Returnees count cost of destruction in Libya’s Tawergha

TAWERGHA, Libya: Returning home after seven years in a camp for displaced people, Mahmoud Abou Al-Habel’s joy was eclipsed by pain when he surveyed his vandalized property in the Libyan town of Tawergha.
A burned out car, blackened date palms and damaged brickwork testify to the hostility that forced him and 26 family members to the relative safety of Tripoli’s outskirts, 240 kilometers (150 miles) away.
“I had planted 184 date palms — but most of them were burned, like my 150 pomegranate trees and 28 olive trees,” Habel said.
“It is heartbreaking to see them, because I planted them myself,” he told AFP, as he watered surviving palms via a pump with power from a generator.
Habel and 40,000 fellow residents of Tawergha and its surroundings were banished because they were seen as supporting former dictator Muammar Qaddafi right up to his bloody 2011 demise.
After being chased away by militia from the nearby city of Misrata, the displaced townsfolk were forbidden from returning home, until a reconciliation deal brokered in June by the internationally-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA).
Over the last four months or so, a few residents have trickled back.
The town’s alleyways remain littered with debris, while long-abandoned animals wander unimpeded.
Homes are either burned-out shells, or vandalized, but life has slowly begun to restart.
Five families whose homes are beyond repair have returned to eke out a living in the grounds of a former school.
Among them is Salma Khalil, a widow who provides for her children by weaving palm leaves into baskets.
“I have had to learn this trade” after losing so much, she said.
Khalil cooks bread in an earthen oven that she built in the corner of the school.
“I must support my girls, without their father, so I make the bread for us and I sell the rest,” she explained.
Schools and other public buildings have also been severely damaged or completely destroyed.
Salma wants the children to return to school and impatiently awaits a new clinic, because the nearest field hospital is unreachable for patients without transport.
Under the terms of the reconciliation agreement, the GNA has committed to compensating displaced families.
Tawergha’s municipal council has temporarily set up shop in one of the few schools spared by the conflict, where it addresses residents’ grievances.
Despite the challenges, mayor Abdelrahman Chakchak is upbeat.
“We are finally home and life is gradually reviving — the electricity is back, we have a school… and a field hospital,” he said.
Five offices have been established to evaluate and record damage, but residents can already start to rebuild their homes, Chakchak said.
But others are less optimistic.
“The government has not respected its promises to the residents of Tawergha,” said Amal Barka, president of the Producer Family, an NGO.
And the GNA itself acknowledges that much still needs to be done.
The town needs “significant financing to reconstruct itself, but also support from the international community, which has promised to contribute,” said Youssef Jalala, minister for the displaced and refugees.
“Tawergha must be rebuilt… because the return of residents remains timid. But they are coming,” he told AFP.

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