3:00am

Tue June 12, 2012
Revolutionary Road Trip

After Libya's War, Acts Of Vengeance

Originally published on Fri June 15, 2012 10:05 am

NPR Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep is taking a Revolutionary Road Trip across North Africa to see how the countries that staged revolutions last year are remaking themselves. Steve and his team are traveling some 2,000 miles from Tunisia's ancient city of Carthage, across the deserts of Libya and on to Egypt's megacity of Cairo. Near the Libyan coastal city of Misrata, he looks at violence that took place after the revolution.

I was talking with the newly elected head of the local council in Misrata, Libya, when he made a passing remark about the disturbed minds of his people.

I wanted to know more. "Do you think," I asked the councilman, Yusuf bin Yusuf, "that so many years under such a dictator affected the minds of Libyans?"

He answered immediately. "Gadhafi's regime has ended, but there is a small Gadhafi in everyone's brain."

It was hard to know if bin Yusuf found any irony in the statement. His city suffered cruelly at the hands of Moammar Gadhafi's troops. Gadhafi had famously promised to hunt down protesters against his rule "street by street, house by house, alley by alley," and he almost made good on that threat when his forces besieged Misrata.

But when his forces were driven away, it was the Misrata rebels who moved into a neighboring town accused of supporting Gadhafi, and destroyed it completely. Street by street, house by house, alley by alley.

Months after the war, tens of thousands of people remain homeless, with an uncertain future. The refugees are overwhelmingly black, referred to by their tormentors as "slaves."

Misrata's attacks on the people of Tawargha are so severe that the United Nations has labeled them "war crimes."

Misrata's destruction of Tawargha is not an easy story to tell, because Misrata residents fought and died to overthrow a dictator. In Misrata, you see burned and blasted buildings from last year's fighting. Very little has been repaired.

The city has created the Misrata War Museum, which includes some of the trophies of victory, ranging from Gadhafi's green chair to weapons captured from Gadhafi's forces.

Yet after the gunmen of Misrata helped to win the war, they staged their act of retribution in Tawargha.

No Apologies

Misrata leaders are not apologetic, as we learned when we had coffee with a businessman and political leader from the city. We found him in an upscale coffee shop in Tripoli.

Mohammed Ben Ras Ali has lived his entire life in Misrata and was present during the siege of his hometown, which lasted four months.

The many dead included two American photojournalists, Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington.

Ben Ras Ali says the neighboring town, Tawargha, committed atrocities in support of Gadhafi's siege.

"They have tortured and killed and displaced, and burned fields and houses, and they have committed the ultimate sin in our culture and our religion, which is rape, and all coming from supposedly a good neighbor," he says.

Asked if those neighbors should be allowed to return, he says: "Not in my lifetime, I don't think. And this is coming from somebody who is very moderate, I would say."

There's one more fact about the town that was destroyed. In this overwhelmingly Arab nation, most of Tawargha's population was black.

And Misrata residents have made an explosive charge: that this city of some 30,000 black people rose up as one, marched into Misrata and raped Misrata women.

Though the U.N. Human Rights Council has found little evidence of this claim, it was used to justify the destruction of a town.

A Ghost Town

Driving south from Misrata, the first thing you see of Tawargha is a cluster of apartment buildings. It looks like they were used for artillery practice.

Then you arrive in the neighborhood beyond the buildings.

We felt like we were seeing a lost civilization. There were satellite dishes, burned out shells of cars still in the parking spaces. The destruction goes as far as we could see in every direction. Schools are empty, piles of trash are in the streets, and there were no signs of other people.

That's exactly the way officials from Misrata want their neighboring town to be.

We visited Yusuf bin Yusuf, the head of Misrata's newly elected city council, and asked about the possibility of reconciliation.

Reconcilation, he answered, can happen between people who fought over materialistic things. It cannot happen between people who killed families or violated honor, he says.

He adds that he doubts Tawarghans had the rights to their land anyway. An old story says the Tawarghans came here long ago as escaped slaves.

A Place Destroyed After The Revolution

NPR employees were in Tawargha immediately after the fighting ended and saw almost none of this destruction. It has come afterward, after the fighting.

Misrata leaders say this destruction is justified, given what they suffered, though they've struggled to prove it.

Bin Yusuf makes a sweeping claim against the people of Tawargha. He says the people volunteered — all ages, he says, from old men and women to kids — to come to loot Misrata and sexually assault the inhabitants.

Asked if he can provide a list of victims, Yusuf says that's impossible. In Arab culture, a list would shame the women involved, he says.

A U.N. Inquiry

In a report in March, a U.N. commission of inquiry found no evidence of systematic sexual assault on civilians.

Investigators did find evidence that Tawarghans, the supposed perpetrators, were killed, tortured or driven from their town.

If you want to find the black men, women and children who were accused of these crimes, you have to travel hundreds of miles, to one of several camps where they stay — like a cavernous room inside the Libyan Naval Academy in Tripoli, where a group of kids were playing soccer indoors.

About 2,400 people set up homes inside vacant classrooms.

Down the hall from the kids' soccer game, we met Nurdeen Ramadan, a father of eight. He says his entire city did not commit atrocities, and also, incidentally, they're not all descendants of slaves.

"Actually, we are Libyans; we came here before everybody else," he says.

He says there were black people in Tawargha because this is Africa, connected for centuries to trade routes in the south.

Ramadan acknowledges that some of his neighbors supported Gadhafi. Gadhafi's troops passed out rifles to civilians who joined the assault on Misrata.

"In that time, you know, some people did foolish things. That's why now they think all Tawarghan people did so," he says. "Actually, we didn't do that."

Ramadan was a geologist for a state-owned oil company, though he now spends all his days in this camp. He says it's not safe to go back to work.

"If I go through the airports, they catch me, Misrata people catch me, any Tawarghan people," he says. "We are very easy to recognize because I am black. They catch any black people and they say, 'Who are you?' "

Once the refugees staged a protest march outside this camp, and refugees contend gunmen opened fire on them.

Refugees Want To Go Back

The refugees say they want to go home, though there's less and less to return to.

The city has been vacant long enough that bushes are beginning to grow in the streets. At the gate of what looks like it was an elegant house, there's a tree with red flowers, just about the only living thing left in this town because house after house has been burned out.

On other streets, graffiti is spray-painted in Arabic: "Don't buy a slave unless you also buy a stick."

[The people of Misrata] "are slave-masters of Tawargha."

"Bye-bye slaves of Tawargha."

On the road back to Misrata, we spotted another bit of graffiti in English, apparently left over from the war, when the people besieged in Misrata were seen as heroes before the world.

That graffiti reads, "We want freedom and justice. Nothing more."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Renee Montagne with David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

MORNING EDITION's journey through nations of the Arab Spring, through Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, has now brought us here to Misrata, Libya, where some of the heaviest fighting took place in the uprising against Moammar Gadhafi last year. We're outside the Misrata War Museum, where people have brought some of their trophies of victory, ranging from Gadhafi's green chair to weapons captured from Gadhafi's forces.

In a larger sense, Tripoli Street, the street where this museum is, is a giant war museum, because up and down this street you see burned and blasted buildings from last year's fighting. Very little has been repaired. You see graphic evidence of how Misrata suffered. And so, it's ironic that people who were clearly victims of the war against Gadhafi, have now themselves been accused of victimizing others.

Gunmen from Misrata helped to win the war, and afterward committed an act of retribution. They targeted a neighboring city accused of siding with Gadhafi and they erased it from the map. Civilians from the city were killed, and tens of thousands were made into refugees, their homes destroyed, all of which the United Nations labeled war crimes.

Misrata leaders are not apologetic, as we learned when we had coffee with a businessman and political leader from the city.

MOHAMMED BEN RAS ALI: My name is Mohammed Ben Ras Ali. I lived all my life in Misrata. I was in Misrata during the whole thing.

INSKEEP: He means Gadhafi's siege of his hometown, which lasted for months. The many dead included two American photojournalists, Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington.

Ben Ras Ali says the neighboring town called Tawargha committed atrocities in support of Gadhafi's siege.

ALI: They have tortured and killed and displaced, and burned fields and houses, and they have committed the ultimate sin in our culture and our religion, which is rape. All coming from, supposedly, a good neighbor, you know?

INSKEEP: Should they be allowed to return?

ALI: Not in my lifetime, I don't think.

INSKEEP: Meaning that...

ALI: And this is coming from somebody who's very moderate, I would say.

INSKEEP: There's one more fact about the town that was destroyed in retribution. In this overwhelmingly Arab nation, most of Tawargha's population was black. And Misrata residents have made an explosive charge: that this city of some 30,000 black people rose up as one, marched into Misrata and raped Misrata women.

Though the U.N. Human Rights Council has found little evidence of this claim, it was used to justify the destruction of a town.

So we've been driving south from Misrata through what was a war zone. And we've just passed mile after mile after mile of vacant homes new Misrata, many of them burnt out. Almost no one has returned. And now, as we move into Tawargha - or what was Tawargha - we see that even the name of the city has been erased on the roadside. It's been replaced by a new name, New Misrata.

From the highway, the first thing you see of Tawargha is a cluster of apartment buildings. It looks like they were used for artillery practice. Then you arrive in the neighborhood beyond the buildings.

The destruction goes as far as we can see in every direction. Schools are empty, piles of trash in the streets, burned out shells of cars, still in the parking spaces. We've not seen a single human being - which is exactly the way officials from Misrata want their neighboring town to be.

We visited Yusuf bin Yusuf, head of Misrata's newly elected city council.

May I ask about the problem of reconciliation, of living among people who fought against you?

YUSUF BIN YUSUF: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: Reconciliation, he answered, can happen between people who fought over materialistic things. It cannot happen between people who killed families or violated honor.

YUSUF: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: He adds that he doubts Tawarghans had the rights to their land anyway. An old story says the Tawarghans came here long ago as escaped slaves.

House after house, burned out, the gates falling askew, tires in the street, burned out cars in the street, garbage everywhere. The destruction is so uniform it's hard to know where to stop and look around.

(SOUNDBITE OF A VEHICLE DOOR OPENING AND CLOSING)

INSKEEP: We finally pick a long residential street.

NPR employees were in this town, immediately after the fighting ended in this area, and saw almost none of this destruction. It has come afterward, after the fighting.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLANKING METAL)

INSKEEP: Here's a structure full of debris, broken down refrigerator, burn marks on the walls. The little items of human existence scattered around. There's a kitchen knife. Here's a shower head that's been pulled out and thrown into the middle of the street.

Misrata leaders say, in effect, Tawargha its destruction, though they've struggled to prove it.

Have you been able to identify what exactly they did, and what evidence shows what they did it?

YUSUF: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: Misrata council leader, Yusef Bin Yusuf, makes a sweeping claim. He says Tawarghans volunteered - all ages he says, from old men and women to kids - to come to loot Misrata and sexually assault the inhabitants. Asked if he can provide a list of victims, Yusef says that's impossible. In Arab culture, a list would shame the woman involved.

In a report in March, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry found no evidence of systematic sexual assault on civilians in Libya. Investigators did find evidence that Tawarghans, the supposed perpetrators, were killed, tortured, or turned into refugees.

(SOUNDBITE OF KIDS PLAYING)

INSKEEP: Now, if you want to find the black men, women, and children who were accused of rape and made into refugees, you have to travel hundreds of miles to one of several camps where they stay, like this one, where a group of kids plays soccer indoors.

(SOUNDBITE OF KIDS PLAYING)

INSKEEP: They're in a cavernous room inside the Libyan Naval Academy in Tripoli, about 2400 people set up homes inside vacant classrooms. Down the hall from the kids' soccer game, we met Nurdeen Ramadan, a father of eight. He says his entire city did not commit atrocities, and also, incidentally, they're not all descendents of slaves.

NURDEEN RAMADAN: Actually, we are originally Libyans and we are first came to Libya before everybody else.

INSKEEP: He says there were black people in Tawargha because this is Africa, connected for centuries to trade routes in the South. Ramadan admits that some of his neighbors supported Moammar Gadhafi. Gadhafi's troops passed out rifles to civilians who joined the assault on Misrata.

RAMADAN: In that time, you know, some people did foolish things. That's why now they think all Tawarghan people did so and so and so and so and so, but actually, we didn't do that.

INSKEEP: Still, Ramadan says when Gadhafi's forces collapsed, and Misrata troops came to his town, many of his neighbors were killed and he fled. Before the war, Ramadan was a geologist for a state-owned oil company, though he now spends all his days in this camp. Have you been able to resume work?

RAMADAN: No.

INSKEEP: Why not?

RAMADAN: No. Not yet because it's not safe (unintelligible) they catch every Tawarghan people.

INSKEEP: Would they know you're a Tawargha person just from looking at you?

RAMADAN: Because we are very easy to recognize us because I'm black, because any black people, oh, who are you?

INSKEEP: Once the refugees staged a protest march outside this camp, and refugees contend that gunmen opened fire on them. Two Tawarghan women met with us and described how they were shot. The refugees say they want to go home, though there is less and less to return to. Here's the remains of a pickup truck, burned and rusted, and the city's been vacant long enough that bushes are beginning to grow in the streets.

We're at the gate to what looks like it was an elegant house, there are these beautiful carved columns on either side of the door, and here in the front yard there's a tree with red flowers blooming all over it - just about the only thing left alive in this town because house after house after house has been burned out. On other streets, graffiti is spray painted in Arabic. Don't buy a slave unless you also buy a stick.

The people of Misrata are slavemasters of Tawargha. Bye-bye slaves of Tawargha. On the road back to Misrata, we spotted another bit of graffiti in English, apparently left over from the war when the people besieged in Misrata were seen as heroes before the world. That graffiti reads we want freedom and justice, nothing more.

MONTAGNE: You can follow more from MORNING EDITION'S Revolutionary Road Trip on Twitter with the hashtag revroad, and there's more at our website NPR.org. You're hearing Steve Inskeep on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.