By Ahmed Elumami

More than six years after they were forced to leave their homes in the civil war that toppled Gaddafi, tens of thousands of residents of the Libyan ghost city of Tawergha were finally meant to start going home last week. It never happened.

Armed groups blocked the road, shattering the hopes of families, casting a long-negotiated settlement into doubt, and demonstrating yet again the human cost of life in a country ruled by men with guns who appear to answer to no one.

The case of Tawergha, a city built among date palm groves about 200 km (124 miles) south-east of Tripoli, has become a symbol of division and conflict in Libya following the Nato-backed uprising against Gaddafi.

Tawergha was used by pro-Gaddafi forces attacking the nearby city of Misrata during the war. After the fighting, Misrata forces emptied Tawergha of its inhabitants. The city was abandoned as a ghost town, while its residents, many the dark-skinned descendents of sub-Saharan African slaves, lived in squalid temporary camps.

After years of negotiations, the Tawergha residents were finally meant to start going home on Feb. 1. But after days on the road they said militia fighters never let them through.

“My kids were carrying doves with them to release as a sign of peace, and they were carrying olive branches too,” said one woman at a camp for displaced people on Tripoli’s airport road whose family tried to reach the city in a convoy.

“The elders stopped the cars and asked us to wait,” said the woman, who asked not to be identified for security reasons. “Suddenly the cars were driving fast and there was shooting.”

“We were asked (by the elders) to wait until the problem could be solved. But after three days, and with the shooting at us, my son started crying uncontrollably. His dream has collapsed.”