except the people of Misrata.’

At the Tarik Matar refugee camp, Mohammed Mabrouk plays a video taken last on Nov. 1, in which a group of militias are dragging seven young men outside the camp.

Abdullah Tarhuni, a commander from Musa Binuser – one of the six militias allegedly involved in the incident – refuses to comment on the issue, but answers without hesitation when asked about a hypothetical return of the refugees to Tawargha: ‘Tawargha no longer exists. In the future it will be called ‘New Misrata’.’ (END)

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