16 September 2011

Revolutionaries and racists? Who is saved and who is not

Four African mercenaries captured in Zliten, explain where they were trained and how they got to the front

Tripoli is still in shock after the blood shed during the fighting for its liberation. In the city the search for Gaddafi’s mercenaries continues. And black skin continues to be seen as a first indication of guilt. Yet in the city the announced massacre has not take place. No settling of scores, no summary executions of foreign nationals. On the contrary, on the streets one already comes across many black people, Libyans and foreigners, strolling around as if nothing has happened, continuing to work or even wear the rebels’ uniform. Others gather to pray in their churches, but the picture is not all rosy. The impression is that acting as discriminator are social ties. In other words, foreigners living in Tripoli, who speak Arabic and have woven a web of meaningful relationships here, feel protected. At risk of arrest and assaults are the most recent arrivals, those who have been living in Libya for a few months, who do not speak the language and do not know anyone who can clear them in case of false accusations. In the meantime in the city there have been some assaults - fortunately only isolated cases - while hundreds of Africans have sought refuge in a port of Janzur, the same one where up to two months ago boats were leaving for Lampedusa. They will remain there until the capital returns to normality. After all, that’s what many Africans are doing, staying locked up in their homes on the advice of the rebels themselves, waiting until calm returns. It now looks like it’s just a matter of days, at most a few weeks. Nearly all the families of Libyans who fled to Tunisia and Egypt during the war have already returned to the city. A good sign for peace. Soon the economy will start again, and every Libyan knows that not even a leaf moves without foreign labour in Tripoli.

Rabi'a’s skin is as black as night of Yefren. Yet another without electricity. What little light there is comes from the moon and the embers of the hookah he is smoking with his friends, wrapped in a cloud of white smoke. The Kalashnikov is propped against the wall, always at hand, the knife instead he keeps tied to his belt. Rabi'a is a volunteer of the revolutionary army of Yefren. The son of a black family in what is one of the major cities of the Berber mountains of Jebel Nafusa. Rabi'a fought with the Berber partisans to defend the city during the siege of Gaddafi’s troops. The famous army of 112, the number of young boys left to fight in the mountains to free the town after the flight of its inhabitants. With the same army, Rabi'a has fought for the liberation of Zawiya and Tripoli. He simply feels like one of them. And he almost does not understand our questions. This is his country, no one has ever made him feel inferior because of his Afro features and black skin. Because first of all he is a Libyan and according to him the historic black minority amongst the Libyan population is welcome. Not only in mountains, but also in the city, Tripoli.

In fact, even in the capital a few blacks can be seen in the crowd in the square of the martyrs - the old green square - where every night hundreds of thousands of people pour out to celebrate the fall of the regime. Only a few, but they’re there, some are even armed. They came from Misrata, Zintan and Benghazi on the day of the battle to liberate the capital. They shoot into the air to celebrate. People photograph them and point two fingers to make a v for victory. No one seems to notice the black skin. But there is no need to wear the uniform of the revolution to be respected.

To realize this, all you have to do is visit one of the finest cafés in the historic centre of the old medina in the capital, next to the ottoman Turkish bath, behind what remains of the arch of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. Here, a third of the customers are black Libyans. People of Sebha, full bellies and elegant clothes, attached to the hookah all afternoon in front of the television that projects images of the football debut of the new Libyan national team in Cairo, playing against Mozambique to qualify for the Africa Cup.

In the same café, we note two other blacks. They are the two waiters, who unlike the customers are not Libyan. Compaoré comes from Burkina Faso and Daoud is from Senegal. In Libya they have lived for over five years and here they have been working for a whole year. In addition to having become tobacco specialists, they are now fluent in the dialect of Libya and they are known by pretty much everyone in the neighbourhood. Reason why they feel safe: even if they were to have a problem with the police, it would only take a phone call to their employer to clear them of any charge.

Brahim is thinking the same way. He is from Chad. In Libya his father brought him 20 years ago, when he was a child of 9. Since then he has never moved from the old medina of Tripoli, where he owns a food shop. In recent months, he has never closed the shop. And as we speak, his Libyan clients confirm the good reputation he enjoys throughout the neighbourhood. He is not like the others, they say. The others are the 150 who were arrested in recent days on charges of being Gaddafi’s mercenaries, hidden in the Medina after escaping from the front. Far too many for a neighbourhood so small and far from the front line. One of the armed boys in the Medina must have gone too far. And those who came to take Mohammad Sami certainly went too far as well.

Mohammad Sami is a 44-year-old Nigerien trader. He lives in Niamey. In Libya he comes for work. He does import and export. Three months in Niger and three months in Libya. Two times a year. Up and down the desert, for a lifetime. I met him at the central hospital of Tripoli. Lying on a bed, fresh from the stitches on an ugly wound inflicted by his assailant with a knife in the thigh. He cannot understand the reason for this aggression. His partner, however, has no doubts. His name is Imed and it was he who rushed Mohammad Sami to the emergency room. They attacked because they thought he was one of the Nigerien mercenaries hired by Gaddafi who in the past days spread terror in the city.

This is also why many foreigners in the city are still hiding out in their houses. Bringing them food are the local committees of the revolution. There are groups in every street. They organised themselves through the mosques. They distribute water and food. Both from humanitarian aid landed in Tripoli in recent days, and from donations by private citizens in Libya. The volunteers who bring supplies to the homes of the Africans are the same people who advise them not to leave their homes. If they are clean, better to stay home for a few more days, the time it will take for the search of fleeing mercenaries to come to an end. Then everything will return to normal, they promise. And then they’ll be back to look for them, but this time for work.

That's the moment all foreigner who have decided to stay in Tripoli are waiting for, although in the last six months, Gaddafi’s militias offered the crossing to Lampedusa, Sicily, free of charge. The ports used for departures were three: the commercial port of Tripoli, the port of Zuwara and the small port of Sidi Bilel, in Janzur, where about seven hundred Africans are still stuck.

They are mostly Nigerians, but also from Mali, Ghana, Togo, Sudan and Chad. They found refuge in Sidi Bilel a month ago, by which time departures to Lampedusa had been blocked. But it wasn’t Europe they were interested in. They had come here to stay together, and because they felt protected by Gaddafi’s militia. Away from a city where the final battle was looming and far away from the risk of being mistaken for mercenaries during the fighting.

In the meantime, a month has gone by, and these old rotting fishing boats have become their homes. They sleep on board, or under the hulls of the boats in the middle of the square, covered by the shade of the tarps they’ve tied between one boat and the other. The conditions are more than precarious, especially in terms of safety. In recent days, in fact, they’ve been at the mercy of thugs, dangerous armed kids who from time to time, since Tripoli has been freed, show up to get their way, without having to answer to anyone for their bravados. A few shots in the air and some fake frisking used as an excuse to feel the girls up, a few dozen of them, present in the port.

Nothing compared to the serious incident that occurred Sunday August 21, the day after the entrance of the rebels in Tripoli. That evening, shortly after sunset, six armed rebel vehicles raided the pier of the port firing machine guns into the air to frighten the Africans and force everyone to concentrate into one area of ​​the square. There, an initial search turned into a group robbery. Those who had money and cell phones on them were robbed. Then came the women's turn. Four of the six patrol cars had already left. But the kids from the two cars that stayed behind took the girls to the side, behind the boats left on the ground in the yard. And there, as the girls themselves told us, they were forced to have sexual intercourse.

Since then the situation has improved, partly because in the meantime the news was reported in the international press, and the transitional council has instructed the Libyan half-crescent moon to check up on the camp. So within a few days, along with a team of Medecins Sans Frontieres, first came drinking water, then food and health care, and more generally the presence of a minimum number of workers and journalists that have so far limited the recurrence of incidents like the one of August 21.

In any case, frustration is rising in the port and more and more people are eager to return to their homes now that the situation in Tripoli is getting to normal. Kingsley and Jude have no doubt about this. They have been in Libya for four years; they have the right contacts to find work as soon as everything is up and running again. In the city many houses have been devastated by the fighting, not to mention government buildings and barracks destroyed by NATO bombings.

The Nigerians left in town are waiting for the same thing. People like Evans, Newman and his wife Patience. I met them before coming to the port of Sidi Bilel, while elegantly dressed they strolled in the city centre, having just come out of a religious celebration at one of the Nigerian Evangelical churches in Tripoli. They were on their way to have lunch with a friend, before heading together to Gurgi, where a prayer vigil is being held tonight at the home of a member of their congregation. They will stay up till dawn to pray. A sign that in Tripoli things are returning to normal.

translated by Camilla Gamba