02 April 2011

Caught in the crossfire. Foreigners in Libya during the revolution

Nashat didn’t have the time to pack his luggage when he escaped. He only managed to take the photograph of his children. He asks me to show it on television so that his family in Banisuif, in Egypt, may know that he’s still alive. A crowd forms around him. They are all Egyptians and they are thousands. The grey tents set up by the Libyan Red Cross stretch out to the horizon, along the whole avenue that leads from the steelworks to the industrial harbour of Misratah. They all want me to make a note of their names and to take their picture. I’m the first journalist they have met since they left their houses in the city three weeks ago. They sought refuge here, whilst waiting for the Egyptian government to send a ship to save them from the war. The troops of Gheddafi have cut the phone lines of the city. And, since then, they haven’t had any contacts with their relatives in Egypt, who have been anxiously following the news on Al Jazeera of the bombardments against civilians, and hoping that their dear ones may still be alive.

The bombs arrived here as well. For three consecutive days. Last Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, the heavy artillery of the government militias attacked the port of the city. Maybe to block the Turkish ship-hospital from mooring, after letting it wait for three days in the port, with a load of medicines for the city. In the end it was forced to change its course because it was too dangerous. Maybe the attacks were intended to hit us journalists. Myself, Stefano Liberti from the Manifesto, Alfredo Bini from the Cosmos photographic agency, two reporters from Afp and a troupe from the CNN, all arrived via sea on a fishing boat loaded with humanitarian aid, which had been repeatedly bombarded by rockets.

The last ones fell just several metres behind the walls that separate the camp of the refugees from the port. Just a few metres closer and they would have caused a massacre. In fact there are five thousand people under the tents. The estimate was provided by the volunteers of the Libyan Red Cross that set up the camp and are in charge of the daily distribution of drinkable water, bread and cans of tuna. Four thousand Egyptians, 400 Bangladeshis, and another thousand amongst Nigeriens, Sudanese, Ghanaians, Chadians, Nigerians and Eritreans.

This is the port from which the ferryboat Mistral left with 1.800 Moroccans on board, and was then pushed back from Malta and from Italy last March 15th. Another 2.300 Egyptians were evacuated on March 7th on a ship that reached Alexandria, in Egypt. Three more ships of that size would be enough to evacuate all the others. A trifle for governments and humanitarian agencies. Yet, so far, no one seems to be interested in doing something. Under the tents the refugees talk about nothing else. To return home, and run away from war. They are all workers, people like Taha, who accompanies me to visit the families and acts as interpreter with his Friulian (from Friuli, a region in North East of Italy) accent.

He studied Italian at university in Cairo, and he picked the accent in Misratah, after working two years for Siderimpes, a company in the steel business original from Gorizia. They are waiting for the ship that will rescue them and they swear not to return to the city for anything in the world. They’re scared of Gheddafi’s troops. Because many Egyptian young men sympathized with the revolution of the Libyan youth. I had already noticed it in Benghazi, where the humanitarian aid convoys were arriving from Egypt. And several Egyptians were in the square waving the Libyan flag alongside their own. These young men had been living in Libya since childhood, or even since birth. Men like Mustafa Yasir of Syrian origin, born and raised in Misratah, who today is admitted to Hikma’s hospital where he’s waiting for an operation to amputate both his legs, mangled by a grenade as he was trying to defend his own town with an old Kalashnikov. For this reason the Egyptians too are escaping, fearing that if Gheddafi’s forces retake control over the city, they will be massacred.

The Sudanese and the Chadians instead, run away for the opposite reason. They fear the rebels. Here they are safe. The young people fighting for the revolution provide them with water and food every day, despite the city is under embargo and the goods of first necessity are scarce even for the Libyan families. But just beyond the perimeter walls of the steelworks they risk being lynched if mistaken for Gheddafi’s men. The fact that the Colonel has deployed an army of mercenaries to destroy Misratah, is no longer a secret. The young people fighting for the revolution captured them still with the camouflage fatigues on and Mauritanian, Nigerien, Chadian and Malian passports in their pockets. They killed them on the spot. Slaughtered with a knife, like animals.

Videoclips of their corpses, piled up on the trucks that take them out of the town, circulate on the mobiles of the youngsters who took them. The spiral of the violence in town has reached such a stage that no one finds it objectionable. The appeals of the temporary cabinet’s lawyers, that the mercenaries are to be arrested and put on trial, fall on deaf ears. For a black African, nowadays in Misratah, it is enough to be found at the wrong place at the wrong time to be mistaken for a mercenary in civilian clothes on the run.

At any rate, either Egyptians or Sudanese, this is not their war. All they want is to get out of Libya. Just like hundreds of thousands of Tunisians, Egyptians, Chinese and Bangladeshis already have done. And like tens of thousands of Sudanese, Chadians and Nigeriens already have done by returning to their countries by land, following the Sahara route backwards, towards south. However, there are still thousands of foreigners stranded in Libya. And not just in the port of Misratah. There are more in Tripoli, from where the crossings towards Lampedusa have begun once again. There are more at Sallum, on the border with Egypt.

We were there last week, at Sallum, during our trip from Benghazi to Misratah. We saw about a thousand Chadians and about a hundred Eritreans set up in tents around the Egyptian customs, without the permit to travel to Cairo and without assistance from their own embassies to help them return home. They sleep on the ground on cardboards, with blankets pulled over their heads to protect themselves from the cold of the spring nights of the Mediterranean.

Outhman is one of them. He comes from Benghazi, where he has lived for seven years and where he has no intention to return. He’s thirty years old. He took all his family away from Libya. The children sleep with their mother in the square of the women. He used to work in a chicken farm. The salary was good, 500 dinars per month. And life wasn’t bad at all, thanks to the fact that Chadians also speak Arabic well and it’s easy for them to integrate. According to him, the trouble started with the revolution. People have become violent in Benghazi, he says. Youngsters chased them on the streets, crying out that they don’t want to see anymore blacks in Libya. That’s why he says that for them it is over in Libya. Even in twenty years from now, they will not set foot here again. Also because they prefer much more Gheddafi’s dictatorship to the rebels. And they are not ashamed to admit it.

Afterall, it was the Colonel who invited them to come. He is the only one who for over a decade supported a panafrican policy, when the international community had decreed an embargo against him. And he has invested lots of money south of the Sahara, financing at the same time great works and armed groups which in forty years have sowed terror in a great part of the continent. And it was Gheddafi himself who opened the frontiers to the African brothers and invited them into Libya to work and prosper, only to leave them in the care of his police as soon as Europe lifted the embargo and started investing really heavily in Libya.

However, apart from what the Chadians at Sallum think of Gheddafi, there remains a question mark over immigration into Libya in future. Will the African workers return or not? And if they do not return, who will take their places? These too are fundamental questions in order to understand what is going to happen in a country in which 25% of the population before the revolution was represented by the foreign workers. Who thanks to the war are caught in the crossfire. And who after the peace will have to decide whether to return or sever any further contacts with Libya.