Victims of a Civil War: Black Africans in Libya

Benghazi, Libya — African detainees sit against a wall inside a security complex now run by rebels.
The opposition council governing eastern Libya brought foreign journalists to see the 50 African and Libyans
alleged to have been fighting for Moammar Kadafi. (Photograph by Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

It has been almost two months since the civil war in Libya started, and while Gaddafi has not yet been defeated it is clear that his chapter in the Book of History will end with his being toppled. With the US, West and Saudi Arabia openly supporting the rebels and providing political and military assistance it is only a matter of time until a new government takes over the oil-rich country. And even as the chapter still has a few pages left there are some twists and turns that seem to already be known, though largely untold.

For one, this will not end with, “And everyone lived happily ever after.” No story ever does. And for black Africans in Libya—or those who have fled or are still fleeing—this could not be anymore true. It is their story that underscores the tragedy of the Arab Revolution. For many, what has started as immigration to find work in order to feed their families, a story found on every continent, has quickly turned into a humanitarian crisis as they flee for their safety.

Libya, located in northern Africa, has a majority Arab population. It also has a racism problem. In a country of over 6 million people where a third of which are black Africans—the most oppressed group in the country—it would be completely appropriate to ask: Why aren’t they a part of the rebellion? Why is this an "Arab revolt"? It is very astonishing to see the most oppressed group not only uninvolved with a revolution but fleeing it in terror. Another interesting question is: If the rebels need foreign assistance to win, and to protect themselves from a massacre, then why have they not appealed to the black community to join their struggle in solidarity?

I have contacted the rebel leadership quite a few times (since March 28, 2011) now asking if they have any intention on speaking out against the abuses of black Africans and to call on them in solidarity to join their revolution, and to date I have not gotten a response. Now, the Interim National Council (INC) has recently issued announcements about their treatment of prisoners (which followed the highly critical report by Los Angeles Times mentioned below) and Al-Obaidi, but they have not said a word about the plight of their darker-skinned brothers and sisters. I do think it is a completely fair question to ask why human rights dissidents are not sticking up for the black underclass; they can speak out with specificity on the horrors visited upon an Arab woman, but don't seem to have it in them to stick up for blacks.

And while Arab racism towards blacks in Libya is nothing new it is not the fault of, as has been claimed, Gaddafi—who certainly has demonstrated his own racist tendencies as he did when he tried appealing to the world for support by saying that if he is removed from power “Europe will become black” because only he can stop the black hordes from their siege to the north.

The journalist Andrew Pervis has been in Libya for most of the uprising and keeping a diary and he has documented the racism:

The discrimination against blacks in Libya that helped propel much of the current exodus is shocking. In buses, it is not uncommon for Libyans of lighter skin to roll down the windows as an African is boarding to 'air' the place out … a kind of joke. Sub-Saharan Africans and Libyans of darker complexion are overcharged at stores, I am told. In the street, they are routinely referred to by the Arabic word for 'slave', abid. Gangs continue to roam the streets targeting blacks, stealing what they have, beating any who resist. For proud people who came to Libya to find money to support their families back home, it is a deep humiliation. When state media announced several weeks ago that black Africans were being hired as mercenaries in Ghaddafi's forces, the entire community knew that latent racism was in danger of becoming a pogrom so most went into hiding or fled for the border.

That last sentence is worth some consideration. The fear blacks feel are not just from Gaddafi’s forces but by the rebels too. The oppressed often have a keen sense of where things stand—having someone's boot on your neck can have that effect—and black Africans know that by Gaddafi announcing he has a “Coalition of the Willing” of his own that it is not his supporters who will visit abuse on them for the help of neighboring black soldiers (i.e. "mercenaries"), but the Arabs in the rebellion; a fear that has been born out as legitimate.

What we need now, probably more than anything, is for more journalists to go to the refugees in Egypt and Tunisia, to interview the black Africans who fled, and document their stories. I say this because considering the effects of the propaganda system we should expect that a narrow and politicized story against Gaddafi will get played out while other parts of the story will go ignored (so if we have any desire to know the whole story this would seem to be elementary). Already the UN has a group in Libya and they are documenting forced disappearances of hundreds of people they feel were critical of the Gaddafi regime. But what of the victims of the rebellion? And considering reports from earlier this month about abuses towards blacks by rebel forces (some of which ranged from harassment to complete massacres) it would be worth looking into how things are almost a month later. Andrew Pervis was recently in Egypt, but honestly, we don’t get much from his reports other than a lot of black Africans are there with no idea of what to do or where to go.

While black Africans in Libya are taking it from both sides it is their being a victim to the rebellion in particular that is a tragedy. No doubt many hoped this uprising would bring a better future, and for Arabs it may, this simply doesn’t look to be the case for blacks. Hopefully they will begin to get more attention and sympathy. For those who don’t escape before the rebels take Tripoli we should be very concerned about their fate.

As noted, racism has longed plague Libya and black Africans like most indigenous people have often been the victims of oppression. In October of 2000 BBC reported that “thousands of African immigrants living in Libya have been attacked by local residents. Some have had to take refuge in their respective embassies.”

A little more than a year ago UN Watch, a human rights arm of the international organization, issued a report on racism in Libya: “Libya must end its practices of racial discrimination against black Africans, particularly its racial persecution of two million black African migrant workers. There is substantial evidence of Libya’s pattern and practice of racial discrimination against migrant workers.”

Over at Monthly Review, one of their editors, Yoshie Furuhashi, wrote, “Al Jazeera reports that Black African workers now live in fear in the rebel-held territories in Libya.  Some of them have been attacked by mobs, others have been imprisoned, and some of their homes and workshops have been torched.  ‘Many African workers say they felt safer under the Gaddafi regime,’ says Al Jazeera's Jacky Rowland, reporting from Benghazi,” and that “It will probably take some time before the rest of the Left catches on to the counterfeit nature of the product sold to the world.”

On February 23, 2011, the UNHCR, said that the UN "has become increasingly concerned" about the many African migrants and asylum seekers in Libya. "We have no access at this time to the refugee community," according to Melissa Fleming, a UNHCR spokesperson. Since then they have gotten access to the refugees and thanked Egypt for their assistance while noting services are deteriorating as more and more refugees come in.

A couple of days after the February report mentioned above a journalist for UK’s Daily Mail was in Benghazi covering on the “mercenaries” when he reported:

The Africans I saw ranged from a 20-year-old to one in his late 40s with a grizzled beard. Most were wearing casual clothes. When they realised I spoke English they burst out in protest.

‘We did not do anything,’ one told me, before he was silenced. ‘We are all construction workers from Ghana. We harmed no one.’

Another of the accused, a man in green overalls, pointed at the paint on his sleeves and said: ‘This is my job. I do not know how to shoot a gun.’

Abdul Nasser, a 47-year-old, protested: ‘They are lying about us. We were taken from our house at night when we were sleeping.’ Still complaining, they were led away. It was hard to judge their guilt.

On the same day BBC reported: “One Turkish construction worker told the BBC: ‘We had 70-80 people from Chad working for our company. They were cut dead with pruning shears and axes, attackers saying: 'You are providing troops for Ghaddafi.' The Sudanese were also massacred. We saw it for ourselves.’"

Another example to highlight the race factor: There is a video of the protesters floating around the internet showing them chanting, "We are Arabs!" (at around 2:20)

The International Business Times carried a story on March 2 that said,

According to reports, more than 150 black Africans from at least a dozen different countries escaped Libya by plane and landed at the airport in Nairobi, Kenya with horrific tales of violence.

"We were being attacked by local people who said that we were mercenaries killing people. Let me say that they did not want to see black people," Julius Kiluu, a 60-year-old building supervisor, told Reuters.

Against this backdrop we can start to understand why blacks represent a large majority in the prisons being run by the rebellion, and an absence in the revolution.

The Los Angeles Times recently ran an article titled “Libyan rebels appear to take leaf from Kadafi's playbook," in which they said,

Opposition officials in Benghazi, whose wide sweeps to detain alleged Kadafi supporters have drawn criticism, take journalists on a tightly controlled tour of detention centers. Many detainees say they're immigrant workers and deny fighting for Kadafi.

And in another related article titled, “Journalists visit prisoners held by rebels in Libya,” we learn that, "The whole scene had an unsettling feel, as if these men had already been tried and convicted — and all that was left were their executions. In a strange twist, I learned that internal security officers of the Kadafi regime formerly used the facility to detain, torture and kill political dissidents.” (The image at the top of this article accompanies this story.)

From what we can gather in the press Gaddafi’s forces are largely Arab. This means some questions need to be asked. How come is it that when the press recently visited a rebellion-managed prison the prisoners were predominantly black? In the INC’s recent document announcing its “vision for a democratic society” it said they denounced racism. But in light of their silence on the plight of black Africans and the reports of attacks on them (including grisly videos showing two dead black men tied to the hood of a truck like they were hunted deer) and the disproportionate amount of their representation in rebel prisons, how much stock can we put in the claim? Are we to believe it is merely a coincidence, or that blacks have been easier to capture than Arabs? These questions hold significance for what we can expect to be in the next chapter on Libya.

For the most part the story of the Libyan civil war has had a good versus bad narrative of a dictator ruthlessly hanging onto his forty-year rule while spring has brought promise of an Arab revolt. Under this veneer is a darker story of the victims of the rebellion, and is a story that most be told if truth and justice is to prevail.

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