A group of Chadian migrants woke one morning to find armed militiamen torching their home in the Libyan city Benghazi soon after the rebellion against Muammar Gaddafi began.
The militia believed the dark-skinned Chadians were regime supporters and wanted them out. Reports proliferated at the time as to how Gaddafi was employing African mercenaries to brutally beat down the revolt. In a matter of days, the 300,000 Chadians who called Libya home became targets.
"They claimed as Chadians we are big supporters of Gaddafi, and our community is full of mercenaries sent by Chad’s government to help Gaddafi."
- Achta Ankori Mahamat, Chadian migrant
Inside the home was Achta Ankori Mahamat, who had lived in Libya more than half her life, moving to Benghazi as a single mother at age 15.
“They kicked us out of the house. Some of them started to mistreat us and curse at us, asking us to leave their country or they’ll kill us,” Mahamat said. “They claimed as Chadians we are big supporters of Gaddafi, and our community is full of mercenaries sent by Chad’s government to help Gaddafi.”
Most of the Chadian men and boys fled, chased away by anti-regime militias. Mahamat, along with other women and children, soon departed Benghazi on a grueling 650km journey to the capital, Tripoli.
“Because of the insecurity along the road, it took us one week instead of only one day to get to our destination,” she said. “We had very little food and water with us, and we were worried about our uncertain future.”
A better life
Mahamat, 37, had worked as a Benghazi market trader. Like countless other Africans seeking a better life, she left her native Chad to provide for her children and her parents, whom she left behind “in a very desperate situation”.
Life in Libya was better than at home, despite the challenges she faced in a new country. She was able to support her family, slowly picking up the local Arabic dialect and its way of life.
But it all came crashing down once the uprising against Gaddafi kicked off in in February 2011.
Libya has a population of about six million people. Some 2.5 million migrants lived in the country when the revolution began.
Between February 28 and September 27, 2011, a total of 706,000 migrants from 120 different countries escaped across Libya’s borders - one of the largest migration crises in modern history. Many managed to cross back into their native Tunisia, Chad or Egypt.
For more than 250,000 stranded at Libya’s borders, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations provided transport assistance and safe return by land, air and sea. Thousands were helped by their own governments. China and India, for example, sent chartered planes to pick their citizens up from Libya.
|Actha Mahamat was forced to flee Libya and now is in Chad with little chance of finding work. [IOM/Al Jazeera]
But thousands of others were stuck, caught between enemy lines, unable to afford the journey home, and even becoming targets themselves. Though foreign mercenaries did play some part in the conflict, the International Organization for Migration says the vast majority of Chadians in Libya were just trying to send what little money they earned back home to support relatives.
A number of African mercenaries were captured by anti-Gaddafi forces. Several news outlets showed video of their frightened faces as they were surrounded by rebel fighters brandishing guns and knives. But their fate remains an unreported story.
The journey from Benghazi to Tripoli was just the beginning for Mahamat and many others. Migrants fleeing Libya’s borders with Sudan and Chad faced serious risks because of the harshness of the desert trek.
Adoum, 17, from Chad, shared a truck with 84 others during a punishing 10-day journey through the deserts of Libya and Chad as they fled the fighting.
“We did not have enough water during the trip,” says Adoum, who uses one name. Three young men died during the journey, all from dehydration.
Mahamat made it safely back to Chad about a year ago. But life is tough. She had married a Chadian in Libya, but when the conflict broke out, he abandoned the family. After returning to Chad, Mahamat is now a burden on the parents she had supported for years.
Millions of other migrants face similar predicaments. One of the consequences of the Arab Spring uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East has been a mass exodus of migrant workers from the region.
The recent military coup in Mali may be partly blamed on the proliferation of weapons from Libya, as well as the return of Tuareg combatants who fought as mercenaries alongside Libyan troops.
"They fought for Gaddafi in Chad, Lebanon, Libya, even against Israel. In return he promised the stateless Tuaregs help with establishing their own nation state."
-Akli Sh’kka, Tuareg spokesman
Akli Sh’kka, a spokesman for the Tuareg Youth Movement, says Gaddafi used Tuareg fighters for decades. “They fought for Gaddafi in Chad, Lebanon, Libya, even against Israel. In return he promised the stateless Tuaregs help with establishing their own nation state,” he says.
The fall of Gaddafi only hastened the Tuaregs’ resolve. Armed fighters have now declared independence in northern Mali, and are enforcing a strict interpretation of Islam.
For Mahamat, life back in Chad is a struggle. She is still without a job, with five children between the ages of 5 and 12 to care for.
Mahamat tried to get a small business started, but the initial investment has been exhausted by the daily expenditures required to put her children through school. She is totally reliant on her extended family, none of whom have a steady income.
Mahamat says she has no desire to return to Libya again. Like many families torn apart by the conflict that overthrew Gaddafi, it’s back to square one for her and the thousands of other migrants caught in the uprising.