In a response to a Freedom of Information request, the UK Foreign office has claimed that “ethnic cleansing has not taken place” in Tawergha.
The dark-skinned Tawergha minority – former slaves brought to Libya in the 18th and 19th centuries – resided until recently in a coastal town of the same name 250km east of the capital Tripoli. The town was emptied of its inhabitants in August 2011 after an assault by rebel militia who enjoyed NATO air support. All the people in the town have either been killed, are unaccounted for, in detention or scattered across Libya, usually in refugee camps, subject to continuing attacks by militia from Misrata.
Human Rights Investigations has been covering the fate of the Tawergha, since they were threatened with ethnic cleansing by the commander of a Misratan rebel brigade.
Our reporting has since been backed up by the Report of the International Commission of Inquiry on Libya which was presented to the UN Human Rights Council on 9 March 2012. At that session the United Kingdom welcomed aspects of the report (primarily those which cleared NATO of wrong-doing) and expressed concern over the continuing human rights violations by the brigades.
It is worth quoting this report at length to understand what happened to the Tawergha (and is still happening):
The thuwar entered the town on 12 August 2011 and took control of it by 14 August 2011. Most Tawerghans fled the town between 10 and 12 August 2011, some in cars, others walking. Media reports from the time observed that many fled leaving behind their possessions including clothes, passports and family photographs. While Tawergha was being shelled, thuwar from Misrata remained on the outskirts of the town. The Commission has received multiple reports of Misrata thuwar shooting at Tawerghans as they left the town, with some fatalities. The Commission also received a report of thuwar from Misrata firing at an ambulance evacuating the wounded and the dead from Tawergha on 11 August 2011.
Some civilians remained within the town, either because they were trapped by the fighting, were not physically strong enough to flee or because they wished to protect their property from looting. In interviews conducted by the Commission, Tawerghans who had remained inside Tawergha stated that they were either arrested and and taken to Misrata, or were beaten (or threatened with violence) and made to leave.
Tawergha, a town with an estimated population of 30,000, was emptied of its inhabitants and remains empty today. The largest group of Tawerghans moved south and took refuge in Al Jufrah district. As detailed below, attacks by thuwar coming from Misrata caused many of them to relocate to the relative safety of Benghazi. Another group of Tawerghans fled to Tripoli and Al Khums, usually stopping for a few days in Al Hisha, a town 65 kilometres from Tawergha. Tawerghans living in various internally displaced peoples’ camps across Libya have expressed a desire to return.
In the days following 13-14 August 2011, the Misratan thuwar undertook house-to-house searches of the town. The Commission has received reports that adult male Tawerghans were beaten by thuwar and taken to unofficial detention centres in Misrata (see chap. III, sect. D). In one instance, the Commission interviewed a Tawerghan man who reported he had been beaten with metal sticks and had his legs trodden on and who could no longer walk properly as a result. The Commission has no reports of women being detained. In one interview, however, a Tawerghan woman stated that the Misratan thuwar made her crawl on all fours and bark while they insulted her and said that Tawerghans were “dogs” who did not deserve to live”.
The local authorities in Misrata as well as the Libyan national authorities have expressed the view that the Tawerghans left of their own accord “perhaps out of fear, due to the crimes they committed.” Based on more than 50 interviews with Tawerghans, the Commission does not consider this to be the full picture.
In the months after Tawergha was emptied of its population, houses and public buildings continue to be looted, shot at, and burnt by the Misratan thuwar. According to an analysis of UNOSAT satellite imagery, 49 structures were destroyed or damaged in Tawergha between 12 June 2011 and 20 August 2011, including multiple buildings that were destroyed and showing indications of fire. Between 20 August 2011 and 24 November 2011, while the town was empty, an additional 27 buildings were destroyed or damaged, all likely residential and commercial structures. On 24 November 2011 imagery, a relatively large smoke plume from a fire is visible in central Tawergha.
The Commission visited the roads bordering Tawergha on 21 January 2012 and found that all the roads into the town had been blocked by mounds of sand. There were bulldozer tracks leading to each mound. Investigators observed houses being set alight in the town and the sounds of active shooting. They were informed by members of the Misrata thuwar that buildings in the town were being used for target practice. The Commission observed that each building appeared to have been struck by multiple weapons. In some cases, buildings appeared to have been deliberately bulldozed. The Commission observed that, while some buildings were totally destroyed, all were uninhabitable with many now structurally unsound.
The Commission notes that the Independent Civil Society Fact-Finding Mission was in Tawergha on 21 November 2011 and stated in its report that “a number of apartment buildings and houses in separate compounds throughout the town began to burn. It was apparent that these fires were intentional, and there was a strong smell of petrol in the air”. According to Human Rights Watch, its investigators were present in Tawergha from 3 to 5 October 2011 and witnessed “militias and individuals from Misrata set 12 houses aflame”. Human Rights Watch investigators also were said to have observed “trucks full of furniture and carpets, apparently looted from homes” being driven out of Tawergha.
The Commission observed that the word “Tawergha” had been scratched off road and other signs. In some cases, the words “New Misrata” has been written over them. Public buildings such as the school and hospital had been vandalised and the word “slave” appears as graffiti throughout the town. This is consistent with the observations made in a Wall Street Journal article, dated 21 June 2011, where its reporter noted that “on the road between Misrata and Tawergha, slogans like “the brigade for purging slaves, black skin” have supplanted pro-Gadhafi scrawl”. Similar graffiti was noted by several other newspapers.
A video released on YouTube gives a flavour of the kind of treatment the Tawergha receive in Misrata, displayed and humiliated in a zoo:
The Foreign Office states that “In relation to your reference to ethnic cleansing, it is our understanding that ethnic cleansing has not taken place and we entirely refute any suggestion that the RAF would have been involved in any ethnic cleansing. The RAF conducts its operations in accordance with International Humanitarian Law.”
The Foreign Office have refused to provide anything other than one document on this matter and refused to confirm or deny holding any other relevant information, under section 23 (relating to the security services) and section 24 (national security). The FCO is holding that the public interest in revealing more information is outweighed by the public interest in keeping the information secret.
We do know from a NATO press release from the time that NATO air planes were directly involved in the assault on Tawergha. Given the lack of transparency in these matters however, and the apparent impunity of NATO for its actions, it remains an uphill struggle to bring NATO to account for its actions.