Tawergha : Only Through Acknowledging Our True History, Can We Move Forward
By Abdullah Elmaazi
In 1963 Dadda Salma, at the age of ninety-five, had a toothless smile which was quite infectious. You could not help but smile back. Her eyes were a window to the sadness in this world and told the story of the suffering of her race. She was an emancipated black slave spending her final years in a “poor house" on the outskirts of Tripoli.
Dadda Salma was kidnapped at the age of five by Libyan slave traders from her village in southern Sudan late in the 19th century and sold to a wealthy Libyan officer in the Ottoman army.
Salma was the name given to her by her owners. She doesn’t remember the name her mother gave her. Dadda Salma’s story was not confined to the sad look in her eyes.
Astonishingly even in her advanced years when memory begins to fade, she was still able to narrate the vivid image of her mother and other women in her village screaming as they were carried away in a caravan of horse drawn carriages by their kidnappers. The mothers heaped mud on their heads as a sign of deep grief while they gave chase to the caravan.
The distance between her distraught mother and the caravan grew longer and she sobbed for a long time after losing sight of her mother. Exhaustion eventually set in and Salma and her friends fell asleep.
Within a few days they found themselves in a strange city among strange people living in a strange house which looked nothing like the mud hut where she was born and grew up. The lady of the house was not a surrogate mother but the owner of the most recently acquired slave.
Salma’s life as a slave was extremely miserable. At the age of 12 she became responsible for all the domestic chores in the house. At fourteen she was raped by her master and had to continue satisfying him in addition to doing her other 'chores'.
The lady of the house who, content that her husband had not taken a second rival, nonetheless took out her jealousy on Salma by beating her regularly. Salma was well into her thirties when a fellow slave told her of an escape route.
Salma was to be among the first black slaves to seek emancipation, availing herself of a decree by the Ottoman Sultan offering those slaves who wanted to be free the right to emancipation.
A free woman, but destitute and with no means of support, Salma headed for the poor house outside Tripoli. The majority of other emancipated slaves went to a small village just outside of Misurata, called Tawergha. The fact that this village, which grew into a town as a result of the increasing number of emancipated slaves, was located just outside Misurata was not a coincidence.
Misurata has long been one of Libya’s most entrepreneurial communities with trade, be it in spices from India or slaves from sub Saharan Africa, being the mainstay of the city’s livelihood.
The main task of the newly emancipated was to locate family members from whom they had been separated under slavery. Tawergha was an ideal venue for family reunions. However, Emancipation was not without its challenges. The freed slaves needed to work but the town itself offered no means of survival.
As was the case in the emancipated southern United States, many ex-slaves from Misurata continued to work for their former owners often in agricultural jobs or as domestic help and nannies in the case of many of the women. Soon almost everyone in Tawergha was working in Misurata and Tawergha became a “dormitory” town.
The relationship between the inhabitants of the town and those of the city was in the main cordial but never one of equals. Former slaves wanted to have autonomy within their working lives but the former slave owners were convinced they should remain “in their place".
Even in post-independence Libya, the biggest challenge the people of Tawergha faced was lack of socio-political empowerment. In a country where power resided with major regions and strong tribes and clans they had no way of gaining access to high decision making circles within the country’s hierarchy.
race was always an obstacle to social mobility. It is virtually impossible for a black Libyan from Tawergha, the grandson of an emancipated African slave, to marry into a notable Misratan family. Slavery was still a stigma endured by the offspring of the emancipated slaves if hardly ever discussed in either society.
There were no other outward signs of discrimination: both communities seemed to understand that they could mix on any other level except mixing genes.
Genes counted for nothing among school children in 2001. Among teenage children in Misurata, racial affiliation, colour and social background were never a criteria for choosing friends - even "best friends".
This was certainly the case for fourteen-year-old high spirited Mariam, the daughter of a wealthy Misurata businessman. Mariam chose her friends according to her rating of their antics in class. The more outrageous they were the closer they came within her circle of extra mischievous friends.
Mid-way through Mariam’s school year the revolution began. The people of the city of Misurata and those of the town of Tawergha were tragically to find themselves on opposite sides.
Encircled by Gaddafi’s forces by land and sea the people of Misurata refused to lay down their arms and Misurata became the Libya revolution’s “Stalingrad.” The city which embraced Gaddafi and helped propel him to power was now the most determined to bring his 42-year rule to an end.
Misurata is the key city to ruling a united Libya, more so it is indispensable for ruling an autonomous western part of Libya. For Gaddafi regaining control of Misurata was a matter of life or death.
Gaddafi unleashed his full wrath on the city and its inhabitants. Tawergha was to be the launching pad of the no holds barred onslaught. He lured the people of Tawergha to his side, with a devilish message appealing to one of humans’ most base instinct, that of revenge, of righting past wrongs
“There will be no city called Misurata - whatever you annex will be yours" Gaddafi told the young men of Tawergha, “this is your chance to avenge centuries of slavery suffered by your ancestors and overcome your social marginalisation".
Tens, some say hundreds, of young men from Tawergha the town that gave refuge to their slave ancestors accepted Gaddafi’s offer to help him regain control of Misurata and cleansing it from the “rats” - the term Gaddafi coined for the revolutionaries.
Three weeks into the revolution, Mariam’s villa was stormed by five young black men from, Tawergha drunk and armed with automatic rifles. Mariam’s brothers together with other men of fighting age, were on the frontline fighting Gaddafi’s forces. Only Mariam’s grandfather was home. The five men took turns raping Mariam, her sister and her mother. They forced Mariam’s grandfather to watch at gun point. Mariam recognised the face of one of her rapists, as that of her best friends’ brothers.
Ultimately, Misurata emerged 'victorious' after the revolution. Tawergha was subjected to revenge attacks and largely destroyed. Human Rights Watch documented reports of scores of young men from Tawergha who died under torture in makeshift jails in Misurata. Hundreds more are still missing.
Libyans cannot build a future on a heap of historical grievances. Sometime somewhere somehow the cycle of revenge and counter revenge has to stop. Reconciliation between the people of Misurata and Tawergha can be a precursor for national reconciliation but can it be achieved within our lifetime? More...
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