Libyan gunmen have blocked hundreds of families trying to return to their home town after seven years of forced displacement, burning their tents in one area and threatening them with heavy weapons, locals say.
- Tawergha was used as a staging ground for attacks on neighbouring Misrata in 2011
- The population of around 40,000 were forced from their homes and the town destroyed
- Militias are demanding compensation for 2011 damages and the handing over of Tawerghan men wanted for war crimes.
Thousands of people tried to return home to the town of Tawergha after the UN-backed government in Tripoli brokered a deal with Misrata authorities in June last year for their safe return.
But heavily armed militia fighters from Misrata blocked the way.
A desert stand off has ensued between unarmed families and fighters armed with guns and anti-aircraft weapons.
Tensions escalated in the Qararat al-Qatf area near Bani Walid when families who had been sleeping in their cars or out in the open since Thursday tried to set up tents.
"The militias attacked the people … and fired in the air," said Tawergha local Haithem Saleh Mashry Nasr in a frantic message from the scene.
"They burned the tents and stole an ambulance."
The black township of Tawergha was used as a staging ground for attacks on neighbouring Misrata during the 2011 uprising that eventually toppled then-Libyan leader Moamar Gadhafi.
In retaliation, Misrata militias drove an estimated 40,000 residents from the town and have prevented their return for almost seven years.
'Tawerghans shall come back if justice is done'
One of the key parties in the repatriation agreement, Misrata mayor Mohamed Ishtiwi, was abducted and killed in December.
The Misrata council had called on the Libyan government last week to delay repatriation, citing security concerns.
On February 1, as families attempted to return, the Misrata elders, military council and the Association of Martyrs and Missing Persons issued a joint statement rejecting the repatriation, saying conditions of the deal had not been met by the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA).
Their demands included compensation for damages inflicted during the 2011 revolution for all parties and the handing over of Tawerghan men wanted by Misratan authorities for war crimes.
"Tawerghans shall come back if justice, comprehensive reconciliation and turning in of fugitives is done in advance, and destroyed neighbourhoods are rebuilt and compensations paid to all parties," the statement said.
The head of the Misrata-Tawergha Dialogue and Reconciliation Committee, Youssef Al-Zarzah, said the large number of returnees who arrived in one go was a breach of the agreement which requires a gradual return of the families and insisted that all terms of the agreement should be implemented before resuming the return process.
The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) has denounced the blockade as financial extortion, but many have criticised both the UNSMIL and the GNC for pushing ahead with the repatriation without fulfilling the agreement or providing security for the people's safe return.
Mr Nasr — a 33-year-old physiotherapist — said there was apprehension and surprise when they set out towards Tawergha unarmed and alone with no security provided from either the UN or the government as promised.
"Unfortunately there is great racism in this matter because we are black-skinned. That's why the government has abandoned us," he said.
In a UN Human Rights report, Cecilia Jimenez-Damary called on the Libyan government to provide better coordination on the ground and to form a new plan to "clearly define and clarify roles and responsibilities across Ministries and other dedicated bodies, and ensure accountability".
Town labelled a 'zoo' inhabited by 'slaves'
Tribal loyalties run deep in Libya, and rumours of African mercenaries fighting for Gaddafi fuelled deep-seated racism during the 2011 revolution.
Many Tawerghan men joined the national army in support of Gaddafi and took part in the attack on Misrata and the six month semi-siege of the city that followed, as did Libyans from all over the country.
While atrocities were committed on all sides, the Tawerghan community bore the brunt of Misratan grief and anger over losses and crimes committed against them in 2011.
Rebel commander Ibrahim al-Halbous famously told reporters before the battle to take the city, "Tawergha no longer exists, only Misrata", while the leader of Libya's transitional government Mahmoud Jabril told a crowded town hall on a visit to Misrata that only they "had the right to interfere" in the matter of Tawergha.
Rebel fighters took control of the city in August 2011, looting and burning buildings and capturing any who didn't flee.
Graffiti in the months that followed labelled the town "Misrata's zoo" and included racist threats toward the "slaves" of Tawergha.
Anger among the population of Misrata has since simmered, with many saying they want resolution and peace between the two towns.
But as the political process breaks down, mistrust and fear between the two cities is on the rise again.
'Laughter and smiles to crying and sadness'
Since 2011, Tawerghans have been living in squalid camps throughout Libya and have been subject to attacks and arbitrary arrests by militias.
Mr Nasr described how happy they had been as they set out on the long desert journey from Tripoli to Tawergha last Thursday for the first time in seven years.
He said "happiness radiated from every smile" in the three-kilometre long convoy as they sang and laughed on the road home.
"But the laughter and the smiles changed to crying and sadness," he said describing the moment they reached the town's entrance to find heavily armed militia blocking the way.
"We stand in front of the militia without weapons," he told ABC by phone after almost a week in the desert, with people sleeping in their cars or in the open.
"I'm sorry, I cannot finish. I cannot control the tears. My heart is breaking."
Though the abandoned town is largely ruined and lacks working infrastructure, thousands had opted to return, saying they would sleep in tents or in burnt out houses until buildings could be rebuilt.
But the families are yet to see the extent of the destruction that awaits them.
The GNA had stated that infrastructure and housing would be restored prior to the return, but the ABC was unable to confirm to what extent this has been done.
In the meantime, the desert standoff continues.
"All the world disappointed us," Mr Nasr said, "but me and all my people will never give up."