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Libya After Gaddafi: What The Plight Of One Persecuted Group Says About The Future Of Libya

Gaddafi Killed Libya

First Posted: 10/20/11 06:51 PM ET Updated: 12/20/11 05:12 AM ET

When Matt Pennington, an advocate with Refugees International, was in Libya two weeks ago, he visited a refugee camp near the eastern city of Benghazi.

The camp was so new it didn't have a name, but its 3,000-some residents all bore a singular identity: They were black-skinned Libyans, almost all of them from one town, Tawarga.

As it turned out, Tawarga had the misfortune of being located just 25 miles from Misrata, a city where some of the most devastating fighting of the country's uprising took place.

After the Misratan rebels liberated their city, some of their ranks continued on down to Tawarga, where residents were believed to have lived comfortably during Gaddafi's time, in order to deliver some vengeance upon the town they suspected of loyalist sympathies.

The result was catastrophic.

When a reporter from the Guardian visited Tawarga in mid-September, he found "a ghost town" in which most of the buildings had been set ablaze.

Tawarga is a poor dormitory town 20 minutes from Misrata, whose mostly black population fled in August when rebel forces captured it. Today it is a ghost town, its modest grey breeze block houses empty, the doors broken open, with green flags indicating support for the Gaddafi regime still fluttering from rooftops. Misratans have long blamed the people of Tawarga for murders, rapes and looting in alliance with pro-Gaddafi forces during fighting in March and April. It is common to hear Misratans making derogatory remarks about Tawarga's black population, coupled with the hope that the population, who fled to southern Libya, will never return. On Tuesday homes and shops were set ablaze around the town, some fires starting even as journalists arrived to investigate.

At the camp near Benghazi, Pennington interviewed some of the Tawargan refugees. They told him of being attacked by rebels from the fearsome Misrata Brigade -- the same militia that had led the conquest of Tripoli a month or so earlier -- and then fleeing south along the coast, and finally east in the direction of Benghazi.

"In the end, the Benghazi brigades had to intervene to protect these guys from the Misrata brigades," Pennington told The Huffington Post, shortly after Gaddafi was killed on Thursday.

The plight of the Tawargan has been particularly dire, Pennington said, but it also illustrates a central challenge that will face the interim authorities as they attempt to piece together a government in the aftermath of Gaddafi's reign.

During the worst parts of the revolution, upwards of 40 independent militias operated in the country under the loose banner of the "rebellion."

But many of them had competing ideologies and competing grudges, and with the common enemy of Gaddafi out of the way, the potential for freelance score-settling -- and questions about the government's ability to rein in the various groups -- has analysts worried.

"This is easily going to be one of the largest challenges going forward, unifying these rebel groups," Pennington said. "It's an incredibly fragile state right now, and these groups remain highly vulnerable."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said something similar just a few days before Gaddafi was killed, during a surprise visit to Tripoli University.

"One of the problems you will face is how to reconcile different people, how you will bring people into a new Libya and not spend your time trying to settle scores from the past," she said. "How do you overcome all of those terrible experiences and feelings and stay focused on the future? That will be a hard task for Libya. But I know you can do it."

But this may underestimate the extent of the ill will, or how fresh it is, analysts say.

"The more important divide is how the different areas of the country experienced the war," said Michael Wahid Hanna, a fellow with The Century Foundation, a N.Y.-based think tank. "One of the bigger divides is between Misrata and Benghazi, and I think there is a real sense from Misratans that they paid for the revolution with their blood and I think that has fed a real sense of entitlement."

In early September, shortly after the fall of Tripoli, in which the Misrata brigades played an instrumental role, a top Misrata commander openly castigated the interim interior minister, accusing him of assailing "the dignity of the revolutionaries."

The ability of the interim government to bridge these divides in the coming months will be a deciding factor in the success of the Libyan revolution.

"This version of the NTC is going to dissolve itself really soon and the negotiation over the next transitional government is going to go a long way to either making things much worse, or giving a sense of inclusivity that soothes everyone's nerves," Hanna said.

For Pennington, the experience of the Tawarga refugees thus far is not exactly heartening.

Not too long ago, he said, the National Transitional Council's Chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil visited Misrata to seek permission from tribal elders to let the Tawargas return to their homes.

"The elders said no," Pennington said. "The government has no long-term plan for them. Now they're looking at possibly just building a new city for them, but then in effect you're just further ghettoizing that community."

"What's going to happen to these people? How are you going to bring them in to the new Libya?" Pennington asked. "Now more than ever is the time for the Libyan leadership to demonstrate its credibility on the international scene by taking these responsibilities seriously."

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