BENGHAZI, Libya (AP) — After three years in a packed refugee camp, Mariam Mohammed fled with her seven children and some 3,000 other members of Libya's persecuted Tawergha community after they were caught in crossfire between Islamist militias and pro-government forces in the embattled eastern city of Benghazi.
"Some of us had to jump in garbage trucks to escape. The horror makes you do anything," the 45-year-old Mohammed said of the frantic escape Friday under a hail of bullets, rockets and mortars. "There was no other option amid all the destruction."
She spoke to The Associated Press by phone Monday from the school-turned-refugee camp outside Benghazi in an area called Tekka that the refugees now call home.
It was the second time that Mohammed and her fellow Tawergha have been forced to flee the violence of post-revolutionary Libya. In 2011, after the ouster of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi, she and nearly 40,000 residents fled their western village — also called Tawergha — after rebel forces from the neighboring city of Misrata attacked it, believing its inhabitants had aided Gadhafi's forces.
The rebels torched Tawergha homes, kidnapping and torturing the men, who were kept in detention centers for years.
The Tawergha are a racially distinct group with darker skin than most Libyans which has made it even harder for them to navigate the country's chaotic post-revolutionary environment. After abandoning their home village, Mohammed and the others lived in a refugee camp in Benghazi's Gar Younis neighborhood, which has become the site of fierce daily clashes. On Friday, she and more than 500 other Tawergha families finally fled.
Faraj Abdel-Kader, a representative of the abandoned camp, said that when they returned later to retrieve their belongings, they found the camp had been looted and torched.
"It was burnt to ashes and all belongings were stolen," he said. "The families were dispersed. Some found shelter while others still sleep under trees."
A total of 17,000 Tawergha people live in Benghazi, according to lawmaker Gaballah Mohammed Gaballah. "They are the most vulnerable in the middle of a war that no one can stop. ... We need international help."
Since the ouster of Gadhafi, the oil-rich north African country has faced mounting challenges rooted in the mushrooming of independent militias in the absence of a strong army and police force.
In Tripoli, Tawergha communities were displaced this summer when Islamist-allied militias, led by powerful commanders from Misrata, swept through the capital and set up their own government.
The country now has two rival governments. One, based in Tripoli, is led by an umbrella group of Islamist militias called Libya Dawn. The other — the internationally recognized parliament elected in June, led by Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni — was forced to flee to the remote coastal city of Tobruk, near the Egyptian border, more than 900 miles (1,500 kilometers) from Tripoli. It is backed by a few militias of its own, as well as the weak and shattered military.
On Monday, Libya's Supreme Court set Nov. 5 to issue its ruling on the legitimacy of the Tobruk-based parliament, possibly helping put an end to the paralyzing standoff.
In Benghazi, fighting since last Wednesday has left at least 65 dead.
Meloud al-Zewi, spokesman for Libya's special forces, said his troops had taken control of an air force barracks on the outskirts of Benghazi, though he voiced concern over suicide attacks, which the Islamist militias have used to repel the army operation, backed by armed residents and heavy airstrikes. The assault has left much of the city deserted.
Mohammed Hegazi, an army spokesman, said the increasing use of suicide bombers reflects "how bankrupt" the Islamist militias are in the face of the army. "I expect a rise in suicide attacks because they have no other option but to use their men to blow themselves up," he said.
Michael reported from Cairo.