Internment and Terror for Black Libyans
UN stands by as Libyan rebels target black Africans.
Chaotic conditions in post-Gaddafi Libya have led to a breakdown in security that threatens hundreds of thousands of sub-Saharan black African migrant workers. Reports from Tripoli indicate that the rebels who took control of the city last week have been rounding up people described as “mercenaries,” but who appear to be innocent residents caught up in a racial dragnet, with the soldiers and their neighborhood council adjuncts arresting and detaining almost all males with a black face.
There is no firm number of blacks being held in Tripoli, but one rebel commander said that about 5,000 prisoners were being detained in several locations around the city. Human rights groups believe the number is much higher and have raised the alarm about the conditions in which prisoners are being held, as well as concern over the safety of all blacks in Libya. The African Union has withheld recognition of the National Transitional Council, taking them to task for what they view as a racist detention policy. And the NTC has rejected a UN offer of peacekeeping troops to “monitor” the situation.
The NTC has called on its soldiers not to abuse the prisoners, saying those charged with crimes will be given a fair trial. But there are many young men with guns roaming the streets, some of them robbing and beating innocents, with many reports of summary executions. Amnesty International has documented (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/aug/30/libya-spectacular-revolution-disgraced-racism) one gruesome atrocity outside of a hospital where 30 bodies, all of them black, were found to have been massacred.
And the rebels’ racism is not confined to black Africans. PJ Media’s John Rosenthal documented dozens of examples of anti-Semetic graffiti in Benghazi after that city fell into rebel hands, as well as many examples of black Africans being singled out for brutal treatment.
“Libyan people don’t like people with dark skins,” one militiaman said in reference to the arrests of blacks. That is certainly one reason for the indiscriminate nature of the round ups. But the rumors – apparently overblown, or downright false – that Gaddafi had hired black African mercenaries from Chad and elsewhere to act as executioners of Libyan civilians, gunning them down in cold blood during protests, has particularly poisoned the minds of many Libyans and has contributed to the racial tensions in the post-Gaddafi era. Representatives from both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch say they have investigated the claims by rebels of African mercenaries committing atrocities and have been unable to verify any of the rumors about them. This may be a case of rebel propaganda blowing back and putting thousands of innocents in danger.
There is also an historical context to be considered when talking about racism in Libya. As Stephen Brown pointed out in FPM last April, since the 7th century, 14 million blacks have been sold into slavery in Arab countries. This has resulted in a kind of racism not seen in America for decades, where blacks are considered sub-human and not fit for any task except those that an Arab considers beneath him. One African columnist writes, “In Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, Mauritania and the rest of the Arab world, Africans are treated like scum.” In marketplaces, Arabs throw stones at blacks, while preventing them from achieving any positions of authority in Arab countries. “There are hardly any Africans in high government positions in Arab governed countries…It is simply a way of life that’s all. Blacks do not really exist or at best are not human.”
With history – both recent and ancient – working against the black African workers that Gaddafi exploited and discriminated against, the mass arrests have angered the African Union to the point that they are refusing to recognize the NTC until they are assured that their citizens are protected by the new government. “NTC seems to confuse black people with mercenaries,” AU chairman Jean Ping said.“All blacks are mercenaries. If you do that, it means [that the] one-third of the population of Libya, which is black, is also mercenaries. They are killing people, normal workers, mistreating them,” he said.
The AU has also not withdrawn its “roadmap” that called for Gaddafi to remain in power while a transition to a new government was undertaken. This has not enamored the organization with rebel leaders who deny claims of mass roundups and racially motivated killings.
But several western news organizations would disagree with those denials. Reuters reports on a camp that desperate black Africans have set up along the sea shore where refugees tell grim stories of murder, robbery, and beatings at the hands of young Libyans who accost any male with a black face and are likely to haul them off to one of dozens of detention centers in the Libyan capital.
“The danger is that there is no oversight by any authorities, and the people who are carrying out the arrests - more like abductions - are not trained to respect human rights,” said Diana Eltahawy of Amnesty International. “They are people who carry a lot of anger against people they believe committed atrocities.”
Reuters also reports:
Reporters saw the bodies of 22 men of apparent African origin at a Tripoli beach Saturday, people who locals said were mercenaries killed by anti-Gaddafi fighters.
Elsewhere in Libya, dead men of African origin have been a common sight since the uprising, as has been the sight of ill treatment of Africans by Libyan anti-Gaddafi fighters.
While Gaddafi recruited heavily among the black tribes in southern Libya for the military, few of the victims in Tripoli were members of the armed forces. And the arbitrary nature with which the black males were rounded up with no effort to establish the residency of the detainees, has given Western governments, as well as human rights groups, cause for great concern. What of the thousands of detainees held elsewhere in Libya, but without the minimal protection of Western reporters and human rights observers being on hand? Rosenthal cataloged atrocities by rebels dating back to the beginning of the rebellion. One wonders whether violations of human rights by the anti-Gaddafi opposition will be investigated with equal fervor shown toward pro-Gaddafi forces.
One thing is certain: The NTC will not allow foreign military personnel on the ground in Libya. No peacekeepers, no “observers, no foreign troops at all.” Libya’s deputy representative to the UN, Ibrahim Dabbashi, said that Libya’s situation was unique: “It is not a civil war, it is not a conflict between two parties, it is the people who are defending themselves against the dictatorship.” That may well be, but their refusal raises suspicions that the NTC knows full well what’s happening and feels the fewer witnesses the better.
The UN can’t force the NTC to accept the observers, nor can Western governments deploy military units to help with even routine security. As it stands now, black African migrants are staying indoors, terrified to go out, or are huddling in makeshift camps with little food and water and no medicine. At the camp visited by the Reuters correspondent, disease had already broken out from the unsanitary conditions and fresh water was extremely scarce.
This is obviously a major test for the new government. While intentions may be good, the NTC have yet to demonstrate that its control over forces occupying the capital city is strong enough to counter the blatant racism and anger of rebel fighters who have yet to prove that they respect the human rights of prisoners regardless of their color. Massacres have already taken place. Indiscriminate killing is continuing.
Can the government do anything to stop it except offer platitudes about justice? The answer to that question will shape a post-Gaddafi Libya in the minds of the West and the rest of the world.