Sunday, 10 April 2011
Evacuating While Black
The small rebel checkpoint building on the highway between Ajdabiya and Brega is shaking. The shack's small hallway, only a few feet wide, is crammed shoulder-to-shoulder with shouting men carrying RPGs, pistols and machine guns. Six black men are pushed single-file through the frenzied throng. Everyone jostles to touch them, ripping off the men's baseball caps and beenies and throwing them on the floor. The men are shoved into a small adjoining room.
At the sight of two journalists the crowded hallway erupts: "These are mercenaries!" the rebels proclaim with rage-tinged pride.
Minutes later the black men are marched out of the checkpoint and piled back into their hired red van. Young rebels who have commandeered the vehicle hang out the open doors, flashing "V" for victory to their compatriots, as they cart the men away. A lone rebel standing on the highway lets loose a few rounds from his AK-47 in celebration.
Everyday eastern Libyan rebels and Muammar el-Qaddafi's forces clash in an ever-shifting front line of control for the country. Everyday the death toll to remove Qaddafi climbs. The rebels are impatient; they thought the fight for Tripoli would be over by now. But the ragtag liberation army takes solace in one thing: Everyone believes the bulk of Qaddafi's military might comes from African mercenaries.
The paid troops are believed to be imported from places like Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Niger, Mali, and Sudan. And although it's impossible to confirm any of this (there's no access to Qaddafi's roster) the rumor has had severe unintended consequences—now every dark skinned man in Libya is suspect.
"These are mercenaries, you see!" The men at the checkpoint insisted. When I asked how they could be sure, one man responded: "By the smell." He explained that these men dropped their weapons in the desert and scattered, and that now they were only pretending to be migrants. The rebels caught them because they smell like they haven't showered for days: mercenaries.
Many migrants don't carry paperwork, but even those who say they have shown the rebels their work visas have been targeted and taken from their homes in the middle of the night. One of the places they are brought is the courthouse in Benghazi, where they are being held in a makeshift detention center on the fourth floor.
In the first few days after Benghazi fell to rebel control, the command center was adamant that the Africans in their care were mercenaries. But when Human Rights Watch and visiting journalists questioned this, the rebels shut down access, begrudgingly allowing me in only after a long argument and the promise that I would not publish any of the Africans' names.
Upstairs, six men are shuffled into an empty office. They are from Ethiopia, Eritrea and Ghana. They appear calm, deferring to a man from Ghana who speaks perfect English. He says they were taken from their homes in Benghazi in a night raid. "People with guns came to search our house, they beat us and brought us in," he tells me. "We don't know anything about mercenaries. We spent the past four years working for a company."
The guards shout over him: Fine, if you're not a mercenary you're an illegal immigrant.
"I'm not!" the man responds, "I paid 400 dinar for a visa!"
The rebels change their story again. Now they say they are keeping the men for their own protection. "If you go outside now, people may kill you, you're here to keep your life," one of the rebel guards says.
As one of the first groups to be apprehended, these men were used as an example of the rebels' victory over Qaddafi's mercenaries. Their pictures were flashed on BBC and Al Jazeera Arabic. The rebels took pictures of them with their phones, which have also made the rounds. There's no way they can stay in Libya now.
"Tell my wife!" another man shouts to me, "Tell my family! We need our embassy! We need help!" "Enough," one of the rebel administrators, a woman, says. The men are escorted out.
The woman assures me that their claims will be investigated and that if the men are found innocent they will be released. When I return a week later I am told that the men have been let go. She points me to another woman, Karima Mousa Idris, a lawyer in charge of the detainees.
"We ask about their nationality, since when they've been in Libya, exactly where they were arrested, where he worked, whether he is employed, unemployed, show us your cards or passports. Some don't have passport, then we ask about their working contracts," Idris explains.
"We have to take time to question them. If they got released it's our responsibility, we don't want to be unfair and convict them on false charges. We also worry about their safety," she says.
Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director for Human Rights Watch, confirms Idris's claim. "The problem is not the authorities, but the general population," he says. "The problem is many Libyans now consider any Africans in Libya to be mercenaries."
Bouckaert recently visited the courthouse detention center and says that, aside from the overcrowding, the detained Africans are treated well. But that's just inside.
Outside is a different story as African men continue to be rounded up by the civilian-rebels, all of whom seem to be carrying weapons, and are brought into 'official' holding chambers for questioning. Once they are investigated and released, Idris explains, it's up to them to brave the evacuation route out of Libya.
Sarah A. Topol is a Cairo-based journalist. She has reported from Bahrain, Egypt, Israel and Palestine, Libya, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, Newsweek, and Slate, among others