Omran Shaban’s brother Mohammed, who participated in the assault, said by phone Monday that the offensive was necessary because “the loyalists are causing so many problems for the security and stability of Libya.”
A growing mistrust
But the Bani Walid residents who were forced from their homes in the past month — who local aid groups said numbered in the tens of thousands — said the town had suffered the same fate as other loyalist strongholds that have succumbed to powerful ex-rebel militias since the fall of Gaddafi.
Clustered in temporary housing in Tarhouna, Bani Walid’s displaced echoed their opponents, the rebels-turned-militia-fighters, telling stories of bitterness and deepening mistrust toward the other side. They complained of arbitrary arrests and beatings at the hands of militias in the year since Gaddafi’s fall.
They said that townspeople had participated in the election for a General National Congress last summer but that both of the town’s representatives were subsequently ejected, after being accused of favoring the old regime.
“I voted for whom I thought was appropriate,” said Abdel Salaam Ahmed, a Bani Walid resident who had sought refuge in Tarhouna. “But everyone we vote for is labeled a loyalist.”
Ahmed and others drew comparisons between Bani Walid and Tawergha, another former loyalist town still waiting for a postwar solution.
For their part, the residents of Misurata charge that Tawergha is to blame for the bulk of the atrocities and destruction inflicted on their own town during the war, when Misurata was the most war-ravaged locale in Libya.
A year after Gaddafi’s fall, the former residents of Tawergha continue to live in limbo. Misurata rebels arrested many of the men and forced the rest of the town into exile across the country, their city battered, burned and covered in hateful graffiti. The Misuratans said the Tawerghans can never return. And officials in Tripoli have said the government is powerless to insist otherwise.
‘We can rebuild Libya’
Rights groups and legal experts said it is the mounting list of unpunished atrocities — gruesome murders, torture, rape and disappearances that took place both during the war and in the time since — that has fueled many of the conflicts in postwar Libya.
“It builds up reactions and hatred, and the feeling of victimization,” said Salah Marghani, a human rights lawyer who was named the country’s justice minister Wednesday.
In the absence of a functioning court system and stalemated politics in Tripoli, central authorities have increasingly turned to tribal mediation as a means to navigate justice since the fall of the old regime.
Both pro-government militias and members of the national congress in Tripoli said they might invoke such a solution for Bani Walid. But real national reconciliation requires more than the “we’re all brothers, big hug” approach, Marghani said shortly before his appointment.
Rather, he said, Libya needs fact-finding missions, prosecutors and central law enforcement. Libyans need to believe that justice is attainable, and abuses need to be prosecuted on both sides — in Bani Walid, Misurata, Tawergha and other towns.
It’s an often-mentioned goal in post-Gaddafi Libya, but one that has eluded officials in the past year of political turmoil. Many Libyan officials said they hoped that the approval of a new cabinet on Wednesday might help achieve it.
“We can’t bring back those who died,” Marghani said. “But we can have rule of law. We can pay reparations to the victims of both sides. We can rebuild Libya.”
Ayman al-Kekly contributed to this report.