More than six years after being forced to leave their homes in the civil war that toppled Muammar Gaddafi, tens of thousands of residents of the Libyan ghost city 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 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 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, Tawergha residents were finally meant to start going home on February 1. After days on the road they said militia fighters would not let them through.
“My kids were carrying doves to release as a sign of peace and they were carrying olive branches too,” said a 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 cars were driving fast and there was shooting.”
“We were asked to wait until the problem could be solved. But after three days and with the shooting, my son started crying uncontrollably. His dream has collapsed.”
More than six years since Gaddafi was captured hiding in a sewer and killed, Libya still has no government that can control the streets.
The internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli is opposed by a rival government and allied factions in eastern Libya. Towns and cities are largely carved up between militia groups, many drawing salaries from the state but answering only loosely at best to either government.
The GNA promoted the return to Tawergha as a major breakthrough. But when convoys of residents approached the town last week from the west, armed men from GNA-linked brigades halted them.
Other residents were turned back approaching from the east, before reaching Sirte, controlled by Misrata since forces led by the city’s brigades ousted Islamic State from the city in 2016.
Officials from Misrata, itself divided between moderate and hardline groups, called for a delay to the returns, saying more preparations were needed to ensure security for returnees and arguing some terms of a 2016 deal between Misrata and the Tawerghans were not fulfilled.
Yousef Zerzah, chairman of Misrata’s dialogue committee with Tawergha, defended the groups that halted the returns.
“They have some legitimate demands, including points of the agreement between Misrata and Tawergha, such as recognition of the revolution of February 17 (2011) and an official apology from Tawergha authorities to the people of Misrata,” he said at a press conference.
The UN mission in Libya blamed the reversal on “some extremist elements”, and denounced “attempts at financial extortion in exchange for residents’ return”.
Tawergha remains abandoned and in ruins and it is not clear how residents can resettle before basic infrastructure is restored. The GNA, which struggles to impose its authority in the capital and beyond, tried to mediate a solution to the stand-off.
“We held a meeting with municipality of Misrata, the commander of central military region and the commander of military police,” Yousef Jallalah, minister of refugees and displaced people, told reporters. “The meeting lasted till midnight but we didn’t get a positive result.”