Reporting from Tawurgha, Libya — The green flag still flutters from some homes in this desert town, a remnant of its profound loyalty to a longtime patron, Moammar Kadafi, who made green the signature color of his domain.
But the people of Tawurgha, more than 30,000, predominantly black, are all gone, refugees who mostly fled when rebels advanced last month from nearby Misurata with, former residents say, vengeance on their minds.
The town, 25 miles south of Misurata, was subsequently looted, and many homes and shops were burned. It is now a desolate expanse of semi-urban sprawl where disoriented cats forage for food in pillaged supermarkets and sheep and donkeys wander along eerily deserted streets flanked by palm groves and homes fashioned from concrete blocks, now marred by anti-Kadafi graffiti.
With the revolutionaries' victory here, Tawurgha's residents have been barred from returning until a still-undefined process is completed to determine who among them may be guilty of war crimes, say Misurata officials, who accuse the pro-Kadafi Tawurghans of sundry offenses — among them raping women and shelling civilians during months of fighting. The enmity between the two towns is unambiguous and chilling. Reconciliation, a professed goal of Libya's provisional rulers, seems a long way off.
"The people of Tawurgha thought they would slaughter all the Misuratans," said a Misurata fighter, 28, who gave his name as Abu Alaem, as he moved his finger in a throat-cutting motion.
"But look who is on top now," he added, speaking from his pickup truck with a machine gun mounted on the back and several colleagues nodding in agreement. "The people of Tawurgha, their blood runs green."
The plight of Tawurgha has drawn the attention of international human rights investigators and raised questions about the behavior of Misurata's rebel legions, lionized in Libya and abroad as the heroic fighters who expelled Kadafi's troops from Libya's third-most-populous city in bloody, months-long street combat. Some fear an instance of racially motivated ethnic cleansing, though the reality appears much more complex.
Tawurgha appears a case in which old enmities, the fog of war and the brutality of battle have conspired to obscure the truth, at least for now. It seems likely that neither side is innocent. But it is the victors who control the town's fate.
"Even the worst crimes allegedly committed by some people in Tawurgha do not justify the collective punishment of a whole town," said Sidney Kwiram, a consultant with Human Rights Watch in Libya.
Officials in Misurata complain that outsiders have glossed over the abuses committed by Tawurghans during the conflict. They declare that they will judge which Kadafi loyalists from Tawurgha were responsible for harm inflicted on civilians in Misurata, which officials say lost more than 1,100 people in the fighting, many by shelling from pro-regime forces allegedly from Tawurgha.
One allegation is that nurses from Tawurgha abused injured rebel prisoners, taunting them and denying proper treatment. But the innocent will eventually be allowed to return to the town, officials in Misurata say.
"We have a problem with the people of Tawurgha," acknowledged Mohammed Darrat, who heads Misurata's media committee, serving as kind of a town spokesman. "We know some of them went house to house and took the men and raped the women. This is something they will have to answer for."
It is not a question of racism, contend authorities in Misurata, who note that many black rebels fought by their side against Kadafi. And they point to the reconciliation that has begun with another nearby town, Zlitan, where pro-Kadafi forces, many of them also black, held out robustly against the Misurata rebel onslaught for weeks before being overrun in late August.
"In the case of Zlitan, it was men with guns against men with guns. That is war," Darrat said. "In Tawurgha, they were killing civilians."
Tawurgha's residents were among the working-class masses whom Kadafi seduced with a steady stream of revolutionary rhetoric, welfare payments, patronage jobs, subsidized necessities and free services, however inadequate.
There has long been some tension between the town and much-larger Misurata, which prides itself on being Libya's business capital and whose commercial elite was long hostile to Kadafi. The longtime leader famously distrusted private entrepreneurs who were not part of his family or inner circle.
Today, the former population of Tawurgha is scattered across Libya, reduced to nomads in camps and temporary settlements, infused with a nostalgia-tinged view of their modest hometown.
"When can we go back to Tawurgha?" Mohammed Milad, a great-grandfather who says he doesn't know his age, asked another townsman at a site in Tripoli where many people from the town are staying.
"This is not fair," he continued. "We didn't do anything to anyone."