Misery marks the anniversary of Libyan uprisings

Mustafa Fetouri highlights the misery of black Libyans or Tawerghans, who live in refugee camps.

The entire population of Tawergha has been living in refugee camps scattered around Libya. Picture courtesy Mustafa Fetouri

Nearly 2,000 people or about 355 Libyan families live in one of three refugee camps around the capital Tripoli, known simply as Airport Road Camp, about 15 kilometres south of the city.

The majority are families from the coastal town of Tawergha, about 300km from the capital. Since the civil war began in 2011, the entire population of Tawergha has been living in refugee camps scattered around the country.

Black Libyans who lived in Tawergha for decades have been targeted by the Misurata militias that played a role in toppling the regime in 2011 and the town itself has been rendered all but uninhabitable. Tawerghans are persistently accused of supporting and, in some cases, idolising the former leader, Muammar ­Qaddafi.

On a recent visit to the Airport Road Camp, I was received by Mabruk Eswesi, founder and chairman of the Patience Society, which tries to “keep people together and have one voice speaking for all Tawerghans”.

Along with dozens of other families, Mr Eswesi first fled Tawergha in late August 2011, moving to nearby towns and hoping that they would be able to go back home as soon as the war was over.

By early September that year, Tawergha had fallen into rebel hands. Mr Eswesi said: “We headed back expecting no problems. However, when we got closer to the first checkpoint near Tawergha we were fired at and forced to flee.”

The Tawergha scattered and many eventually found their way to the Airport Road Camp, which is the largest of three settlements dotted around the capital.

A huge, deserted hangar, which used to be home to a Turkish construction company, now provides some semblance of home.

To make it habitable the refugees used cardboard, metal sheets and wood to divide it up into small living spaces of two and three rooms, some with toilets, the rest with shared facilities.

Despite these unpromising surroundings, nothing seems to make Tawerghans lose hope.

They have built a small school, two grocery shops, a prayer room and even what Mr Eswesi calls an “events room” in which they receive visitors and organise weddings and birthday parties.

When there is no event taking place, the room is used as a space for old men to gather around a small fire and sip strong Libyan tea.

I was invited in and found half a dozen men chatting, the oldest being a retired teacher. Introduced by Mr Eswesi, the men welcomed me and offered me tea, insisting that I sit with them.

The old man said to me: “As you see we are refugees in our own country. It is unthinkable for us.”

Referring to Qaddafi, he said: “They punish us because we loved him. During his reign we had everything. Now we have nothing.”

Tawerghans are still occasionally targeted when they are found in the city. Mr Eswesi says he was picked up and jailed at least five times just because, as he put it, “I am black and from Tawregha”.

Mr Eswesi and a female colleague handle almost all issues that have to do with government bureaucracy for camp residents, visiting different departments and institutions almost three times a week, chasing some kind of paperwork or other.

However, the government in Tripoli does not recognise them as refugees, but mainly as displaced people and makes no attempt to solve their problems.

Mr Eswesi’s female colleague keeps in contact with all local and international civil organisations, most of which have visited the camp at least once. Unfortunately, she says, “little has been done to help us go back home”.

As the fifth anniversary of the so-called February 17 revolution approaches, the Tawerghans will only remember the misery they have been through and are still enduring.

Mustafa Fetouri is an independent Libyan academic and an award-winning journalist