The northeast Libyan town of Tawergha, formerly home to about 40,000 people, is now a “ghost town” after intense fighting last year ended in the city’s capture and the total displacement of its population.
During the battle of Misrata, from February till May 2011, anti-Gaddafi forces from Misrata and other Libyan towns were pitted against Gaddafi loyalists, mainly hailing from the towns of Tomina, Kararim, and Tawergha – south of Misrata. The latter became a stronghold for fighters loyal to Gaddafi to launch attacks against Misrata rebels. Tawergha lies on the road from Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte, and is located 35-40 kilometers south of the city of Misrata.
According to Human Rights Watch, 30,000 people from Tawergha were forced to leave the city after the revolution and were scattered across the country – with many settling in refugee camps in Benghazi and Janzur, in the outskirts of the capital city of Tripoli.
Today, Tawergha is marked by scores of empty buildings and houses, many of which are either burnt out or reduced to rubble. NATO airstrikes on pro-Gaddafi strongholds devastated much of the city during the battle of Tawergha in August 2011.
Rebel militias explained that a number of houses in the town were used by Gaddafi loyalists to stock heavy weapons and artillery and that citizens of Tawergha were used as human shields during the conflict. Water and electricity were cut from the town in an attempt to deplete Gaddafi’s troops of resources on their advance northward towards Misrata.
Houses were later looted and burnt, allegedly by anti-Gaddafi forces. The green sign at the entry of the town has been blackened and replaced by the name of Misrata in Arabic.
With the town emptied of its population, Misrata rebels succeeded in continuing their southward advance towards the town of Sirte, Gaddafi’s birthplace. The town remains scarred by the heavy fighting, and many buildings bear graffiti conveying pejorative, racist terms against Tawergha locals – most of the town’s residents having a characteristically darker pigmentation.
In August 2011, residents of Tawergha were forced to flee following the heavy shelling of their houses.
“We left Tawergha in the month of Ramadan 2011 because we were stuck in the town between Gaddafi troops, NATO, and anti-Gaddafi forces. We had to leave,” said Abdelbasset Ali, a Tawergha native. Ali now lives in the Janzur Naval Academy which currently houses around 2,400 Tawergha refugees – mostly women and children.
On February 6th, 2012, at 9 am, an armed militia stormed the Janzur camp and abducted three young men, shooting several people at point-blank range. Seven people were ultimately killed in the raid.
“We live in constant fear. Children are traumatized whenever they hear shots fired,” stated al-Muabarak, a resident of Janzur camp. “I saw my mother killed before my eyes,” he recalled bitterly. “Children and women were forced to walk 65 kilometers looking for a safer place. Some pregnant women had miscarriages. About ten people died during the trip,” he added.
Fatma Meftah, a kindergarten teacher in the camp, explained that she was forced to flee Tawergha due to artillery and air strikes over houses in the town. She stated that her uncles remain imprisoned in Misrata jails. “We have no news of them,” she said.
“Nothing is clear about our future. We live in a country where the force of weapons is stronger than that of justice. I have no trust in the people in power to implement justice. We want weapons to disappear from streets and security to be restored,” stated Ali.
“We want to return to our home,” he concluded.