Violence Leaves Libyan Villages Deserted
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host: Fierce fighting in the western mountains of Libya has turned half a dozen villages into ghost towns. The people who lived there have fled, either out of fear of Moammar Gadhafi's forces or fear of rebel fighters.
NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro is in the western mountains. She has our story.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: I am standing at the edge of the village of Yafran, which is perched on the cliffs that overlook the wide flat plains that leads to the coast and to Tripoli. This village, like so many others in the western mountains, is utterly deserted. There's the eerie stillness of a place that has been abandoned by almost everyone. All the houses and shops around me now are empty, some bearing the scars of the violence.
(SOUNDBITE OF BROKEN GLASS AND METAL)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Broken glass and shattered walls from the Grad rockets that were launched against Yafran by Gadhafi's forces pockmark the area. According to the few residents who still remain here, at the hospital and at a media center, the trouble began on the very first day of April when Gadhafi's army laid siege to this town. Three weeks later, government forces had broken through and occupied part of Yafran, causing widespread destruction. There was a mass exodus of people, with many residents going to places under rebel control.
MAZIGH BUZAKHAR: At that time, you know, the majority of the families left. And you know how many people left here? Fifty freedom fighters and a hundred civilians. Yeah, they were trapped here, they cannot move out or in.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mazigh Buzakhar works in the Yafran media center. Even though the rebels pushed Gadhafi's troops out on June 2nd, so far almost no one has come back. There's no electricity here, no water. And people are still afraid that fighting will start up again.
BUZAKHAR: They've seen a lot, you know, what Gadhafi forces did to their neighbors. You know? So when you have Gadhafi forces in your town, in your village, I mean it's a big threat.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: But Gadhafi's army isn't the only threat to civilians in the Nafusah Mountains. This conflict has divided communities and the fighters in the western mountains are also responsible for causing civilians to evacuate.
(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I'm now in the village of Ouwaniya and here it's a different story. This was a pro-Gadhafi town that was used as a garrison. But the result is the same, all around me there are burned cars and looted stores. Everyone here has also fled.
MOHAMMED EL AFI: (Arabic language spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mohammed El Afi is a rebel fighter from a neighboring village. He says the people of Ouwaniya collaborated with Gadhafi's forces.
AFI: (Arabic language spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says his village, Khalifa, suffered a lot because of the pressure brought to bear by Gadhafi's forces stationed in Ouwaniya. When the rebels finally advanced, he says, most of the families who remained there fled with government troops to areas still under Gadhafi's control.
Ouwaniya was then also ransacked but by the rebels. Triumphant graffiti is scrawled on one of the walls as a message to any returning families: This is where the rebels defeated Gadhafi's army.
Sidney Kwiram is from Human Rights Watch. She's been investigating what happened in the empty villages of the western mountains. She says a pattern has developed in suspected pro-Gadhafi areas.
SIDNEY KWIRAM: Some of the residents fled when the government forces came in, but then a lot more residents fled when the rebels came and captured them.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The village of Gualish, which was taken on Wednesday July 6th, is only the latest example of what happens when the rebels come in.
KWIRAM: What we saw in Gualish was that they had truckloads of things from the stores that they were taking away - looting. And we saw five houses that were, you know, fine on the 6th being burned on the 7th.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Some of the score-settling has to do with old tribal and regional enmities, as well, which might not bode well for the future here. Human Rights Watch is calling on the rebel and government authorities to make sure that people can safely return to their homes, no matter what their affiliation was. But that might be easier said than done. Everyone from these once tight-knit communities has scattered, far and wide.
(SOUNDBITE OF UTENSILS)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: In a house in rebel-held Zintan, 15 members of one family are living a spartan existence. Lunch today is rice with tomato sauce. The rooms have only a few pieces of furniture - the most basic necessities.
MOHAMMED AHMED DABU: (Arabic language spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Thirty-two-year-old Mohammed Ahmed Dabu is from Yafran. He says he doesn't know where any of his neighbors are these days. They've left to Tunisia or other towns in the western mountains. Because there is no cell phone system working, there's no way to find out.
DABU: (Arabic language spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: He recently went back to his house to check on it. He says it was horrible to see the damage to the area and all the homes are so empty. It makes us terribly sad he says to see it.
Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, in the western mountains.
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