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Revenge delays Libyan reconciliation

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TAWARGHA, Libya — There are no people left in this desert town, east of the capital. The homes are abandoned, charred and looted. The glass storefronts are shattered, the shelves are empty, and the hangers once dressed with clothes are dangling naked. The tops of the buildings are dotted with the green flag of Moammar Gaddafi’s deposed regime, and the only movement in the dusty streets comes from stray cats and sheep.

In August, rebel fighters from the city of Misurata, about 25 miles north of Tawargha, took over, beating back Gaddafi forces. The rebels told the few civilians who remained in the town of about 10,000 that they had to leave and made clear that they would not be welcome back.

Residents of Tawargha had raped Misurata’s women, stolen Misurata’s goods and collaborated with Gaddafi forces to raze the city, Misuratans alleged. But now it is the people of Tawargha who are suffering at the hands of their neighbors.

The story of Misurata and Tawargha is one of betrayal and revenge. It offers a glimpse of how hard it will be for Libyans to bury the past after a rebel uprising that succeeded in ousting Gaddafi but has yet to unify the nation.

Misurata, a city of half a million, was the scene of some of the most intense fighting of the civil war. Rebels won control of the city, but at a tremendous cost. Misurata’s local council estimated that more than 250 women were raped, more than 1,100 people were killed and 6,000 were seriously injured. Many in Misurata blame Tawargha for their suffering.

In March, the people of Tawargha were told by Gaddafi’s government that Misurata, which had fallen into rebel hands, no longer existed. Tawargha residents were encouraged to attack the besieged city and take what they wanted, said Mohamed Benrasali, a leader of Misurata’s local council and a member of Libya’s stabilization committee.

Residents of Tawargha heeded the call and began a civilian invasion, he said. In addition, from March until May, Gaddafi’s forces used their base in Tawargha to launch rockets and missiles into Misurata apartment buildings, homes and businesses. Because of the assault, as well as fighting within the city, Misurata’s center has been destroyed.

Tawargha and Misurata have long been intertwined. Before the war, much of the labor in Misurata, a relatively affluent city, was performed by people from Tawargha. They worked as housekeepers, as construction workers and in other low-paid jobs. The gap between the wealth in Misurata and the poverty in Tawargha might have contributed to animosity in Tawargha toward its neighbor.

Months later, the tables turned when the rebels gained the advantage. In August, just before Misuratans breached Tawargha, rumors circulated among the town’s residents that their neighbors were coming to exact revenge. Almost everyone fled.

Now that the rebels have won control of most of Libya, there are plans by Misuratans to bulldoze Tawargha so no one returns. The town’s former residents are displaced, hiding in Gaddafi’s remaining bastions or in small, vulnerable camps in the capital, Tripoli, where they are targeted by rebels for arrest and sometimes worse. The sign on the road from Misurata to Tawargha that once read “Tawargha, 38 kilometers” is painted over and re­labeled “New Misurata.”

Although Libya’s new leaders have called for restraint and reconciliation, the blood spilled in Misurata this year has kept emotions raw and the appetite for revenge high.

The residents of Tawargha “did horrible things to the Misurata people, and if they come back, the Misuratans will kill them,” said Muad Ben-Sasi, a physician who treated fighters on the front line during the war. The 30-year-old with a ready, pearly white smile lost many friends. His family hid at home as he went unarmed every day to treat casualties. He never fired a weapon during this war, but he can’t forgive.

When Mustafa Abdel Jalil, Libya’s interim leader, traveled to Misurata this month to discuss the plight of the people of Tawargha, he was sternly told by the local council that he should stay out of it.

Misurata’s leaders have said their fighters will not put down their weapons until after a presidential election, calling the city’s residents the guardians of the revolution. The gates to the city are closed off by checkpoints made from large shipping crates; without permission, no non-Misuratan can enter.

Misuratans are unapologetic about their quest to punish those who betrayed them. Benrasali, the council member, showed no remorse when speaking of the fate that awaits his former neighbors in Tawargha. What they did cannot be forgiven, he said.

“There are instances in history where cities were wiped out for much lesser crimes,” he said. “We’re not saying that we will kill them all. We’re saying that they can’t live among us or near us.”

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