Three years ago, Anthony Ogiexeri came to Libya from Nigeria in search of a better life. He moved into Tripoli’s rough Abu Salim neighbourhood where he met his wife, had a child, and found work as a bricklayer.
In Libya, he earned several times the roughly $190-a-month salary he would find in Nigeria. The country’s relative stability and oil-backed economy meant Ogiexeri could take care of himself, his new family and save for the future.
All that is gone now, swept away by revolution. Ogiexeri is trapped, along with hundreds of other sub-Saharan Africans, in a squatter camp at an abandoned port facility on Tripoli’s western fringes, afraid to venture out for fear of reprisals and suffering in squalor as they wait for help.
Elsewhere in the capital, black Libyans and other migrants are being arrested on sight and imprisoned by armed residents, rebel fighters and untrained officials who have assumed localised control of security in the wake of Muammar Gaddafi’s defeat and disappearance.
The campaign of arrests has alarmed human rights groups and illustrates the persistent racial tensions and absence of a central, accountable authority in Libya as the National Transitional Council begins to assert control over a country that had been ruled through one family for more than 41 years.
Men and women like Ogiexeri are stuck. Going home means a return to poverty, staying in Libya means violence, possibly death.
“If there is any place in the world where we can just work, even if it means us digging in the ground, wherever, we would be very much happy to leave this place,” Ogiexeri said.
The harbor squatter’s camp is set back from a main thoroughfare of shops and houses in Tripoli’s sprawling Janzour district, invisible down a tree-lined dirt track that leads to a scrub-covered bluff, below which sits the camp.
Next to the camp is an unfinished concrete marine facility with an enormous, empty, trash-filled pool, possibly a former military training base, where a few of the camp residents sleep and shield themselves from the 38-degree cloudless heat.
But most have made homes on the flat, sandy expanse of the port, by the sides of broken-down, dry-docked fishing boats, where they have tied blankets and arranged chairs and makeshift tables. They cook pots of stew for most of their meals and pass the time with a variation on checkers they call “draift”.
Most of the camp residents who spoke with Al Jazeera during two recent visits described tolerable lives that had been shattered by the popular uprising. Others simply went from bad to worse. One man, 47-year-old Muhammed Hamid, had been resettled in Tripoli after fleeing the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region three years ago. Now he was a refugee again.
Many described how race-based discrimination and violence, long an issue in Libya, had been inflamed by the war.
Justice Ansan, a stringy 45-year-old Ghanaian with a salt-and-pepper goatee, was living with other migrants in a house in Tripoli when, around two weeks ago, six men broke inside, demanding money. Ansan struggled with one of the men, who pulled a knife and stabbed him low in the pelvis, leaving a five-inch cut up through his belly. They stole Ansan’s passport and $4,000 – his life savings. He spent three days in hospital, having avoided any serious internal injury, and then came to the camp.
“Once you’re a black man, even the small boys oppress you,” Ogiexeri said.
Camp residents have alleged that when rebels advanced through the area on their way to the capital around two weeks ago, opposition fighters came into the camp, assembled everyone there, then stole some of their possessions and raped some of the women. Aid workers who have taken down accounts of rape say there is no way to know for certain who committed the acts, especially since the territory was contested at the time.
But the abuse, residents say, occurred before and after the rebels’ arrival.
Local men have repeatedly raided the camp, stealing phones, money and provisions. According to numerous residents, they have also raped women. Tina Udi, a 29-year-old Nigerian who is five months pregnant, said she had to flee into the surrounding bushes for three hours one recent night when the men made one of their visits, firing weapons into the air.
During Al Jazeera’s first visit to the camp, a Libyan man walking among the boats asked if journalists had a permit to be there and walked away when told they did. During the second visit, a member of the Al Jazeera staff responded to gunshots being fired in the air near a journalist’s car and found two local men who asked how long the visitors would stay.
Udi, who lives in the camp with her husband, previously worked in deep southern Libya, near Chad and Niger, selling food across the borders. She decided to head to Tripoli in March after the fighting began, in order to find a flight home. It took three days to reach the outskirts of the capital, where Udi’s bus ran into a checkpoint guarded by armed men without uniforms. They wanted money and knew all the hiding places, quickly finding the cash she had hidden in her hair.
Udi said she could not find flights to Nigeria. She decided to stay briefly in the Abu Salim neighbourhood, but nighttime gunfire and explosions scared her way. In June, she moved to join other migrants at the harbor.
The camp proved no better. The food is poor, she said; there is no meat or fish and the water they retrieve from streams and nearby wells tastes salty. She estimates that she is among 10 to 15 pregnant women there.
“I worked very hard so I could earn a good living,” she said. “We lost everything during the war. We need help from the UN.”
Libya’s revolution, according to its political leaders, aims to supplant the eccentric authoritarianism of Gaddafi with freedom, democracy and equality. But the opposition now coming into government will have to confront a legacy of discrimination against minorities that has recently found new life.
In the past, Gaddafi has oppressed both black Libyans and ethnic Arab Berbers in the western Nafusa Mountains. Last year, the regime lashed out against the Tabu tribe, darker-skinned Libyans who live in and around the towns of Sabha and Kufra near the Chad border. Tabu homes were demolished and the people stripped of their nationality during a small armed conflict.
More recently, Gaddafi reportedly offered nationality to Tuareg fighters from Niger, Mali and elsewhere if they would fight on his side against the rebels. While discrimination against black Libyans is not new, it was this strategy and other efforts by Gaddafi to enlist poor, dark-skinned migrants that have inspired a backlash among the mostly Arab Libyan rebels.
Promise Ebroriku speaks about rebels who tried to recruit him to fight
Black men in Libya are now targets. Though many can be seen walking the streets and working freely – a van even came to pick up selected residents at the squatters camp for cleaning work in Tripoli – opposition forces have arrested many for no other reason than their race.
Camp residents say that men sent out of the camp to buy supplies, including five on Sunday, have been arrested. Other migrants living together in homes in the surrounding Janzour district are also afraid to venture too far.
Promise Ebroriku, a 30-year-old Nigerian in the camp, worked in the Kashmir restaurant in Benghazi, the eastern hot bed of the revolution, until he decided to abandon the battered city in April and head to Sudan. On the road south, his car was stopped at a rebel checkpoint. The fighters pulled him and his companions aside and offered them weapons to join the fight against Gaddafi. Some men agreed, but Ebroriku refused. He was beaten with rifle butts for his decision, he said, and still feels pain in his chest when he breaths.
The International Organisation for Migration, which specialises in evacuating foreign nationals from war zones, has said it is aware of the situation in the camp but still has not negotiated safe access with Tripoli’s political or military leaders.
Robin Waudo, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Tripoli, said ICRC workers had visited the camp and confirmed they had received accounts of mistreatment and rape similar to those heard by Al Jazeera.
Few camp residents want to return to their home countries, he said. Yet the security situation is untenable, and the ICRC has been talking to the local Janzour council to try to ensure the residents are not exposed to any further abuse, Waudo said.
But the ICRC and the IOM have still been unable to remove anyone from the squalid conditions, nor even begin the process of reconnecting the refugees with their families back home, many of whom haven’t heard from them in weeks.
Waiting for help
Ebroriku was released, but many other dark-skinned men in Libya have not been as lucky.
Inside Ain Zara police station in the southeastern district of Fernaj on Monday, Al Jazeera found a group of sub-Sarahan Africans being held inside a multi-room cell on suspicion of having fought or worked for the regime during the uprising. The group included Gambians, Guineans, Chadians, Malians and Senegalese. They said there were 31 inside but produced a list of 18 names when asked.
At first, the opposition men working at the station said they were holding only common criminals, those found drunk or looting. After Al Jazeera spoke with the prisoners, however, the guards said the black men needed to be interrogated and their cases investigated for possible regime ties before being released.
While Al Jazeera journalists were present, the guards released 10 lighter-skinned Libyan men in the cell. They had been found living together in an apartment, interrogated, and held in custody for one night.
Mamadou Saidou Jaliow, a 25-year-old Gambian, explained through the cell door’s bars that he had come to Libya to find a boat to take him illegally to the Italian island of Lampedusa – the trafficking route Gaddafi had suddenly opened in order to punish NATO countries with a flood of humanity.
On the road from Sabha to Tripoli, Gaddafi loyalist troops stole the $700 Jaliow planned to use to pay his smuggler’s fare. When he arrived in the capital on August 15, he found a Senegalese man in the Old City who helped him find an apartment with other Gambians. The men stayed informed about the rebels’ military progress by watching Al Jazeera, CNN and BBC.
One night, after rebels took the capital, armed men came to check the apartment. They were respectful, looked for weapons, and left, Jaliow said. The following night, at 3am, eight men returned with the landlord, demanding the migrants’ passports and tying their hands. They said they wanted the migrants to speak with their elders. After an hour of interrogation in the police station, they were put in the cell. On Monday, Jaliow had spent three days inside.
“They say it’s a new democracy, they are going to help us,” Jaliow said. “They took our money, our passports … we have not been able to contact our families.
“They told us that they were going to release us, [that] they are just going to hold us for a while because the city is not safe.”
For three days, the men’s diet was water, milk, and cake, he said. On Sunday, the guards brought rice.
Saleh Suleiman al-Ghradi, the new “coordinator” for the station, said the prisoners had received fruit and meat and were eating better than they would normally.
Some of the men inside the cell had served among Gaddafi’s troops, Ghradi said, but the police station leaders had agreed that the men would be released if there wasn’t any proof to tie them to the regime.
None of the jailers were trained for their job, Ghradi admitted. They were electronics engineers, taxi drivers and mechanics. But all had been selected by merit, he said.
The ability of ad-hoc local citizens’ committees to arrest and detain anyone, especially vulnerable migrants, has troubled human rights workers, who are concerned that there is no accountable justice system, even a temporary one, yet in place.
Edmond Okoror, a 25-year-old Nigerian, explains refugees’ dilemma of returning home or staying in Libya
On Monday, workers with Amnesty International witnessed rebels forcibly remove a black man being treated in Tripoli Medical Center. An attending physician “authorised” the man’s arrest.
The fighters said he would be taken to Misrata for questioning and argued that interrogators in Tripoli “let killers free”. The man was from the town of Tawargha, east of Tripoli, which is known for being sympathetic to Gaddafi and where loyalist brigades had marshaled and fired rockets on Misrata.
The fighters told two other black men in the hospital that “their turn was coming”.
Samira Bouslama, an Amnesty worker in Tripoli, said that during a visit to Ain Zara prison, warden Lotfi Mesalati told investigators that of 304 detainees, more than half were “black Africans”. Among them were 11 Nigerian women being held in cramped, unsanitary conditions, Bouslama told Al Jazeera.
The women said that rebels had raided their house on August 22, arrested the men living there and took money and valuables. The next day, the women were arrested on their way to shop. They were kept overnight in a mosque with around 30 men, then transferred to Ain Zara, which rebels emptied on August 23 and have since converted into the city’s first semi-official prison, with the approval of the local military council.
The women complained to Bouslama about the quality of their food and the lack of running water to use for showers. They have no access to feminine products and have torn off pieces of their own clothes to use as tampons, Bouslama said.
“Our concern is: Who has the power,” Bouslama said, and what happens when young men with guns and grudges “go looking for revenge”.
“What is the hierarchy? Who has the power of arrest?” she asked.
Mesalati told Amnesty investigators that inmates’ charges would be checked and the cases assigned to judges and prosecutors. If men were found not guilty, they would be released, he said. But Mesalati was removed from his post this week, Bouslama said, and evidence of the judicial effort has yet to be seen.