TAWERGHA, Libya — In 2011, after rebels in the Libyan city of Misrata fought off a long, punishing siege by forces loyal to longtime dictator Moammar Gaddafi, they launched a counter-attack on the nearby town of Tawergha, then occupied by Gaddafi troops.
Since then, Tawergha has remained an eerie, empty place, where the walls of apartment blocks have been ripped apart by artillery shells and children's toys lie discarded in the dust.
After the town's 40,000 residents made a rushed exit during the war, Misrata, home to Libya’s most powerful militias, has barred them from returning, saying many Tawerghans collaborated with Gaddafi’s forces in 2011.
Tawerghans are now scattered across the country in refugee camps, where they are unable to make a proper living and are subject to harassment and arrest, said Abdelrahman Ashaksak, who heads the Tawergha local council.
"I don't know why leaders are afraid Tawergha will be a problem for them," he said. "Tawerghans did not have freedom to say that they were with the revolution or with [Gaddafi]."
The exile from Tawergha is one of the many instances of violence, abuse or displacement that have taken place since the 2011 uprising and which remain unaddressed by Libyan authorities.
As United Nations negotiators race to conclude negotiations aimed at creating a new national unity government, the ongoing repercussions of such events could be a major obstacle to future stability. Past excesses – or Libyans’ perception of them – have already increased insecurity in places like the nearby city of Sirte, where alleged abuses by outside militias have bred support for the Islamic State.
"We've seen zero accountability since 2011," said Hanan Salah, Libya researcher for Human Rights Watch. “We haven't seen a single member of an armed group that was punished for kidnapping or torturing.”
Attempts to punish Gaddafi-era officials – including a recent death sentence for his son, Saif al-Islam, and other former leaders – for crimes committed before the 2011 revolution have been criticized by many Libyans and U.N. rights officials.
Acts of violence by countless armed groups, and by both the internationally recognized government in eastern Libya and a rival regime in the capital, Tripoli, may also impede a future government's attempts to establish a new, united national security force.
Militia groups that have been fighting each other ferociously in the last year would, at the strike of a pen, become comrades in arms.
Libya has tried to launch a national dialogue to deal with the scars of its past. But that process petered out amid increasing chaos, suggesting that the country is not ready for the kind of truth or reconciliation committees that have been launched successfully in South Africa or Peru.
Some Libyans fear that prosecution of past crimes is too risky at a time when it’s uncertain whether Libyans can agree on the basics: a unified government, state institutions and an army.
“The atrocities that have been committed in the last four years have been unbelievable,” one official with the eastern government said on condition of anonymity. But, the official said, “for the sake of Libya, we have to turn the page.”