Photo Feature: Libya's Forgotten Displaced

Two tanks mark the entrance to a camp that houses more than 300 internally displaced people in a remote mountainous region of northwestern Libya. By the edge of the road, barbed wire fencing lined with UNHCR-stamped tarpaulins affords the makeshift homes a modicum of privacy. 

The camp's inhabitants originate from the town of Tawergha, some 200km east. 

During the 2011 revolution, then Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi used Tawergha as a military base, from where he launched attacks on neighbouring towns, including the coastal city of Misrata. In a revenge attack in August 2011, Misratan militias entered the town, causing extensive damage and prompting some 30,000 Tawerghans to flee

Families expected to return home within weeks, but almost four years later, the town of Tawergha remains sealed off and inaccessible.

Despite being just 90km from the capital Tripoli, this camp’s remote location in the mountainous region of Tarhuna means it has been neglected by successive governments, the media and aid organisations.


Some families consist of just women and children, with missing husbands, fathers and brothers killed in 2011 or in prison. The ongoing conflict has made it impossible for families at the camp to visit relatives jailed in Misrata, who are believed to number up to 1,200. 

“He is in prison for no reason, with no evidence and with no trial...I tried many times, for four years, to [find] any solution to get him out. I made requests to the government but these were rejected.””
— said Fatima*, of her husband:

The mother-of-four explained that the presence of prison guards during visits meant her husband could not speak freely, but said she had seen evidence that he was being mistreated.

Residents face a daily battle to scrape by with scant resources and very little external support. Entire families live in just two rooms, sharing communal toilets and makeshift outside kitchens made from corrugated iron sheeting. 

But the biggest problem is the lack of running water. The camp has only one water tank - loosely covered with tarpaulins - which holds 1,200 litres. Filled by a lorry every three days and paid for by the local community, it just about sustains the needs of the people living in the camp, who collect their daily water ration in seven-litre plastic bottles. For almost four years, every household task has been completed using water carried in these bottles. 

Sanitation is also poor, with waste water sluicing into a cesspit beside some of the bleakest communal residences, where multiple families share basic facilities. Although covered with branches, it is a breeding ground for mosquitos, explained Hassan*, a community elder.

Camp residents feel they have been forgotten by international aid organisations. They rely on modest support from local NGOs and even other IDP camps, which sometimes bring aid they have received to the community. Initially, there were humanitarian visits and donations but, in the last year and a half, Hassan said the camp had received very little useful help, adding that mattresses and tarpaulins did nothing to address the more urgent needs of water and sanitation.

Sitting on matting under awning made from an old tarpaulin, 86-year-old Houssain rubbed oil into his withered knees, the only relief he has from the pain in his joints. 


"I feel as though I am 1,000 years old" Houssain said, shaking his head as he remembers Tawergha, where he was born and lived for 82 years. He spoke softly of his absent son in prison, from whom he'd had no news in four months, and fondly of his former farming project, saying: “We loved the work so much.”

Marwa Baitelmal, a spokesperson for the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, admitted that representatives had not visited this particular camp since 2013. With no in-country presence for security reasons, she said it was relying on other agencies to deliver aid. 

Abdulrahman Al-Fitouri, International Medical Corps’ national coordinator for Libya, said that although mattresses and blankets from UNHCR were delivered in December, IMC had been unable to provide regular services or medical treatment because the safety of its teams could not be guaranteed on the road to Tarhuna.

The insecurity stems from a civil war between Libya Dawn - an Islamist-dominated armed faction that took control of Tripoli last year, establishing a rival government - and Libyan Army forces operating under the internationally-recognised government and parliament, which is now based in the east of the country.  As the security situation has deteriorated further, most of the international community has relocated to Tunisia, leaving the few agencies that retained local staff to try and help with a growing humanitarian crisis.

Siraj*, a school teacher, said Save the Children had helped the camp in the past, supporting a project to set up an onsite school. He proudly showed off the humble building, where two toilets shared by some 70 children had to be flushed with water carried there in bottles.

From the window of the main classroom, a jagged piece of broken glass framed a view of two tanks parked outside. Militias stored the tanks and large quantities of weapons on the edge of the camp one month ago, said residents, who are afraid the presence of weapons and ammunition could now make the camp a target.   

“Tawergha is now a place of ghosts. We have only seen pictures on the internet because it’s impossible for us to return...We hear different stories about what is there now. Some say it is used as a training ground for soldiers; others say it has been made into a prison or turned into a rubbish dump. We would like to know the reality.”
— Mohamed, teacher

In January, as part of a UN-brokered dialogue, local council representatives from Misrata and Tawergha agreed to form a committee to discuss the rights of the community and mechanisms for a possible future return to their town, with another committee to look at the issue of the prisoners held in Misrata. However, a time-frame for a return is unclear, and an even bigger question mark hangs over what might be left of the town.

*Some names have been changed.

For more on the plight of Libya's internally displaced people, see: Libya's sidelined IDPs