Despite Pact, Deliberate Damage, Security Concerns Prevent Return to Tawergha.
Most of the 48,000 former residents of the Libyan town of Tawergha, forcibly displaced for seven years, have not been able to return home, Human Rights Watch said today after visiting the town.
Controlled Demolition, Looting of Infrastructure
The extensive damage to Tawergha’s infrastructure encompasses the electricity grid, above-ground and underground power cables, power conveyers, water tanks, telecommunication installations, and water purification plants.
Satellite imagery and evidence gathered by Human Rights Watch researchers on the ground in September indicated that Tawergha sustained extensive looting of underground power cables over 20 kilometers in length, starting in April 2013 and continuing intermittently until August 2017, at a time when the Misrata authorities and armed groups had full control over access to Tawergha, enforced through multiple checkpoints leading into the town.
The looting likely involved the use of heavy machinery to extract the cables and would have required loading them onto trucks and passing through checkpoints if they were transported elsewhere.
This damage is distinct from damage captured by satellite images taken in 2011, which included damage inflicted by combat and probable NATO air strikes during fighting between pro- and anti-Gaddafi forces that ended in October 2011.
According to a Human Rights Watch damage assessment from 2013, the first phase of controlled demolition, looting and arson by anti-Gaddafi fighters started after they captured the town, around August 15, 2011.
The next phase of controlled building demolition, involving the use of explosives and arson, began on or after November 24, 2011, three months after the Tawerghans fled.
As of December 2018, the state-owned Electricity Company had laid out one over-ground power cable about three kilometers long to illuminate street lights along the main road. In addition, the UN had provided eight solar-powered street lights. Few residents who had returned had access to generators.
Al-Shakshak told Human Rights Watch that all the deep-water wells and drinking water networks needed rehabilitation due to years of neglect and damage during the demolition and arson attacks.
Based on visits to three sites, interviews with Local Council members, and analysis of satellite imagery and video footage, Human Rights Watch determined that all four water distribution tanks in the town had been destroyed.
There is no cellphone, landline, or radio coverage in the entire town. Al-Shakshak said that one mobile network operator had installed a temporary cellphone coverage in a nearby gas station, but the signal did not reach the town.
Local Council members said that all of the approximately 7,000 housing units in Tawergha had been damaged to varying degrees since the 2011 conflict. Al-Shakshak said that the council had established a committee to survey the damage to private properties.
Tawergha residents needed to submit their personal files to this committee, which forwarded the files to private architectural offices to survey the damage and estimate the cost of reconstruction. They said that 300 files had been submitted for assessment.
Human Rights Watch visited the Tawergha General Hospital, the city’s main healthcare facility, and found extensive damage throughout. Nearly all the equipment appeared to have been looted or damaged, in some cases by fire, and patient records were missing.
The only healthcare post operating in Tawergha is an improvised clinic consisting of four shipping containers that were transferred to the town after the temporary camp for Tawerghans in Qararet al-Qatef was dismantled in June.
The only attendant of the clinic, a staff nurse from the Tawergha General Hospital, said the improvised clinic lacked plumbing, running water, and electricity.
He said it could only provide basic medication such as pain killers and could not treat chronic diseases, perform surgery, or deliver babies. He said that one doctor visited occasionally but that all serious cases had to be transferred to other cities.
All of Tawergha’s 22 schools and its one college have been extensively damaged, according to the head of the Local Council. Researchers visited four schools that had been damaged by fire and found them without furniture, equipment, and student files.
The GNA Education Ministry provided 10 containers for a temporary school. Al-Shakshak said the objective was to enroll up to 500 children. However, about 50 children are attending the school on an irregular basis and without receiving the official curriculum for all age groups, one Tawergha resident said.
Legal Framework and Accountability
The GNA-endorsed reconciliation agreement from August 2017 lays out agreed duties on the parties and the compensation packages to be paid by the GNA to victims or their families from both sides for people who were killed, detained or reported missing, for people who suffered disabilities, and for limited personal property losses.
Members of the Local Council said that the follow up June 2018 reconciliation charter should be considered a “social contract” with no binding legal consequences for the parties. However, some of the provisions appear to be one of the reasons why people are reluctant to return to Tawergha.
The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, based on human rights and humanitarian law provide that displacement should be limited in time and should not last “longer than required by the circumstances.”
International law further stipulates that civilians forcibly displaced from their homes during a conflict should be allowed to return home as soon as possible without conditions.
Principle 21 of the Guiding Principles states that the property and possessions of internally displaced people should be protected from “pillage, direct or indiscriminate attacks or other acts of violence,” and should not be “destroyed or appropriated as a form of collective punishment.”
The article also states that “property and possessions left behind by internally displaced persons should be protected against destruction and arbitrary and illegal appropriation, occupation or use.”
Certain abuses committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack on a civilian population, including torture, arbitrary detention, and forced displacement, may constitute crimes against humanity.
The UN International Commission of Inquiry on Libya concluded in its March 2012 report that Misrata militias had committed crimes against humanity against Tawerghans and that the deliberate destruction of Tawergha “has been done to render it uninhabitable.”
While Libya’s judicial authorities have prosecuted crimes attributed to Tawerghans, including for killings and unlawful possession of weapons during the 2011 revolution, no militia members have been prosecuted for forcibly displacing Tawerghans or other serious abuses against them.
Accounts by Tawerghans
Researchers interviewed eight residents in person in September in Tawergha and five former residents who had not returned by phone in December.
When Musa R., a father of 12, displaced in Tripoli since 2011, met with researchers in Tawergha in September, he said he was only visiting for the day and explained why could not stay:
My home here in Tawergha has been destroyed. The whole ceiling has been brought down. I cannot come back. Winter is approaching, and people here will have to leave again. There is no medical care for my elderly, sick mother and some of my daughters need to continue their university education.
Khalil L. and Ihsan A., a married couple with six children whom researchers met in Tawergha, decided to return to their hometown after seven years of displacement in Benghazi with some of their children, despite the hardships. Ihsan A. said:
We can only stay here if they soon open a school for our children and if teachers show up. Many displaced families are afraid to return to Tawergha because they fear attacks from Misrata [militias]. There is no electricity here and no water, and the destruction is total and systematic. I am worried for the children when it starts to get cold. Many people cannot come back. Those who made a living elsewhere won’t come back.
Khalil L. said: All electricity cables, both over ground and underground and cables in private homes were stolen after the arson of homes because of the copper, which has become very expensive. I believe it must have been a company that did that because all the large electricity transformers have been looted as well. The looting mostly occurred in 2013, after the first attempt by the Tawergha community to return to our hometown.
Citing harassment by militias from Misrata, Mustafa M., an outspoken Tawerghan critic of the reconciliation charter between Tawergha and Misrata, who had spent the last seven years displaced in Tripoli, told Human Rights Watch by phone that although he briefly visited Tawergha twice he was not able to return permanently due to safety concerns:
I went to Tawergha twice in September to visit my home, which has been destroyed. Both times, at the checkpoint at the entrance to Tawergha, I am clearly [seen as] an undesirable as I do not agree with the peace accord. My car was singled out and I was checked thoroughly though no one else was. I felt insecure. The same situation happened with my brother. I have decided not to go back for the time being as the security situation is still tenuous.
Faraj H., 50, another displaced Tawergha resident who lives in a camp in Benghazi, and who visited Tawergha twice, described his experience at a checkpoint:
The Misrata side has weapons and I fear for my security. During my visit, I was stopped at a checkpoint in el-Ain area by Katibat al-Zerzah, which is part of the Misrata army. They took my car papers and I had to follow them to al-Krareem where I waited for two hours before they gave back my documents.
Ahmed B., 51, a father of seven who has been living in a camp in Benghazi since his family’s displacement in 2011, said he had visited his destroyed home in Tawergha only twice since June, and could not return to live there:
We are not displaced. We are in fact homeless, we can no longer be considered just displaced. We’ve been like this for eight years now. Most of the people in Tawergha feel that they’ve been implicated in a shameful peace charter. There are no schools or universities, yet all my children study. Tawergha is in a state of utter devastation. The entire city has been destroyed. There is no infrastructure, no water, no electricity, the conditions are very harsh. It’s a burned land now.
Ali S., 47, a father of five, and displaced with his family in Ajdabiya since 2011, said he rejected the reconciliation charter and had concerns about returning to Tawergha:
I do want to return but I refuse to return like this. I’m absolutely dissatisfied with the charter. It’s a weak and shameful agreement. Misrata cannot decide for the people of Tawergha and cannot be in charge of protecting us. My house is unlivable, and it’s awfully burned. It was also looted, and they even pulled out the electricity wires […] They also stole the doors and windows. Even on a security level, things are not very comforting. We were enemies and they hurt us very much.
Mustafa Karwad, the mayor of Misrata, told Human Rights Watch during a meeting in Misrata on September 23 that people from Tawergha had the right to unconditional return to their hometown since the signing of the reconciliation charter on June 3 and said there had been no security incidents involving Tawergha residents during that period.