By Gada Mahfud
Misurata and Tawergha are two neighbouring cities that have coexisted for centuries in peace and harmony. Misurata, the third largest city in Libya is the richer of the two due to its location, on the sea front with a large harbour that does trade with the four corners of the earth.
Tawergha is a small town just east of Misurata. It has always been the main source of labour for the industrial hub that is Misurata. In short these two cities have always complemented each other. Both cities had mutual respect for what the other brought to the table.
Sometimes we would hear of disagreements and grudges between cities about borders or some other issue. This was never the case in the Misurata-Tawergha case. They were the perfect match; exemplary neighbours until the Libyan uprising in February 2011. Then everything changed and the life time friendships were abruptly abandoned!
So how did the good neighbours become fierce enemies, and what has led to this drastic change of sentiment?
When Misurata declared its support for the Libyan uprising that erupted in Benghazi on February 17, last year, Misurata instantly became the front line of the revolution. Gaddafi recognised that his survival depended on him reclaiming Misurata from the grasp of the revolution. So he instructed his militias to destroy Misurata.
Gaddafi wanted to insure that the siege around Misurata was airtight, and that it was not going to receive any lifelines from its neighbours. Therefore, he set to work on recruiting neighbouring cities and enlisting their support.
The attack Gaddafi’s war machine launched on Misurata was truly horrendous. Indiscriminate shelling on civilians caused the death toll to rise exponentially. Such destruction was only possible due to the cooperation of nearby towns like Tawergha.
Observers thought the shelling was bad, but what was to occur next was infinitely even worse because when Gaddafi’s militias entered Misurata from the west. Tawergha groups described as volunteers because they never had formal military training, entered Misurata from the east. Gaddafi had succeeded in enlisting the assistance of the majority of the Tawergha residents.
From first hand witness accounts I myself managed to get, Tawergha was involved in full capacity in the attack against Misurata and its citizens. Women accompanied the men, snatched the jewellery off Misurata women and searched homes for valuables. Old men and women cheered on as their sons were on their way to conquering Misurata.
Tawerghan men robbed homes, killed and stole livestock, vandalised properties and sometimes even set them on fire. But worst of all Tawerghans were involved in rapes that were filmed on mobile phones found on dead Tawerghan men.
In a conservative society like Libya rape is just as bad if not worse than murder and though vandalism and robbery are not easily forgotten or forgiven it is the rapes with the documented proof of the perpetrators that have made the tale of these two cities what it is.
In the end Misurata succeeded in defeating the Gaddafi war machine. As soon as that happened Tawergha residents fled their town because they knew that they were bound to face the wrath of the Misurata residents for their part in what Misurata had to endure.
Tawergha has lived to regret two decisions it made, namely, its willing participation in Gaddafi’s attack on its neighbour, and secondly the voluntary evacuation of their homes to avoid the wrath from Misurata once Gaddafi’s army was defeated.
Tawergha residents were not chased out of town but they were never permitted to return. It has become a ghost town since the flight of its residents, who have taken refuge in temporary shelters in Tripoli and Benghazi.
Tawergha residents have made many attempts through the NTC and tribal elders from different parts of the country to represent them and to plead their case for their return. All attempts have proven futile.
Misurata residents were adamant in refusing the Tawerghans permission for their return, on the grounds that the trust that once existed between them has been shattered, and without that trust they cannot go back to being neighbours.
Tawergha residents contacted the media and different human rights organisations in an attempt to raise awareness of their plight. They gave a flawed account of the events that led to the evacuation of their homes and refused to admit their guilt to what transpired during Gaddafi’s medieval siege on Misurata.
They failed to shoulder the responsibility for the crimes that were committed. They alleged they were being chased away from their homes on racial grounds. That is an absurd accusation to make. Tawergha residents have never made such allegations in the past, therefore why should Misurata suddenly adopt a racist view of Tawergha now?
The fact is that if there was any racist tensions it was solely on the Tawergha side because it was its residents who targeted Misurata’s residents; and yes, that might have been racially motivated.
Since the liberation, some Misurata youths have vented their anger by vandalising Tawergha properties, which is shameful behaviour that should not be tolerated by the government.
There have also been reports of Misurata-based militias breaking into Tawergha camps, for reasons that are unclear. Was it to terrorise the Tawerghans by way of revenge, or to try and find some of the rapists that are still going free. Such break-ins are illegal and should be stopped.
Recently, progress was registered in that some Tawerghans made some form of an apology to Misurata for all the wrongs that were committed against them during the conflict. It was the first time that Tawergha made such a gesture of accepting their responsibility in what transpired.
It is a positive step in the right direction. But it is only a beginning. This should be followed by Tawerghans handing Misurata the list of Tawergha ‘volunteers’ made up of some 8,000 men and 1,500 women who took part in acts of aggression against Misurata.
What was so infuriating in all this dismal business is the willingness of the press to believe that Tawergha was being targeted for racially motivated reasons, therefore unleashing a new problem to add to the existing ones.
These claims were reported by the international press without corroboration of evidence and further investigation. This is sensationalism journalism at its worst, aimed at sell the paper, and to hell with the people involved.
Of course it goes without saying that both the National Transitional Council, NTC, and the transitional government have failed miserably in mediating in this issue and have left it to fester and grow out of all proportion. The blame game is just a waste of time and energy; so what could be the solution to this dilemma?
Misurata claims the irreparable damages caused by Tawergha should be punished by banishing Tawerghans. But where should they go if they are not allowed back to their homes? Tawergha claims that though it has recently acknowledged its part in the blame and the crimes committed in Misurata, it is not fair to punish the whole population of the town for crimes committed by the few or the many, no matter how many they may be.
In my opinion the solution is two-fold. After complying to Misurata’s demands that guilty parties should face justice, Misurata should accept the return of the rest of the Tawerghan population, else, the transitional government should relocate Tawergha’s population.
For some, such relocation would appear to be extreme measures. But then we are in an extreme situation.
I am fully aware that both solutions have their pros and cons. For instance the first solution is good because all the innocent displaced people can return to their homes once the guilty parties are handed to the authorities.
But this is less than perfect. Because of the proximity of the two cities, and with the return of Tawerghans, it is inevitable that friction between the two cities would still exist, and the results could be explosive to say the least; and the country could do with less explosive situations.
The other solution involves the relocation of a population of around 15,000. I have my doubts if the transitional government can cope with a relocation of this size.
Gaddafi has been dead and buried for four months, but the traps he laid for Libyan society are yet to overcome, and the legacy of hate his ego has created between these two cities, is very much alive.