Satellite Imagery Analysis Shows Systematic Destruction
Human Rights Watch visited Tawergha repeatedly in August, September, and October 2011, and in January 2012, and observed extensive burning and looting of residential and commercial buildings in most parts of the town. In one case, looting continued in front of Human Rights Watch researchers while a militia from Misrata was standing guard.
During a January 2012 visit, Human Rights Watch saw Misratan militia members systematically burning one neighborhood by dousing homes with gasoline and setting them on fire.
Human Rights Watch has analyzed satellite imagery showing the extent of the damage from arson and targeted demolitions in the town after the fighting there had stopped. This analysis, together with on-the-ground findings, strongly suggests that the purposeful and systematic destruction of the town was intended to prevent returns.
Human Rights Watch analyzed five satellite images taken between July 28, 2011, and August 18, 2012. These images show 1,690 damaged and destroyed structures. More than 92 percent of these structures appear to have been damaged or destroyed by fire.
Not all structural damages are visible from the satellite imagery, so actual damages after the fighting in Tawergha are likely to be significantly higher, Human Rights Watch said.
The images show that two residential housing complexes were burned to the ground, and another five residential complexes were seriously damaged by fire. Virtually all large commercial and industrial or municipal facilities appear to have been destroyed by fire, including a complex of poultry farms on Tawergha’s northern edge.
Human Rights Watch compared satellite imagery with videos posted on YouTube that appear to show militias using explosives to demolish a municipal water tower and residential buildings in Tawergha after hostilities had ceased. In three instances, Human Rights Watch matched the structures in the videos with the structures in the satellite imagery, thus confirming the use of explosives for controlled demolitions, as well as the locations and time periods for the videos.
During an October 2011 visit to Tawergha, an international documentary team also filmed armed men from Misrata firing weapons into abandoned residential buildings.
Based on the videos and satellite imagery analysis, Human Rights Watch identified in the satellite imagery at least 81 buildings and two water towers that were probably destroyed with explosives – nearly 5 percent of all detected damages across the town.
The satellite imagery analysis revealed two distinct periods of destruction. The first followed the capture of Tawergha in mid-August 2011 and continued until late October. The images show 240 sites that appear to have been damaged or destroyed during that period. Based on field research at that time, and because the imagery does not fully capture the extensive burning inside homes, Human Rights Watch believes the total number of damaged or destroyed buildings is probably much higher.
This first phase was followed by a relative pause of about a month. The second and main phase of destruction occurred between November 24, 2011, and May 25, 2012, when over 1,370 sites appear to have been damaged or destroyed. This represents over 81 percent of damaged structures detected from the imagery and appears to have been a more systematic effort to destroy structures.
On May 3, 2012, the main military body in Misrata, the Military Council, responded to Human Rights Watch’s earlier charges of arson and property destruction in Tawergha by saying that the “torching and demolition of some homes in the Tawergha area” were “individual actions committed by people who suffered the worst abuses at the hands of the people of Tawergha.”
Human Rights Watch believes the results of the satellite imagery analysis contradict this claim. The scale of the destruction and the time and resources required to damage or destroy over 1,600 industrial, commercial, and residential sites strongly suggests that the destruction was planned and systematic.
On several occasions, Human Rights Watch researchers witnessed looting, arson, and demolitions in Tawergha while Misrata militia members at nearby checkpoints watched. During one visit in October 2011, the checkpoint commander at the entrance of Tawergha denied to Human Rights Watch that looting or arson was taking place while a group of Misrata militia members about 100 meters away fired a rocket-propelled grenade into an unoccupied building. The commander then allowed the fighters to pass his checkpoint with a truck full of looted goods, including school desks.
During the 2011 conflict, Gaddafi forces used Tawergha as a base for attacks on Misrata and the surrounding area from March until August. Many Tawerghans supported Gaddafi, whose government claimed that Libyan opposition fighters would enslave Tawerghans if they took power. Hundreds of Tawerghans were forced to join the army, both Misrata and Tawergha residents told Human Rights Watch.
Between March and May, Gaddafi forces besieged Misrata and repeatedly subjected the city to indiscriminate mortar and Grad rocket attacks that killed many civilians. In April, Human Rights Watch documented the government’s use of cluster munitions in the city. Misratan fighters successfully defended the city and began to overpower Gaddafi forces in the area, with help from NATO airstrikes.
As Misratan fighters approached Tawergha around August 10, 2011, almost all residents of the town fled. They were then subjected to attacks, arrests, and harassment, mostly by militias from Misrata.
The displaced Tawerghans are now spread throughout Libya and unable to return. According to Tawergha community leaders, about 18,000 people are in Benghazi, 13,000 in Tripoli, and 7,000 in and around Sebha, in the south. Smaller numbers are in Tarhuna, Khoms, Sirte, Ajdabiya, and a few other places.
In Tripoli, the community is based mostly in four camps: at the Naval Academy in Janzur, near Airport Road, in the al-Fallah neighborhood, and in the Sarraj neighborhood. Basic humanitarian assistance comes mostly from LibAid, a Libyan government agency.