The terms of a settlement between the UK government and Abdel Hakim Belhaj over his rendition and torture case are due to be revealed today. the treatment of Belhaj and his wife, who were kidnapped in Thailand and flown to Tripoli on a CIA plane in an operation involving former foreign secretary Jack Straw, Sir Mark Allen, the former head of counter-terrorism at MI6, as well as the agency itself and the Foreign Office are shocking and disgraceful. Torture and rendition are unacceptable, however, ethnic cleansing is similarly unacceptable and this article is to draw attention to the collaboration between NATO and Belhaj in the ethnic cleansing of the Tawergha, a dark skinned ethnic group, during the Libyan conflict in August 2011.
The Tawergha were ethnically cleansed in August 2011 during the Libyan war
The main town of the Tawergha region, Tawergha itself (aka Tawargha, Tawurgha. Arabic: تاورغاء), was a town of an estimated 31,250 people (United Nations Environment Program, 2005). It was emptied of its entire population: its people were either killed or fled and long after the conflict ended the survivors continued to be killed and persecuted. The town of Tawergha lies about 30-40 miles south of Misrata/Misurata, along the western coast of the Gulf of Sirte. Areas of Misrata occupied by the Tawargha have also been ethnically cleansed, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Amnesty reported ‘that members of the Tawargha tribe’ have fled their homes and:
Tens of thousands are now living in different parts of Libya – unable to return home as relations between the people of Misratah and Tawargha remain particularly tense. Residents of makeshift camps near Tripoli, where displaced people from Tawargha are sheltering, told Amnesty they would not go outside for fear of arrest. They told how relatives and others from the Tawargha tribe had been arrested from checkpoints and even hospitals in Tripoli.
On 29 August, Amnesty delegates saw a Tawargha patient at the Tripoli Central Hospital being taken by three men, one of them armed, for “questioning in Misratah”. The men had no arrest warrant. Amnesty was also told that at least two other Tawargha men had vanished after being taken for questioning from Tripoli hospitals…
Even in the camps, the Tawarghas are not safe. Towards the end of last month, a group of armed men drove into the camp and arrested about 14 men. Amnesty spoke to some of their relatives; none knew of their fate or whereabouts. Another woman at the camp said her husband has been missing since he left the camp to run an errand in central Tripoli, about a week ago. She fears he might be have been detained.
Tawergha who fled to refugee camps have been chased down by rebel groups, taken away and disappeared. There are credible reports of Tawerghans being raped, disappearing and being killed. Tawerghans have even been witnessed being dragged out of hospitals in Tripoli to unknown fates.
The early genocidal threats to Tawergha
In a June 21, 2011 article in the Wall Street Journal, Sam Dagher described Tawergha as a town inhabited mostly by black Libyans, a legacy of its 19th-century origins as a transit town in the slave trade. He quoted one of the rebel commanders from the rebel Misrata brigade:
Ibrahim al-Halbous, a rebel commander leading the fight near Tawergha, says all remaining residents should leave once if his fighters capture the town. “They should pack up,” Mr. Halbous said. “Tawergha no longer exists, only Misrata.”
Other rebel leaders are reported as:
“calling for drastic measures like banning Tawergha natives from ever working, living or sending their children to schools in Misrata.”
In addition, according to the article, as a result of the battle for Misrata:
nearly four-fifths of residents of Misrata’s Ghoushi neighborhood were Tawergha natives. Now they are gone or in hiding, fearing revenge attacks by Misratans, amid reports of bounties for their capture.
The demonization of the Tawergha
An important part of any genocide is the demonisation and dehumanisation of the victims and this continues to be the case for the Tawergha. As part of the information war NATO and the rebels have described all loyalist black fighters, guest workers from sub-Saharan Africa and even black skinned inhabitants of Libya as ‘mercenaries’ [Arabic: مرتزقة Romanisation:mertezqh or ‘murtazaka‘].
The Tawerghans have been accused of mass rape, of being collectively responsible for the battle of Misrata and are invariably described in racist terms. As Sam Dagher reported:
Some of the hatred of Tawergha has racist overtones that were mostly latent before the current conflict. On the road between Misrata and Tawergha, rebel slogans like “the brigade for purging slaves, black skin” have supplanted pro-Gadhafi scrawl.
It is worth noting that this demonisation of black people has led to widespread atrocities including lynchings and beheadings in which the highest echelons of the National Transitional Council have been complicit.
Tawergha is captured by the rebels
As we reported at the time, the town of Tawergha was taken by the rebels on 13 August in an assault which was closely coordinated with NATO and featured the use of aerial bombing and the indiscriminate use of heavy weaponry against the town which was occupied by civilians.
A report of the fall by Andrew Simmons for Al Jazeera, unfortunately lacking context, shows at least one of the large residential blocks in Tawergha alight, prisoners packed inside a freight container (who the rebels didn’t want filmed), an injured man in civilian clothes and the rebel fighters evicting an Egyptian woman who has lost her 9 children under 12 who ran away during the attack from her home.
At this stage the last remaining civilians and defenders of the town were reportedly surrounded.
NATO air support for the assault on Tawergha
The NATO bombing in support of the attack is recorded in the NATO press releases from the time:
10 August: In the vicinity of Tawurgha: 3 Command and Control Nodes, 2 Military Storage Facilities.
12 August: In the vicinity of Misratha: 1 Military Facility, 1 Ammo Storage Facility.
13 August: In the vicinity of Misratah: 4 Anti-Aircraft Guns.
13 August: In the vicinity of Tawurgah: 2 Military Vehicles, 1 Anti-Aircraft Guns.
The actual assault was from 10-13 August so we can see NATO played an important role in the ethnic cleansing of this town, an ethnic cleansing of which they had been forewarned and in which they decided, nonetheless, to participate.
Reports indicate the rebels were ordered by NATO to paint their vehicles red and yellow just prior to the assault.
The ethnic cleansing of Tawargha
A report by David Enders, reporting from an empty Tawergha, indicates ethnic cleansing occurred after the rebels took full control:
According to Tawergha residents, rebel soldiers from Misrata forced them from their homes on Aug. 15 when they took control of the town.
This would have been 2 days after the fall of the town and after Orla Guerin and Andrew Simmons had left. The fate of the prisoners loaded into the shipping containers remains unknown.
Following the trail of the Tawerghans
David Enders followed up on the story of the Tawerghans, (17th September) trying to trace their current location:
The residents were then apparently driven out of a pair of refugee camps in Tripoli over this past weekend.
“The Misrata people are still looking for black people,” said Hassan, a Tawergha resident who’s now sheltering in a third camp in Janzour, six miles east of Tripoli. “One of the men who came to this camp told me my brother was killed yesterday by the revolutionaries.”
The evidence that the rebels’ pursuit of the Tawerghis did not end with the collapse of the Gadhafi regime is visible, both in the emptiness of this village and that of the camps to which the residents fled.
At one, in a Turkish-owned industrial complex in the Salah al Deen neighborhood of southern Tripoli, a man looting metal from the complex simply said that the Tawerghis had “gone to Niger,” the country that borders Libya on the south where some Gadhafi supporters, including the deposed dictator’s son Saadi, have fled.
It is worth noting that to get to Niger, any refugees would have had to make an extremely hazardous journey to Sabha first. From there it would have been a further weeks journey by bus into Niger, across the Sahara: another very dangerous journey which it is highly unlikely any of the refugees would have even attempted let alone survived.
David Enders report continues:
Lafy Mohammed, whose house is across the road from the complex, said that on Saturday a group of revolutionary militiamen from Misrata, 120 miles east of Tripoli, had come to the camp and evicted its tenants.
“They arrested about 25 of the men,” Mohammed said. “They were shooting in the air and hitting them with their rifle butts.”
“They took the women, old men and children out in trucks,” he said.
Mohammed said that it was not the first time the revolutionaries from Misrata had come after the people in the camp.
“A week ago they were here, but (the people in the neighborhood) begged them to leave them alone,” Mohammed said.
Mohammed said some of the Tawerghis may have been taken to another nearby camp, in a Brazilian-owned industrial complex. On Tuesday, that camp was empty as well, with the gate locked.
Reached by phone at the camp in Janzour, Hassan, who did not want his last name used, said he had escaped from the Brazilian company camp on Saturday, when it, too, was raided. He said about 1,000 Tawerghis were now at the Janzour camp.
“They arrested 35 men, but they let me go because I was with my family,” Hassan said. He blamed a brigade of fighters from Misrata.
In Tawergha, the rebel commander said his men had orders not to allow any of the residents back in. He also said that unexploded ordnance remained in the area, though none was readily apparent.
Most homes and buildings in the area appeared to have been damaged in the fighting, and a half-dozen appeared to have been ransacked. The main road into the village was blocked with earthen berms. Signs marking the way to the village appeared to have been destroyed.
On the only sign remaining “Tawergha” had been painted over with the words “New Misrata.”
On one wall in Tawergha, graffiti referred to the town’s residents as “abeed,” a slur for blacks.
Mahmoud Jibril’s complicity in the crime of genocide
Sam Dagher of the Wall Street Journal reported September 18th that
Now, rebels have been torching homes in the abandoned city 25 miles to the south. Since Thursday, The Wall Street Journal has witnessed the burning of more than a dozen homes in the city Col. Gadhafi once lavished with money and investment. On the gates of many vandalized homes in the country’s only coastal city dominated by dark-skinned people, light-skinned rebels scrawled the words “slaves” and “negroes.”
“We are setting it on fire to prevent anyone from living here again,” said one rebel fighter as flames engulfed several loyalist homes.
Abdel Hakim Belhaj was one of the commanders involved in the assault on Tawergha.
Abdel Hakim Belhaj was a fighter against the Soviets in Afghanistan and returned to Libya as Emir of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group which was working with intelligence agencies such as MI6. with Qatar and with NATO officials to overthrow the the Libyan government. However, what has not been revealed or investigated is his role in Tawergha.
Footage from the preparations for the assault on Tawergha strongly indicates Belhaj was one of the commanders involved in the assault. The footage comes from a rebel camp during the start of the assault on the town. The video is captioned as such and was uploaded on 11 August 2011. Belhaj can be seen at 1:03 on the video:
Whilst welcoming the UK government compensating victims where it has colluded in torture (which it does all too infrequently), it seems the out-of-court settlement benefits the UK government, not just in avoiding the potential embarrassment of legal testimony in the case but of a spotlight being shone on one of the most disgraceful episodes in the military intervention in Libya.
Of course, the UK Foreign Office maintains the ludicrous proposition that “ethnic cleansing has not taken place” in Tawergha and refuses to divulge documents on the matter refusing to confirm or deny holding any other relevant information, under section 23 (relating to the security services) and section 24 (national security).
The involvement of NATO and the UK and French governments and officials in the ethnic cleansing of Tawergha should be fully investigated, those involved in crimes punished and, above all, the surviving Tawerghans should be provided support and some measure of compensation for what they have suffered.