(Tripoli) - Authorities in and around Misrata are preventing thousands of people from returning to the villages of Tomina and Kararim and have failed to stop local militias from looting and burning homes there, Human Rights Watch said today.
The abuse mirrors the treatment of roughly 30,000 displaced people from the nearby town of Tawergha, who have also been blocked from returning home for at least five months, Human Rights Watch said.
Officials in Misrata have sought to justify the violations to Human Rights Watch, contending that people from Tomina, Kararim, and Tawergha fought with Gaddafi forces and committed atrocities against Misratans during the 2011 conflict.
“Tomina and Kararim are ghost towns because Misrata officials are blocking thousands of people who fled from returning home,” said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, who recently visited the villages and met with displaced residents. “Armed groups from Misrata are openly looting and destroying their homes, as they have been doing for months in Tawergha.”
Video: Militias from the city of Misrata terrorized the displaced residents of the nearby town of Tawergha in October, 2011.
The Misrata authorities should issue immediate orders to the militias they control to stop the looting and home destructions, and should deploy a protective security forces in the affected area to facilitate the return of displaced people, Human Rights Watch said.
The transitional Libyan government and its international supporters should press the Misrata authorities and militias to cease their abusive conduct against displaced people, Human Rights Watch said. Commanders and members of the militias responsible for crimes, including preventing people from returning home, should be investigated and prosecuted.
The National Transitional Council and transitional government have been unable to assert control over the hundreds of militias operating in Libya, Human Rights Watch said. But in Misrata local military authorities, including the military council, appear to have influence over many of the city’s 250 militias. The Misrata Military Council apparently operates checkpoints, including one 80 kilometers south of the city.
“The Misrata authorities can definitely do a lot more to allow returns now and to protect civilian property,” Bouckaert said. “They are required to take action to stop these crimes under international law.”
Ramadan Zarmuh, head of the Misrata Military Council, told Human Rights Watch in early February that the problems in Kararim and Tomina are between the residents of the towns, or “between neighbors.” He said that solving the problems will require the former residents of the two villages to surrender their “criminals” so they can be brought to justice.
The National Transitional Council chairman, Mustafa Abdeljalil, made a similar point in February, telling media that families could return to the areas around Misrata “as soon as those who are wanted face justice.”
Allowing communities to return to their homes should not be linked to the prosecution of individuals who may be implicated in wrongdoing, Human Rights Watch said. Action is needed now to ensure that displaced people can return before their homes are occupied or destroyed and their displacement becomes permanent. Preventing the return of an entire community amounts to unlawful and arbitrary collective punishment, Human Rights Watch said.
In Tomina and Kararim, Human Rights Watch saw militia members looting and burning homes on two visits in late January. In both villages, Human Rights Watch saw spray-painted signs on at least a dozen homes saying that the Security Committee (Lejna Amniya) of Kararim had reassigned the homes to new “owners.” Other homes had the names of the original owners replaced with new names.
In Kararim, 25 kilometers south of Misrata, Human Rights Watch found a few dozen families who had remained during the conflict or returned afterward, apparently because they had supported anti-Gaddafi forces. A significant militia presence was in the town, consisting of Kararim residents who had fought with the anti-Gaddafi militias. In Tomina, about 10 kilometers south of Misrata, Human Rights Watch saw no inhabited homes, although officials there said that 20 percent of the former population had returned. Tawergha remained completely abandoned.
Displaced residents of Tomina and Kararim told Human Rights Watch that Gaddafi forces had ordered the civilian residents of both villages to evacuate their homes on May 12, 2011. The residents of Tawergha fled with retreating Gaddafi forces in mid-August.
Some residents of Tomina and Kararim who tried to return to their homes in recent months told Human Rights Watch that Misrata militia members had stopped them at the checkpoint 80 kilometers south of Misrata. Gunmen checked the villagers against lists of those wanted for collaboration with Gaddafi forces or direct involvement in crimes committed during the war, they said. The villagers interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they were not on the list, but they were still prevented from going home. Instead, militia members took them to a fenced-in complex just outside Tawergha called the Emirates apartments, where the displaced villagers have remained.
Human Rights Watch visited the apartment complex in late January 2012 and saw between 60 and 100 families there guarded by militia members from various cities. A militia commander there said his men protect the residents and help them get food and other assistance. His men prevent residents from leaving without an escort to protect them from attacks, He said.
The villages of Tomina and Kararim previously had about 5,000 residents each, many of them loyal to the former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, displaced villagers said. Many villagers lived on small farms that their families had owned for about 60 years. Gaddafi forces used the two villages, Tawergha, and other towns and villages near Misrata, as staging grounds for attacks on rebel-held Misrata during the war, including a siege in April and May that gravely impacted civilians.
The situation for the estimated 30,000 residents of Tawergha is even worse than in Tomina and Kararim, Human Rights Watch said. The town is empty, and displaced Tawerghans have been harassed, attacked, and arrested by Misrata militias, sometimes leading to deaths in detention, as previously documented by Human Rights Watch. On February 6, a group of militias attacked a camp of displaced Tawerghans in the Janzour district of Tripoli. According to 10 witnesses, seven men, women, and children were killed and more than 15 were wounded.
On more than a dozen visits to Tawergha by Human Rights Watch between September and January, Human Rights Watch researchers saw Misrata militia members burning and destroying homes. In late January, Human Rights Watch found almost no properties in Tawergha that were undamaged by fire.
“Deportation” or the “forcible transfer of population” can be a crime against humanity by virtue of Article 7(d) of the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court. It is defined as the “forced displacement of the persons concerned by expulsion or other coercive acts from the area in which they are lawfully present, without grounds permitted under international law.” Preventing a displaced population from returning could be a “coercive act” leading to forced displacement. This is a crime against humanity if committed on a widespread or in a systematic manner, as part of a deliberate policy by an organized group such as the military councils.
Under the law of armed conflict, the evacuation of a population during an armed conflict is permitted under limited circumstances, but the evacuated people must be permitted to return once the conflict has ceased. Ordering the displacement of a civilian population,the wanton destruction of civilian property, and the collective punishment of civilian populations can amount to war crimes.
Libya’s transitional government, as well as the Misrata authorities and local military commanders, are under an international obligation to prevent and investigate such crimes, and to facilitate the post-conflict return of civilian populations to their homes, Human Rights Watch said. Military and civilian officials with command responsibility, who fail to stop these ongoing crimes, could find themselves investigated and prosecuted domestically or by the International Criminal Court.
“The new Libya is not a safe place if you are from Tawergha, Tomina, or Kararim,” Bouckaert said. “Some Misrata militias took up arms to get rid of oppression, and they are now bringing it back by oppressing others.”
Evidence from Tomina and Kararim
Human Rights Watch interviewed six residents of Tomina and Kararim separately, and dozens more in four groups. They all said that Gaddafi forces were present in their villages during the siege of Misrata in April and May 2011. They said that Gaddafi forces ordered the mass evacuation of both villages on May 12, giving residents a few hours to leave their homes.
Most Tomina and Kararim residents fled with just a few of their possessions, residents said, leaving their livestock behind. Because of fierce fighting at the front line between their towns and rebel-held Misrata, and the control exerted over their area by Gaddafi forces, the residents said they had no choice but to flee southward into Gaddafi-held areas, such as al-Hisha, Wadi Zam-Zam, and Sirte.
Most of the village residents remain displaced in these areas today, living in extremely difficult conditions, because Misrata officials refuse to allow them to return home.
“Mustafa” (not his real name), a 40-year-old farmer from Tomina who now lives in a tiny rented apartment in Sirte, explained to Human Rights Watch that 35 people from six families had lived together on a 10-acre farm in Tomina. He said that when Gaddafi forces arrived at the beginning of the siege of Misrata in April, they let the families stay, but said the families would be held responsible for any shooting from the area of the farm. Because of ongoing fighting, the families decided to flee on April 14. “We couldn’t move toward [rebel-held] Misrata because of the heavy fighting on the front lines,” Mustafa said. “The only direction to leave was [south], so we all left and came to Sirte.”
Mustafa said his family left behind some 250 sheep, representing virtually their entire wealth. After the war, the family members returned home, Mustafa said, but a Misrata militia forced them to the Emirates Apartment building outside Tawergha and told them they needed written permission from all their neighbors before they could go home. Three neighbors gave their permission, but a fourth, whose son had fought with the rebels and was killed, refused to sign.
“Ahmed” (not his real name), 45, a farmer with three children, told Human Rights Watch that his family fled their five-hectare farm in Tomina, owned by his family since 1966, on May 13, fleeing toward Sirte. “We didn’t flee in this direction because we were loyalist; it was impossible to cross the front line, so we had to flee [south],” he said. In late January, Ahmed was living in the Emirates Apartment building. The Military Council in Kararim refused to allow him and his neighbors to return home, he said:
I have been here since November 24. None of us can go back to our land. If I try to go back to my farm, they will arrest me and send me to prison. They say we are displaced traitors. There is a security committee in Kararim, and they refuse anyone permission to return. Everyone who tries to return is refused. Even those who are living in Misrata cannot go back to their farms.
Ahmed said he tried once to return home from Sirte but Misrata officials stopped him at the 80-kilometer checkpoint, and took him to the Emirates Apartment compound, which he and others were rarely allowed to leave:
I came back from Sirte in my own private car [on November 24]. At the [80-kilometer] checkpoint, the officials stopped us and took us here to the apartments. They only allow us to leave this place in the cars of the [militia guarding us], not on our own. The militia brings us food, but it is very basic, no meat or fruits…. We have lost everything – our cars, houses, land, agricultural machines, household properties, and animals. And all of this [looting and destruction] took place after the liberation, not during the war.
“Ibrahim” (not his real name), a 60-year old man from Kararim with 12 children, said he had rented a farm from the government since 1948. When Gaddafi came to power in 1969, his family was granted title to the land, he said. He told Human Rights Watch what happened in the first half of 2011:
Between February and May things were fine. The soldiers didn't stay on my farm; they were about two kilometers away, so we were in the middle. I didn't give the soldiers any information about my neighbors, and they didn't demand any food.
On May 12 the army came to my place and ordered me to leave. We left in my own cars; we just took a few clothes and left everything else behind. We were given no time; they ordered us to leave right then and there. We thought we would just be gone for two or three days and go back, so we didn't take anything. So we went to al-Hisha…
We haven't tried to go back because of the checkpoints. Only the city of Misrata has all of these checkpoints[surrounding the city], and the checkpoint officials do not allow our people through them. Even if I try, I'd have to go live in a burned-out house. They looted everything. I also lost 150 sheep, 7 cows, and 3 horses. But even now, if I had the choice, I would return, even though the houses are burned. All of us just want to return.