Internal displacement in Libya: The Tawarghas’ long struggle for justice

Magdalena Mughrabi*


Two years after the end of the 2011 armed conflict, some 40,000 Tawargha, a community of black Libyans, continue to be barred from their homes. They were forcibly displaced in August 2011 by anti al-Gaddafi militias who sought revenge for war crimes committed in the city of Misratah. The militias accused the Tawarghas of collectively supporting the toppled leader and acting on its behalf. As punishment, the militias chased the entire community out of the town in violation of international humanitarian law. 


Since the end of the conflict, the Tawarghas’ attempts to return home have been met with repeated threats by militias. The government, too, warned them against unilateral actions and called to abandon return plans, but failed to provide an alternative. In fact, the Libyan authorities have done very little to improve the living conditions of the Tawargha – and other internally displaced communities – or find a durable solution to their plight. Instead, they opted for a policy of appeasement towards the very militia that were responsible for the Tawarghas’ forcible displacement and other human rights abuses such as torture and other ill-treatment, enforced disappearance and arbitrary detention during and after the conflict.


The authorities’ failure to take constructive action for two years has benefited and emboldened perpetrators of human rights abuses. It has led to a situation where they, the victims of abuses, have been asked to relinquish their rights and to be “reasonable”, while the militias and others threatening them have gone unchallenged.


Today, the Libyan authorities estimate the total number of internally displaced persons at 65,000. In addition to the Tawargha, displaced communities include residents of the Nafusa Mountain area, mainly the Mashashya tribe whose population is estimated at 10,000; as well as residents of Sirte and Bani Walid; and Tuaregs from Ghadames.


Two years on, the Tawargha remain scattered across the country between Benghazi in the east, Tripoli in the west, and the southern city of Sabha. The vast majority of displaced Tawarghas was forced to live in poorly resourced makeshift camps after their homes were destroyed, vandalized and burnt down by anti-Gaddafi militias. They settled in metal containers formerly used to house construction workers; built their homes out of plastic pipes, or took over half finished administrative buildings. Some of the camps for internally displaced persons visited by Amnesty International lacked basic services such as a functioning sewage system or effective garbage collection.


For months after they were displaced, the Tawargha were hunted down by militias who detained them from checkpoints, camps and homes where they had sought refuge. Once detained, Tawargha men, but at times also boys as young as 15, were routinely subjected to torture and other ill-treatment at militia compounds in Tripoli and other cities of western Libya before being transferred to Misratah. Some Tawargha have since died under torture. Hundreds are held in Misratah until today in detention facilities with varying degree of state oversight. Although treatment has in some places of detention improved since 2011, hundreds of detainees and families continue to experience the consequences of these abuses until today without the ability to seek redress. Militia crimes on the other hand have gone unpunished, and reprisal attacks against Tawargha camps for internally displaced persons, including random shootings and arbitrary arrests, have continued until today.


Ali Abu al-Qasem Omar was only 16 when he was apprehended by the Bader Brigade from Misratah on 10 October 2011. When Amnesty International saw him in al-Wahda prison in Misratah last November he had already turned 18. He said that he was taken from a private house in Sirte where he and his family, composed of 13 persons, had taken refuge after they had fled from Tawargha on 11 August 2011. He described to Amnesty International the torture he and his brothers suffered, “I was seized together with my two older brothers. We were taken to a detention centre located at a checkpoint near Sirte, where we were all beaten. My brother Saleh died because of the torture. He was 37 at the time. I saw him being beaten with metal bars and sticks. They also gave him electric shocks”. At the time of Amnesty International’s visit in November 2013, Ali had yet to be referred to prosecution. He was one of a group of eleven detainees who were under 18 at the time of their alleged offence.


Representatives of the Tawargha community estimate that over 1,300 Tawargha remain either missing or detained. During fact-finding missions to Libya in 2013, Amnesty International met dozens of desperate mothers and relatives seeking help in clarifying the fate or whereabouts of their family members who went missing during the conflict or disappeared after hostilities ended. All were seeking an answer to the same question: “Is he dead or alive?”- would they ask. Some hoped to find their loved ones in detention facilities in Misratah, and sought Amnesty International's intervention. Although visits to detention centres in Misratah are in principle permitted, in practice, very few families decide to visit their detained relatives for fear of reprisals. Despite ongoing efforts, the Libyan government has been unable to negotiate a full handover of detention facilities to state authorities, and many prisons, including in Misratah, are effectively run by militias with little, or at times, no judicial oversight. The authorities have struggled to implement the rule of law mainly due to the poor security situation. Prosecution orders are often not implemented, and in some cases, Tawargha detainees have been rearrested following their release from prison.   


Families of detained or missing Tawarghas have also faced challenges to lead a normal life. Having lost their breadwinner, they struggle to support themselves financially. Many families of missing Tawarghas say they face discrimination when attempting to register with the Ministry of Assistance to Families of Martyrs and Missing Persons to receive financial help to which they are entitled.  They allege that it is because of their perceived allegiance to Colonel al-Gaddafi[1].


The Tawarghas’ forcible displacement has also had adverse consequences on their right to education and right to work. Prior to the conflict, many Tawarghas worked, banked and studied in Misratah. Following their forcible displacement, hundreds of students were unable to continue their university education after they failed to obtain their transcripts and certificates from previous academic establishments in Misratah. Entire families feared to travel to Misratah to access their banks and were therefore unable to withdraw their salaries. While the authorities have recently stepped up their efforts to resolve these administrative problems with the local authorities in Misratah, they have done little to end the Tawarghas’ displacement. 


Under international law, displacement of civilians during internal armed conflict is permissible only for their own security or for imperative military reasons. In the case of the Tawargha, the forced displacement was undertaken as a punitive measure and as such was prohibited.  International standards set out that “displacement should last no longer than required by the circumstances”. But despite an end of the hostilities in 2011, most internally displaced communities perceived as pro al-Gaddafi were neither assisted by the government nor allowed to return to their home towns and check on their possessions, recover their property and rebuild their livelihoods.


There is today no justification for the continuing internal displacement in Libya. The authorities must do more to find a solution respective of the needs, rights and legitimate concerns of displaced communities. They also have a duty to provide durable solutions for internally displaced persons and to allow them to make an “informed and voluntary choice” on what solution to pursue.


Worryingly however, the Libyan authorities and public opinion have made the Tawarghas’ right of return conditional on achieving justice and reparations for victims of violations by the al-Gaddafi government.


There is no denying that war crimes were committed in Misratah during the 2011 armed conflict. Al-Gaddafi forces had used the Tawargha area, 40km south-east of Misratah, as a base when they laid siege to Misratah in 2011. For three months, Misratah residents were cut off from electricity and water as the city became the scene of one of the conflict’s most heavy fighting. Hundreds of civilians died in air strikes and rocket attacks; many more were injured. Allegations of rape and sexual abuse by al-Gaddafi forces in Misratah exacerbated tensions between the neighbouring towns. Victims of abuse in Misratah have the right to seek truth and reparations.


If members of the Tawargha community have been involved in war crimes during the conflict, they should be held to account in fair proceedings like any other individual accused of such crimes. But justice cannot be selective. Many of the attacks that Amnesty International has documented against Tawargha civilians committed by militias from Misratah during the 2011 armed conflict constituted war crimes as well. Given that militias carried out, during and after the conflict, prohibited acts including murder, forcible transfer, torture and enforced disappearance as part of a widespread, as well as systematic, attack directed against the civilian population of Tawargha, and with knowledge of the attack, it appears that they constituted crimes against humanity.


A recently adopted Law on Transitional Justice could provide for the Tawargha and other displaced communities the first real avenue to seek reparation and justice. The law establishes mechanisms to ensure accountability and reparations for victims of human rights violations perpetrated during the 42 years of Colonel al-Gaddafi’s rule and in the transitional period following his fall. As part of a truth-seeking process, it tasks a Fact-Finding and Reconciliation Commission with drawing a “complete picture of the nature, reasons and scope” of serious human rights violations during the period. Importantly, it also establishes a Displaced Persons’ Affairs department mandated with examining the current conditions of displaced persons, and enabling them to enjoy their rights and preventing any acts of discrimination against them. The department is also tasked with providing a solution to internal displacement.


The Libyan authorities must now ensure that the Law on Transitional Justice is promptly implemented. The Fact-Finding and Reconciliation Commission must be given the necessary resources and protection to conduct its work impartially, free from threats, public pressure and militia attack. The Tawargha and other displaced communities must be consulted in any discussion of durable solution. A failure to do so could endanger the modest gains of victims in their struggle for truth and justice, and turn the law into another failed initiative.


* Amnesty International Researcher, North Africa


[1] For more information, See Amnesty International, Libya: Barred from their homes, The continuous displacement and persecution of Tawarghas and other communities in Libya, (MDE 19/011/2013)

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