At the onset of the conflict in Libya, citizens in open revolt against a brutal government rounded up mercenaries and slaughtered them on the spot.
Almost all of the three-thousand or so mercenaries transported to Libya to defend Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi's embattled regime are dark-skinned men from Niger, Chad, Mali and elsewhere throughout the vast Sub-Saharan. An undetermined number are in fact black Libyan citizens from the south of the country. Some African mercenaries reportedly were hanged from poles in Benghazi in scenes, even in the context of Libya, for some might seem eerily reminiscent of lynchings in the American South.
In the context of the bloody rebellion in Libya this would seem to be an unfair comparison and a typical example of geo-political conflict filtered through the narrow prism of American geographic and historical chauvinism. After all, to those fighting to liberate their country from decades of dictatorial rule, these forces are the enemy. This is Qaddafi's so called Pan African Army. With their yellow helmets, some black-skinned men fighting early on in eastern Libya were clearly identified as mercenaries. According to various reports, these soldiers for hire were brutal in their treatment of Libyans in Benghazi, reportedly shooting into crowds and bludgeoning unarmed civilians.
The problem is that there are also tens of thousands of black
migrants in Libya who have nothing to do with Colonel Qaddafi's brutal
and desperate attempts to hold on to power. Other migrants may have been "drafted" into Qaddafi's forces, according to various reports.
Yet, according to multiple eyewitness testimony, black Africans in general have been targeted by elements amongst the very population that is rightly clamoring for freedom in that beleaguered nation. What the world community should be concerned about is that in a country where anti-black skin prejudice by most accounts runs rampant, there continues to be a good chance that black migrant workers will pay a high price for crimes against humanity for which they are not responsible. It is already clear from reporting by Al Jazeera and other news agencies that an undetermined number of innocent black men have been killed or maimed in the ongoing rebellion.
The International Organization for Migration (IOC) in March reported that scores of black migrants fleeing across the border into neighboring Niger were attacked by Libyans, who suspected them of acting on behalf of the regime. Witnesses on the ground say they have seen grotesque examples of innocent black workers--Somalis, Nigerians, Malians--being set upon by enraged rebels. Conversely, other reports cite Libyans who have also taken it upon themselves to protect black migrants from those who might see them singularly as "the enemy". According to one account in the New York Times, Libyans provided protection to one group of black African workers "....some of whom have seen colleagues killed, are kept under armed guard and moved from place to place because residents have objected to their presence."
The IOC estimates that over the past decade nearly one million sub-Saharan Africans traveled overland across scorching deserts and through bandit-ridden territories to reach Libya. They came in search of work. Others viewed Libya's vast white shoreline as a literal beachhead from which to gain access to continental Europe.
Even before the February rebellion, Libya was a dangerous place for Africans from the sub-Sahara. In 2000, hundreds of dark-hued migrants were set upon by Libyan youth who did not then nor now share Qaddafi's vision of Pan-African and pan-Islamic unity. Scores of Nigerians, Ghanaians and others saw their homes burned down and thousands were forcibly deported in the aftermath of the carnage. Though Qaddafi sought to distance himself from the ethnic violence, survivors said they suspected the security forces played a pro-active role.
Though Libya is geographically a part of the same continent, many Libyans see themselves as Middle-Eastern rather than African. Black Africans live in squalid camps outside Libya's major cities and are effectively second or third class residents or citizens. Those that do find work often are exploited in labor-intensive jobs that pay more than Africans could make back home, but less than other foreigners. Significant numbers of migrants have been idle for long periods of time with nothing to do. In that sense they share much in common with scores of young, angry Libyans, who have taken to the streets to fight against a regime that has failed to address fundamental economic problems, even with a treasury once flush with petrol dollars.
Over the years, thousands of black migrants found themselves locked in Libyan prisons for various "crimes", including attempting to leave the country in violation of treaties between Italy and the European Union to keep African asylum seekers at bay.
Last year I spent time in the Mediterranean chronicling the migration of Africans to Europe via Malta and Sicily. Among those I interviewed was a man named Dauod Mohammed from Somalia. He summed up his two-year ordeal in Libya.
- "It was terrible. They would never call me by my name. To them I was abd (Arabic) or slave".
Less than a year after arriving in Libya from Egypt, Dauod Mohammed was thrown into prison after he was caught trying to sneak aboard an overcrowded dinghy bound for Europe.
- "I believe it used to be a chemical plant because all of us had skin rashes and the Libyan prison guards used to beat us at least twice a day"
Dauod Mohammed's boat began sinking off the coast of Malta and was rescued by the Maltese Navy. However, once in Malta he found himself in another prison. Illegal African asylum seekers are jailed in that island nation for up to18 months. But he told me that in his view conditions in the EU's smallest member state, for a black man, were preferable to life ether in a Libyan prison or on the streets of Tripoli or Benghazi.
Up to the minute news about Libya's black migrants is spotty. They are neither now nor have they ever been a media priority. But the picture that is emerging is of frequent assaults on those unlucky enough to be caught in the open. Thousands are being aided by the IOM, and other humanitarian organizations, in their effort to get out of Libya. Those who stay behind are wary about the outcome of the fighting, about carving out a living in Libya no matter who emerges the victor, and about surviving in a climate of historical racial animus that long preceded the rebellion.