BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - After weeks on the run, thousands of black Libyans driven from their homes during the revolt against Muammar Gaddafi have resurfaced across the country, finding refuge in a squalid camp they hope is only temporary.
Once residents of Gaddafi’s stronghold of Tawergha, the families now wander a dusty compound ringed with garbage and staffed by a handful of volunteers from the city of Benghazi struggling to prevent the spread of disease as numbers swell.
The group’s eastward flight began last summer, when anti-Gaddafi forces overran Tawergha and vengeance-seeking crowds ransacked it, leaving a ghost town behind.
“They chased us with guns and knives,” said Ibrahim Med Khaled, a 24-year-old taxi driver recently arrived at the former construction site after spending weeks dodging hostile crowds across the country’s west before being captured by armed men.
“They brought me to a house and beat me with electrical cable to make me confess I worked for Gaddafi, even though I told them I never carried a gun,” he said, lifting his shirt to reveal shoulders criss-crossed with fresh wounds from flogging.
Throughout the uprising against Gaddafi’s 42-year rule, his opponents have accused him of hiring fighters from neighboring African countries which led to reports of mistreatment of blacks, including Libyans.
The camp has grown since opening from 400 to nearly 3,000 people in just two weeks, despite disrepair and lack of sufficient sanitation and electricity evidenced by raw sewage pooling behind some of the housing blocks.
Aid workers say overcrowding is forcing hundreds to set up makeshift settlements near by.
Some of the men at the camp, guarded by troops loyal to the interim government which ousted Gaddafi, still wear camouflage trousers they may have donned last summer in support of Gaddafi.
One little girl could be seen eating spilled food off the ground.
“We have a big heath problem here,” said Randa Muftah Salem-Oun, a 23-year-old medical student now head doctor at the site, where her day begins at dawn and ends after midnight.
“We need many supplies, wound dressings and medicine,” she said, adding that many at the camp suffered from gastroenteritis - a telltale sign of contaminated food or water - and that hepatitis was also discovered among the sick.
However dire the conditions may be, the camp’s residents say they are torn between desire to return, and fear of reprisals from heavily armed locals still bitter from one of the bloodiest episodes in Libya’s civil war.
Many accuse men from Tawergha of committing atrocities in the siege of the city of Misrata, and tales of raping sprees by sub-Saharan African mercenaries - fueled in one version by Viagra doled out by Gaddafi - abound in Libya, leaving dark-skinned people suspect to some of their countrymen.
Another former Tawergha resident, a 38-year-old mother of four named Rabha Mouftah, said there was no doubt as to the intentions of the mob that stormed into her town last summer.
“They came to kill black people,” she said in a room with no lighting she now shares with her family off an alley strewn with debris. “We were scared to go outside, so we hid in different houses for seven weeks, then came here.”
The Tawergha displaced add yet another delicate task to the growing workload of Libya’s interim rulers, the National Transitional Council, (NTC) as they try to reunify the country and impose the rule of law amid renewed opposition from Gaddafi loyalists, who launched attacks in the capital Tripoli last week for the first time since it fell in August.
It also highlights a potential future division in the post-Gaddafi era as leaders strive to integrate a legion of factions, such as the Tuarag, a black tribe of nomads some of whom still support the ousted leader.
Some groups have reported arbitrary arrests across the country on suspicion of collusion with the former leader, believed to be somewhere in Libya’s vast southern desert.
While the NTC favors the return of Tawargha’s residents, it admits this will take time. But resolving the issue remains a test of its leadership to come. Much of the city lays in ruins and people in neighboring Misrata say tensions are still too high to allow a return that could spark more violence.
“In the end it’s another ghost of Gaddafi — he paid many of the tribes to fight for him, so now people see black people and immediately assume they support him, even if they don’t,” said Imad Eddin, an anesthesiologist volunteering at the camp.