Libya's heavy price for freedom

Nine months after Gaddafi's death, Libyans from the town of Tawergha are still facing a vendetta over alleged abuses they committed for his hated regime. Kim Sengupta meets them

Majdi Suleiman Omar was lying on a hospital bed when the rebels stormed into Tripoli determined to destroy what was left of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's regime and take retribution on its supporters. He had already been a victim of what has become the most vengeful episode of the civil war: his hand had to be amputated after it was shredded by Kalashnikov fire and he was forced to flee his home with his terrified family. Now the fighters from Misrata were seeking out their hated enemies, from Tawergha, who had taken refuge in the Libyan capital after being driven out of their city.

The young gunman who came into the ward at Zawiya Street Clinic said simply: "Get ready, we are going to take you to Funduq al-Jannah."

Mr Omar knew what awaited there. "Paradise Hotel" was the grisly comic name given to a graveyard on a remote part of Misrata's sandy beach, where captives were buried after being tortured and killed – sometimes through beheadings.

"Then a nurse came in to change my bandage," he said. "She was frightened to see the man there, but he just told her to go ahead. He was standing behind me when she worked on my hand. Then she got up and moved, he shot me in the back." A doctor found Mr Omar lying unconscious in a pool of blood. The medics moved him to a back room on the ground floor where, away from the eyes of outsiders, he received emergency treatment. Mr Omar, 30, is now at an old cement factory in the outskirts of Benghazi. The outside of it has been turned into camps that serve as a sprawling "home" for people from his city – about 17,000 of them in all, who shelter in shacks made out of PVC pipes.

A major step towards the future of "Free Libya" was taken this month with the first elections for more than half a century. But not many Tawerghans turned up at the polling stations set up at the camp. "Would voting bring back my son? He is a prisoner, or maybe they have killed him. I do not know. We are not free to find out," said Raga Ahdwafi, a 50 year-old resident of the camp.

Freedom in Libya has come at a heavy price for Tawergha; its men are accused of committing widespread abuses, in the pay of the regime, during the brutal siege of Misrata. As the tide of war turned, the city fell to the Misrata brigade. Many of the population of 35,000 were killed, others driven out with their homes looted and burned.

The physical closeness of Tawergha and Misrata fuelled the vendetta, as did the incendiary issues of race and rape. The population of Tawergha was predominantly black and the disdain felt towards them by so many in Misrata was expressed by Yusuf Bin Yusuf, the leader of the city's newly-elected council. "There is a lot of doubt about their right to be in this particular place," he said. "As far as we know they are escaped slaves or freed slaves who just came and took over this area."

Little evidence has been put forward to support claims of mass rape by Tawerghans, but Mr Bin Yusuf said: "What do they want, lists? We cannot expose the women who have suffered and add to their shame."

Salem Ali – who returned to Benghazi from his job in New York after the revolution – is adamant that the allegations against the Tawerghans are false. "There had been three separate investigations by international bodies which have found no evidence of this mass rape," he said. "But this tale keeps on getting repeated and repeated and it is used to justify the murders and illegal detention of our people."

Raga Ahdwafi is desperate to find out what happened to her son Muftar, 25. "We got stopped at a checkpoint and they took my son," she said. "They said that because of his age he must have been fighting. But that is not true. We are poor people – we just wanted to be left alone. At the end we just wanted to escape."

Abu Bakr al-Shaibani did manage to escape from Tawergha, but then he made a mistake and almost lost his life. "I was in the army," he recalled. "I made my journey to Benghazi after the unit I was with broke up. Then,at the end of December, I saw on TV that the new government was going to form a new army and we all had to report back for duty. I went to barracks in Sirte.

"The first few days were all right and we were told we must forget about the past and serve our country. Then they came from Misrata and arrested me."

Sirte, Colonel Gaddafi's place of birth and death, was the loyalist stronghold where members of the opposition were often taken to be tortured by his regime. Mr Shaibani, 22, found himself in the main prison where he received similar treatment at the hands of the Misratans. The scars on his back, he said, were the result of alcohol being poured and then set on fire. "Another day they put benzene [petrol] over my head and said they were going to burn me alive. I said 'shoot me, let this be over with'."

Mr Shaibani was eventually released. One of the four men with whom he was held died. "They made him drink benzene – that was what killed him. I knew him, his name was Mohamed al-Faitari Zaied. He was 24 or 25. I think his brother was killed as well."

Young children at the camp talk routinely of brothers, fathers and uncles dying or disappearing. "We had run away, but they came and took away my father. My mother tried to stop them but they hit her. We miss him. I also miss my garden and my school and my friends, we don't like it here," whispered nine-year-old Wala Mohamed, twisting a piece of blue ribbon in her hands.

Milad Mohamed, 60, hopes that the children will get to see Tawergha again. He just wants to go home to die. He has a paralysed right arm resulting from a stroke. "I do not have the medicine I need. I told them at a checkpoint run by the Misrata people that I needed medicine," he said.

"They said, 'you are African. Go back 5,000 miles where you came from and die there'. I will go back to Tawergha – that is where my father and grandfather are resting."

The elders of families at the Benghazi camps decided at a recent meeting to return to Tawergha. "This was a more important vote than the elections for them, everyone attended and we agreed that we must get back. We shall not let anyone stop us, we shall rebuild our houses," Mr Ali added.

Representatives from Tawergha had met UN agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the National Transitional Council – the post-revolutionary administration of the country – and its Prime Minister, Mahmoud Jibril, who is expected to lead the next government.

"They keep saying we must be patient, but we have no more patience left, we are tired and angry", Mr Ali said. "All Libyans have access to weapons if they want them. We shall be prepared for whatever happens."

Liberal alliance leads elections

A liberal alliance was last night placed ahead of other parties in the final results from Libya's first free election in half a century, leaving Islamists far behind.

Both sides were already trying to build a coalition with independents, however. It appeared to be a rare Arab Spring setback for the Islamic political movement, which has won elections in Egypt and Tunisia. But the structure of Libya's parliament, heavy with independent MPs, has left the final outcome uncertain.

The election commission said the former interim Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril's National Forces Alliance won 39 of the 200 seats, or nearly half of those allocated for parties. AP

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