Many have been arrested and accused of fighting for dictator, but claim they were press-ganged.
Earlier this year, as revolution and siege ground Tripoli to a halt, Mehdi Hassan knew where to look for work. He would drive his taxi to a roundabout in the south-west of the capital and wait for foreigners who had arrived with the name of a destination, but had no idea how to get there. “The cigarette factory,” he said. “That’s all they had to say.”
Hassan drove each of the men – there were around six over a three-week period – to a warehouse behind the giant, government-run tobacco plant in western Tripoli. The site was well known: an industrial plant, protected by military guards, which had become a cash cow for the Gaddafi regime.
“I was always told to go round here,” he said as he retraced the route this week, down a long straight road inside the factory’s high wall. “There were soldiers along the way and they pointed me towards that white building. Only one of the men I took there told me why he had come. The others couldn’t speak Arabic. He said I am here to fight for Gaddafi.”
The building, like almost every other government facility in town had been ransacked and abandoned. Three huge sacks of rice sat amid broken glass, an empty weapons crate and strewn green uniforms. A sign on the wall said: “God, Muammar and Libya only.”
But there was little else left to prove this place was what many in town believe it to have been – a processing centre for mercenaries, who threw in their lot with a dictator.
Mehdi and other drivers around Tripoli are adamant. “It was very clear what it was,” he said of the scene he saw in March. “They weren’t even trying to hide it. There were around 100 men there and all of them were African. The Libyan soldiers were trying to speak to them in English.”
In the 13 days since Gaddafi’s security forces were ousted, finding out how – and by whom – this totalitarian state was held together for so long has become an obsession for Tripoli’s brutalised residents as well as the city’s new guard, which rode into town seeking vengeance as much as a new beginning.
What began early last week as a series of security sweeps to uncover the remnants of Gaddafi’s loyalists has edged towards a larger and more troubling persecution. It is not a good time to be a sub-Saharan African here. It is an especially poor time to be black and in hospital with a gunshot wound.
A tour of the capital’s overworked hospitals over the past fortnight revealed sizable numbers of such men in beds alongside soldiers from Gaddafi’s ousted army. How they got there is an issue of much conjecture.
“I swear by God I was walking in the street when I was shot,” said a Senegalese man, Ali Senegal, in Mitiga hospital. A bullet had entered the right side of his neck and shattered his jaw.
A Gaddafi soldier in a bed opposite spoke up. “You were a sniper and you know you were,” he said. Senegal looked horrified and alone. Even if he was telling the truth, there is little chance that he will be believed.
In the next room, a second man from Niger had just been brought in from a triage centre with a gaping wound to his right leg. “I am a mechanic,” he said angrily. “I have been working in Abu Selim for three years.” Both men had the misfortune to be injured in a battle that raged on 26 August in the staunchly loyalist neighbourhood just south of Gaddafi’s Bab al-Azazia compound.
In the eyes of the doctors treating them, they had no good reason for being in Abu Selim. But at least here, the men can expect to be fed, given water and have their wounds tended to.
The street outside is not proving as kind. Across Tripoli, thousands of black Africans no longer enjoy the status bestowed on them under Gaddafi, when hundreds of thousands were welcomed over the past 25 years and given work permits or citizenship.
At least several thousand have been detained in the past fortnight on suspicion of being mercenaries. Many thousands more have fled or are in the process of doing so. Yet more still remain holed up in small groups in Tripoli neighbourhoods too frightened to venture out.
At Mitiga hospital two badly wounded men, one a Tuareg tribesman and another from Chad, walked gingerly into the emergency ward, wincing with every step. They had been staying together in a private home, not willing to seek help for fear of what might happen to them. “We were in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said the Tuareg man. “Help us.”
Hundreds of thousands of Africans fled Libya to their home countries, mainly Chad, Mali, Niger, Sudan and Somalia in the early days of the revolution in late-February and March.
Yet there is evidence that as they left, small numbers of men from the same countries were travelling in the other direction. Late last week at Abu Selim hospital, Dr Sami, a trauma surgeon, walked the Guardian around the grounds.
Every blood-caked trolley from inside the building had been wheeled outside into the scorching sunlight because the hospital was being disinfected in an effort to cleanse the stain and scent of death caused by so many bodies.
Sami took us to a hut near the hospital entrance, where cleaners had kept a memento – a wallet-sized card issued to a man from Chad. On one side it said in Arabic and English: “Carry this with you at all times and you will be safe.” On the other side it said: “I am here to protect the king of kings.”
Sami said: “This is what was given to the mercenaries. There were dozens like this. We had many, many of them in this hospital in the past few days. Most couldn’t speak Arabic, or English. They would just point at their injuries. They didn’t want to be admitted even if they were in agonising pain. Most of the bodies we had here were black Africans. And most of them were not claimed by anyone.”
In a second hospital, Shara Zaweya, in the centre of town, Dr Ghassem Barouni has also been treating suspected African fighters. He held up a necklace of one man – a Tuareg tribesman – who claimed to hold Libyan nationality and said: “He believed this was going to protect him from bullets. He was still very loyal to Gaddafi, even after all this death.
“It is 200% true that there were mercenaries here fighting for Gaddafi,” he said. “Many of them came just for that purpose. But there are others who have been here for a long time. They were allowed to work here and they were given benefits. But there was a price to pay for that. When the time came they were expected to fight.”
Sami’s account has been supported by interviews with many other officials over the past week who suggest an unknown number of non-military men took up arms to support Gaddafi in the dying days of his regime. Some were compelled to do so. Others apparently volunteered.
In a police station in Tripoli, where 34 alleged soldiers of fortune are being held, Abdalla Beid, 31, from Niger, said he had been living in Libya for seven years and working as a cleaner. He claimed he was recently deceived into joining Gaddafi’s army with the promise of a job as a security guard for 400 dinars a month.
“A Libyan man came to Sabha and said there is a job in Tripoli providing security for a house but he needs five people,” he said. “He took us to Tripoli and put us in a house. Then he said, ‘This job is not a security job. Now we are fighting for Libya. We need people to fight the rats.’
“He tried to give us guns. He tried to force us to do the job. He said, ‘I brought you here to do this job and you have to do it, whether you like the job or not.’ I tried to refuse. He said, ‘If you refuse, I will kill you.’ One man, who was from Chad, agreed to fight but the rest of us refused. He locked us in a room for six days. Then he drove us outside and, on the same day, I was caught.”
The desperate and savage last days of Gaddafi’s 42 years in power are rapidly recasting Libya’s historical association with Africa and lay bare the often cynical relationship Gaddafi had with the people he championed.
In the wake of the regime has come resentment and a current of racism that Libya’s new leaders have vowed will not become entrenched.
“Some people chose to fight,” said Winston Emerson Adango, who is trying to leave Libya to return to Niger. “But people like me just want to live.”
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