18 May 2011

Forced deportations to Italy. Gaddafi's reprisal for the bombardments?

“They were holding the Kalashnikovs against us, we couldn’t ask any questions. We boarded the container without knowing where they were taking us.” They were arrested in the African neighbourhoods of Tripoli by Gaddafi’s soldiers and were forced to embark for Lampedusa. The ticket is on the house, provided by the regime. Definitely not voyages of hope, the crossings of the Mediterranean look more like actual mass deportations of Africans from Libya. Systematically organized by the army of the dictatorship. A well-proven system which has managed to expel 14.000 people to Italy in three months.

The idea is simple: to use the bodies of men, women and children in reprisal for the bombardments in Libya. With an appalling detail, which is very revealing of the relationship between Italy and Libya. The trucks used during the raids are the ones that Italy gave to the Colonel at the time of the pushing back policies. Initially they used them to deport into the desert the Africans who had been pushed back at sea. Today they’ve only changed direction. And instead of deporting them into the Sahara, they deport them to Italy.

Kingsley belongs to the Cameroonian community of Misratah. He experienced the siege, for weeks he was stuck in a neighbourhood, which was the scene of fierce gun battles between the military and the rebels. They were shooting every night, and when they weren’t fighting it was even worse. Because the drunken soldiers would turn up and take the women. Kingsley had never thought of Italy. All he wished was to rescue his family. He had chosen Egypt as a safer territory. He tried twice. But he was repeatedly pushed back by Gaddafi’s soldiers.

The same soldiers who on the evening of March 26th organized the roundup of Misratah’s Africans.

“We were the first to be taken from our houses. Initially we were few in the truck. Then little by little more people boarded. Finally we must have been at least two hundred. Locked up in the dark. Standing, stuck to each other. It was hot, stinking and the children were crying.”

An entire convoy left from the city that night. Kingsley counted the number of vehicles during a stop in the desert. Three container trucks, accompanied by three armored and off-road vehicles with a big aerial, for radio communications, and Gaddafi’s green flags in the wind. At least five hundred people, all taken by force from their homes.

The convoy got bigger on the way. Two trucks were added in Tripoli and a third one in Sabrata. So, once they arrived at the final destination, Kingsley counted six trucks. At least 900 people were hastily unloaded from the containers and locked up in an area controlled by the military.

“We stayed there a month and five days. It was an old unsafe house, outside the city of Zuwara. There were soldiers everywhere. They were wearing the green band on their arms; they were Gaddafi’s soldiers. I’m sure of this. We must have been 1.500 inside, and there were many children. I can’t even mention the dirt! Every day new trucks arrived and others left. There we understood that we would be going to Italy. One day they took us to the port of Zuwara, by night. But we had to wait for dawn to leave, because the NATO airplanes were overflying the city. And the soldiers had ordered us to hide. The day after they divided us: 320 on one boat and 280 on another. We were scared to die at sea, but we didn’t have any choice, we had the guns pointed at us.”

That was on April 27th. Twenty four hours later, a third fishing boat with 350 passengers sailed off from Janzour’s port, in Tripoli. Ruby was amongst them, a Ghanaian from Tripoli, his wife and their 13 month old baby.

“We didn’t want to come to Europe. The sea terrifies me. They sent us by force. They were Gaddafi’s soldiers, you can recognize them from the green band, I’m sure. It was very dangerous, they were armed, they came home and they forced us to board a truck. Inside a container, like the ones on cargo ships.”

The port of Janzour is at the periphery of Tripoli. Together with the port of Zuwara, it is one of the main stopovers used by the Libyan regime in the disembarkations operation. There’s a camp just like in Zuwara, also in Janzour, where the Africans to be deported to Italy are held captive and are kept under surveillance by the soldiers.

Lazhar spent two weeks and three days there. He’s Ivorian and lived in Misratah with his wife and their three year old child. The three of them managed to escape from the besieged city, on April 6th , after paying a Libyan driver who took them to the historical centre of Tripoli, the old medina. From there, some days after, they took a taxi to the airport, where, they had told him, the buses directed to the border of Tunisia to evacuate the refugees, were leaving from. But the taxi driver, without telling them anything, took them directly to Janzour.

“The camp is next to the port. They call it Sab'atash, meaning camp 17. I argued with the taxi driver, I wanted to go to the airport, but he wouldn’t hear of it. I had no intention to come to Europe. Because first of all you need to have the visa on the passport, you can’t just enter like that! Really, I had never thought of it all my life. All I had in mind was to work well and to send my son to school to study. But in the end we had to do what the soldiers were telling us. So we entered the camp, and inside we found hundreds of people coming from all over Libya.”

Loaded with 503 people, his boat left on April 27th, at five o’clock in the morning. Before leaving, the soldiers at the port told him jokingly that Gaddafi had given orders that all the Africans had to go to Italy. Free of charge. And indeed Lazhar, his wife and his child didn’t pay a cent. Just like Kingsley’s and Ruby’s family. The Colonel’s last gesture of generosity. Death at sea, at the regime’s expense.

translated by Alexandra D'Onofrio