Six months after an uprising brought down Muammar Gaddafi’s government, thousands of displaced Black Libyans are still living in abandoned construction sites, empty student dormitories or with host families, too afraid to return to their homes.
“We want to go back but cannot,” said Abdul Aziz al-Irwi, who lives in Sidi Slim camp in the capital, Tripoli. “Some people from another camp tried to return about two months ago, but about seven of them were captured by forces from Zintan and imprisoned.”
Al-Irwi is from the Mshashiya community, an ethnic group from the Nefusa Mountains in Western Libya who were targeted during the uprising by opposition fighters from Zintan, allegedly for being allied with pro-Gaddafi forces. Zintan is a small city also located in the Nefusa Mountains area.
“I am here because Gaddafi’s forces came to the town of Mshashya, so we had to leave,” he said. “They used our town to bomb other areas. We went to Gharyan, and then came to Tripoli.”
Records from the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, show that an estimated 14,500 internally displaced persons (IDPs) were living in Tripoli as of March. Across Libya, the total number of those still displaced is estimated at 70,000.
Apart from the Mshashiya, others included the Qawalish, also from the Nefusa Mountains, the Tawergha, a group of Touareg families from the west, and those perceived as being loyal to the previous regime from al-Zawiya, Bani Walid and Sirte.
A sizeable group of the displaced living in Tripoli and Benghazi cities were Tawergha. They were falsely accused of participating in Gaddafi’s assault on Misrata, murdering and raping thousands of people. Reprisal attacks ensued, forcing their entire town of more than 30,000 to flee their homes. Today, the Tawergha-Misrata case remains a particularly sensitive one in post-Gaddafi Libya.
Until recently, the dark-skinned Tawergha minority lived in a coastal town of the same name 250km east of Tripoli. With the rise to power of the rebels, the Tawergha are now on the defensive. The sign leading to their city has been changed to New Misrata and its population told not to return.
Needs and security
According to UNHCR, an estimated 100-150,000 people were displaced in October 2011, but that number has reduced progressively with many returning to their communities, including in Bani Walid and Sirte.
Camp managers at Sidi Slim say conditions are difficult, and the monthly supply of food delivered by agencies and Libaid, the humanitarian arm of the Libyan government, is not enough for each family.
“In our opinion, food is not a problem,” Muftah M Etwilb, the Chief Executive Officer of Libaid said. “There are other needs like education, health and protection. Health is free of charge for all Libyans, but still some people in the camp need immediate services from a dispensary. The other issue is proper housing. We are trying to get the government to provide alternative housing since some of these camps are owned by international companies.”
We are trying to get people out of prison, but we are not able to do much for people who are accused of committing crimes. The more serious issues will have to go to the justice system.
Providing protection for the displaced communities, particularly from armed militias still roaming the main cities, remains one of the biggest challenges to date for the transitional government.
“Since August 2011, we have been subjected to arbitrary attacks and detention,” Abdelrahman Mahmoud, head of the Local Council of the Tawergha in Tripoli, told reporters. “If Tripoli is safe, then the camps are safe, but if it is not, then we are not safe,”
In February, militias raided the Marine Academy where about 2,000 Tawergha had taken shelter, killing seven people and abducting three men. Witnesses claim the militias were from Misrata.
“The guards from the Marine Academy didn’t have any weapons. When the Misrata brigades came in with weapons, they just moved aside,” Emmanuel Gignac, UNHCR head of mission told reporters. “What you see now is individual cases inside or outside camps, for instance the Tawergha, including kidnapping for ransom. You can attack people from Tawergha and there is total impunity.”
Amnesty International and other groups have also documented testimonies from among the Mshashiya and Qawalish in Tripoli, who say they were detained and tortured by militias.
A common refrain heard among agencies and ordinary Libyans is that the government needs to assume responsibility for a host of problems, and internal displacement is no exception. To address the humanitarian needs of IDPs across the country, Libaid is organizing a national conference in May involving government ministries, agencies and representatives of the displaced.
“It is not exactly a neglected issue, but it’s not the number one priority in Libya. People also have to deal with security, and with the upcoming elections,” said Etwilb. “But we want to make the IDP issue visible on the day-to-day agenda of the government.”
Contacted for comment, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Social Affairs said: “We have made available a fund of 400 dinar [US$ 320] a month for people who wish to rent a house outside the camps,” Naima Etaher said. “Concerning the non-Tawergha people, a lot of their houses were not destroyed, and it’s safe to go back, but they just stay in these camps to take advantage of the government.”
But families in Sidi Slim camp saw things differently.
In the sweltering heat of a room occupied by a Mshashiya family, people gather to look at footage on a mobile phone which they claim is of destroyed buildings in their home town. “I want to go back. We have been in Mshashiya for over 1,200 years,” said Khalifa Saad Mabrouk, tracing on the floor with his finger what his farm looks like. “I have my trees there, and my houses, my land.”
When asked if remaining in Tripoli or moving elsewhere would be a solution, Mabrouk and his family were unequivocal. “Absolutely not. Even if conditions here are okay, we want to go home.”
What has still not been addressed, and will determine when people might return to their abandoned homes, are the underlying political tensions fueling animosity between different groups and deterring reconciliation, say observers.
The upcoming conference organized by Libaid is aimed at dealing with the short-term humanitarian needs of displaced populations, but not the political issues. “We try not to politicize the conference,” said Etwilb. “There is a risk if we just make it very open.”
Likewise, the “Reconciliation committees”, set up by recently by the government to restore relations between different communities, can only deal with minor disputes. “We are trying to get people out of prison, but we are not able to do much for people who killed are accused of crimes,” Naji Regebi, a member of one of the committees said. “The more serious issues will have to go to the justice system.”
Some Tawergha like Ismael Shaaban, an elder in Fallah Ladco camp in Tripoli, believe both sides should go to court. “We will hand over anyone who is guilty to the Libyan government, but we also want people torturing and abusing Tawerghans to be brought to justice,” he said.
Others like Khadija Absalaam (not real name), whose three sons she claims were detained in Misrata, are more skeptical. “We don’t want peace with the Misratans, we just want a wall between our two cities,” she said. “We can live without communicating.”
The Misratan Local Council, in response to concerns raised by Human Rights Watch about widespread torture and crimes committed in detention centres and toward the Tawergha, denied responsibility saying: “Treatment in the city’s prisons is good….many accusations have been wrongly and falsely attributed to Misrata revolutionaries.”
For the Tawergha and Misratans, long-term reconciliation will need a fully functional formal justice process. But, given that the government is still “settling down” in the words of one official, that is not likely to occur until after the elections, scheduled to take place in June. And even then, true reconciliation on the ground is likely to take time.
“Even if the humanitarian issues are dealt with by organisations, it is not enough,” said Gignac. “It is about coming to terms with the past and it is going to be a long process.”