Reconciling Displaced Libyans and Their Neighbors

While this month marked the second anniversary since the start of Libya’s uprising, the country is still struggling with the ramifications of its upheaval and the difficulties of reconciliation following its violent conflict. Thousands of Libyans remain internally displaced by ethnic tensions unleashed by the revolution.

The city of Tawergha is perhaps the most poignant example of the exile many Libyans have experienced: it is now a veritable “ghost town,” its residents forced to take refuge elsewhere following the catastrophic battles between loyalist and rebel forces that occurred in the area. Tawergha’s estimated 30,000 to 40,000 displaced residents continue to be prevented from returning to their homes due to safety concerns. The few who have tried to return have supposedly been stopped by Misratan brigades who “threatened to kill them and burn the remains of their houses,” according to the Libya Herald.

Tawergha lies along the road between the central coastal city of Sirte—Muammar Gaddafi’s last stronghold and the city where he was both born and killed—and the northwestern city of Misrata, a rebel stronghold that rose up in rebellion in February 2011. As a result of its proximity, Tawergha was occupied by Gaddafi’s forces and used as a base for loyalist military operations against the neighboring Misrata.

Tension between the two cities remains high, as residents of both Tawergha and Misrata have experienced the fallout from the violent clashes between loyalist and rebel forces. Misratans accuse Tawerghans of siding with Gaddafi, participating in his military operations against Misrata, and committing war crimes such as rape and looting. There is also a racial element to this tension, since Tawerghans typically have noticeably darker skin, and many of Gaddafi’s forces were comprised of African mercenaries as well as Libyans.

The reprisal for Tawerghans was swift after Gaddafi’s fall, with Misratan forces launching a series of attacks on the city that Amnesty International characterized as ethnic cleansing. The town’s infrastructure is considerably damaged—even uninhabitable—as a result of the rebel capture of the town in August 2011, which precipitated widespread fires, gunfights, and NATO airstrikes. Tawergha was later looted and pillaged by anti-Gaddafi forces, and the green sign to the city has been vandalized with “Misrata” graffiti.

Libya’s Deputy Prime Minister Awad Barasi has recently announced plans to address these internally displaced citizens, meeting with ministers to discuss solutions to the problem. Without state support, there is little chance that reconciliation or lasting peace can be achieved between these displaced groups and their neighbors.

Leslie Garvey is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.