Al Gawalesh, Libya: “Our town has been looted, homes wrecked and olive trees torched,” Moftah Mohammad said in dismay on returning home to Al Gawalesh in western Libya after years wandering from place to place.
Al Gawalesh, perched on the slopes of Jebel Nefussa, 120km west of Tripoli, paid the price for its support of former dictator Muammar Gaddafi during a 2011 Nato-backed revolt in which he was captured and killed.
Once home to close to 10,000 people, the town is a scene of desolation: wind- and dirt-swept, burnt-out homes, destroyed schools and other public buildings, devoid of any public services.
“It was July 6, 2011” when he and his family like all other residents had to flee Al Gawalesh, Mohammad said. “To stay would have meant death,” in the face of Nato air strikes on Gaddafi’s forces.
Fear of reprisals by neighbouring communities which had sided with the victorious rebels kept it a ghost town for the past seven-and-a-half years.
In the face of often entrenched bitterness and a hunger for revenge, the United Nations mission in Libya has been working for reconciliation through the return of displaced communities to their pre-war homes.
The way was cleared for a return to Al Gawalesh with a reconciliation deal signed back in 2015 between representatives of the towns of Jebel Nefussa that came along with promises of financial aid.
But Mohammad said the pledges have remained a dead letter due to inaction by successive government commissions.
Another recent returnee, Mohammad Bukraa, a man in his 70s who uses crutches, said he “broke down” when he saw his home and those of his two sons had been set ablaze.
The town’s mayor, Syed Amer, said residents were still waiting for compensation payments to repair their homes.
“Some families have no choice but to live in these burnt-out homes, not realising the risks posed to their health and that of their children,” the mayor said.
The municipality says families have filed 1,600 compensation claims, none of which have been settled.
Libya’s financial woes have blocked reconstruction in towns such as Al Gawalesh, according to the internationally recognised Government of National Accord.
“We need a development plan and financing for reconstruction that we don’t have,” Yousuf Jalala, minister for the displaced in the Tripoli-based GNA, told AFP.
He pinned the blame on the international community.
“On several occasions the international community has promised aid to help rebuild devastated towns but nothing has materialised,” he said.
According to the latest figures published by the International Organisation for Migration, Libya’s displaced number around 187,000.
Human Rights Watch this week raised the alarm over the fate of Tawergha, a town in northeast Libya that also sided with Gaddafi during the revolt.
Most of its 48,000 inhabitants have still been unable to return, more than seven years on, it says.
“The Government of National Accord should urgently devise a strategy for Tawerghans’ safe return, ensuring reconstruction and security,” it said.
“While nothing can reverse seven years of forced displacement and dispersal, a measure of accountability for causing and preventing their return will not only bring justice to victims of serious violations and restore dignity, but it could serve as a deterrent for future crimes,” HRW said.