An evacuation centre for migrants in Misrata, which is run by the International Organisation for Migration. Photo courtesy of IOM.
Sub-Saharan African immigrants living in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, are greatly suffering from the fall of Muammar Gaddafi’s government and the arrival of anti-Gaddafi forces. One illegal immigrant from the Ivory Coast told FRANCE 24 that opposition fighters attack every black person they come across, because they think they are mercenaries working for the former regime.
Six months ago, at the start of the civil war pitting opposition rebel forces against troops loyal to Muammar Gaddafi, the former Libyan leader recruited thousands of mercenaries – nearly 30,000 according to the nonprofit group Human Rights Solidarity – largely from the neighbouring countries of Nigeria, Chad and Mauritania. The men were reportedly hired to take care of the dirty work of repression, and many were ruthless in their violence.
Since the start of the conflict, there have been reports of sporadic violence against black African immigrants in Libya, but their situation has become critical since rebel forces took over Tripoli last week. The UNHRC, the UN’s refugee agency, has expressed concern over the threats and physical violence that African immigrants are now regularly a target of. As opposition fighters comb the capital in search of remaining Gaddafi supporters, black Africans have become increasingly vulnerable due to their visibility.
It is now nearly impossible for these immigrants to leave the country. Two ships were recently sent by the International Organization for Migration to evacuate foreign nationals from Libya, but they carried away very few sub-Saharan African immigrants. This is because the IOM works mostly with embassies to evacuate foreign residents, according to IOM spokesman Jean-Philippe Chauzy. Although Africans make up the vast majority of foreigners in Libya, they often entered the country illegally and are not accounted for by their embassies.
“When they see a black man, they attack him, and the women and children cheer”
Sakia (not his real name) is an Ivorian citizen living in Tripoli. He entered Libya illegally three years ago and worked in a soda factory where he earned money to send to his family back home.
Since the opposition fighters entered Tripoli, I have barricaded myself at home with two other African friends. One is from Ghana, the other from Togo. In my neighbourhood there are Guineans, Malians, Liberians and Nigerians: all are hiding in their homes and won’t go out. Our embassies aren’t answering the phone, and we don’t know what to do, or who to go to for help.
For the past four days, we have only gone outside briefly to go get food. There are road blocks everywhere, with armed youths posted at every street corner. In the calmer afternoon hours, if we think all is clear, then we’ll try to go buy food and run back home. It’s extremely dangerous for us Africans to stay outside for long, because of our skin colour. When [anti-Gaddafi fighters] see a black man, they attack and insult him, and the women and children cheer. The brother of one of my friends was driven off in a pick-up truck a few days ago and hasn’t been seen again. They think we are Gaddafi’s mercenaries.
“They come in our homes to ransack everything and beat us”
I haven’t been out in three days, and we only have five biscuits to share between the three of us. There is no more running water. Luckily, some neighbours have brought us water from a nearby well. They are Libyan, but they are an elderly couple, and I’m sure they won’t turn us in. In fact, they warned us not to go outdoors and not to open the door if anyone knocked. Some Senegalese friends of mine told me that a few days ago, strangers knocked on their door and demanded to come in, supposedly searching for weapons. In the end, they beat my friends up and ransacked their place. We don’t know if these men are rebels or thugs. They all carry weapons and wear the colours of the oppposition.
“When ‘mister’ has gone, you’ll see, we’ll kill you all”
Since the repression started in Libya, we West Africans have been the victims of both physical and verbal attacks. I was physically assaulted by three young Libyans who mistook me for a Gaddafi supporter. When I was still working at the factory, some of my colleagues would tell me: ‘when ‘mister’ [referring to Gaddafi] has gone, you’ll see, we’ll kill you all’. So naturally, when the rebels drew closer to Tripoli, we were terrified. We tore up our IDs and family photos so that we couldn’t be traced back to our home countries. Before the rebels came, African diplomats assured us that they were negotiating with government representatives to evacuate us. But the talks must have collapsed after the government collapsed.
I heard that an IOM boat came to Tripoli to evacuate foreigners. But crossing Tripoli to get to the harbour is unimaginable for us right now. We would never get there alive. We would need the aid NGOs to drive across the city in buses with loudspeakers to make their presence known.”