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To be black in Libya

To be black in Lybia
A refugee from Tawargha explodes in anger after her brother was kidnapped by militias in Tripoli. Photo by Karlos Zurutuza

It’s easy to spot them sweeping the streets of Tripoli dressed in orange jumpsuits. Some others are more elusive, like those in the Gargaresh district, in southwest Tripoli. They line up along the road waiting for occasional work in construction. The atmosphere in Gargaresh is always tense and everyone seems reluctant to speak. Chiboy, a 22-year-old Nigerian, explains the reason behind the deafening silence.

‘This is like a game of Russian roulette,’ said the young migrant, holding a spade. ‘We can either jump on the back of a truck for a job in construction, or end up in the back of a pick up that will take us to a detention centre,’ he explains, constantly keeping an eye on the busy road.

On a good day, Chiboy will make around $5.00. There are also those days in which his contractor will refuse to pay him after an exhausting journey. But it can be much worse.

Lybia's black community
Sub-Saharans wait to get occasional work in construction, in Tripoli's Gargaresh district. Photo by Karlos Zurutuza

‘When I arrived in Tripoli six months ago they put me in prison. All of us inside were black, hundreds. They would beat us on a daily basis. One day they gave me a mobile phone and told me to call my family back in Nigeria. While I was speaking with my sister, they kept beating me. They told her she had to pay $740.00 (1,000 Libyan dinars) as a ransom, otherwise they would beat me to death,’ recalls the migrant.

He was lucky and the money finally arrived a month later through other Nigerians in Tripoli. ‘Those who can't afford it are either killed in prison or sold as slaves for construction work,’ points the young Nigerian. Several around him nod. Many have undergone a similar experience in which the procedures and the amount of the ransoms followed a similar pattern.

There are estimated to be some three million migrants and refugees in Libya, mostly Sub-Saharans. They wait and work toward their passage to Europe in a country which now has three governments – one in the East, one in the West and one backed by the UN – none of which are able to govern. The judicial neglect is rife, but Shokri Agmar, a lawyer from Tripoli, pointed to a more pressing problem for the foreign workers:

Displaced children from Tawargha play at the makeshift refugee camp in Janzur Naval Academy, west of Tripoli.
Displaced children from Tawargha play at the makeshift refugee camp in Janzur Naval Academy, west of Tripoli. Photo by Karlos Zurutuza

‘They’re in a state of complete and utter helplessness,’ underlines Agmar. ‘Us, Libyans, rely on our own militias to protect ourselves but migrants lack a militia of their own so they are defenceless against the constant threats. Whatever happens to them, no one will lift a finger, and they cannot keep a low profile because of the colour of their skin,’ added the lawyer.

Despite the surge in shipwrecks and other incidents at sea over the last months, Chiboy and the rest in the coastal Gargaresh will jump on a raft to cross the Mediterranean as soon as the gather the amount to pay a passage.

‘What else could we possibly do?’ says Basiru, a 32-year-old Gambian. ‘There’s nothing for me back home and I prefer to risk my life at sea rather than staying in this country.’

Missing a ghost town

A Libyan passport however is no guarantee to avoid abuses if you are one among the more than 40,000 inhabitants of Tawargha scattered across several refugee camps throughout the country. Today a ghost town, Tawargha was the only town in coastal Libya with a black majority, its inhabitants being the descendants of former slaves who were emancipated from slavery during Italian rule spanning early-to-mid 20th century (1911-1943). During the 2011 war Gaddafi's forces used the city as a base for a brutal two-month siege of neighbouring Misrata. Libyan rebels eventually broke the siege and sought revenge on the people of Tawargha, whom they saw as responsible for Misrata's suffering.

The plastic and corrugated iron shacks that once housed Turkish construction workers near Tripoli’s airport have been the closest thing to ‘home’ for hundreds of families displaced since 2011 in the Fallah and Tarik Matar camps. Mabrouk Suessi, a former physical education teacher in Tawargha, is Tarik Matar spokesperson and executive member of the Tawargha Local Council, the umbrella organization for this displaced community.

‘We hardly ever leave the camp as we face all sorts of abuses, from kidnappings to brutal beatings that often result in the death of the victims,’ denounces Suessi. Behind him, a poster still shows the set of luxury apartment blocks this muddy place was meant to be after completion of construction. ‘The militias have even broken into the camps and kidnapped our young boys at gunpoint,’ claims Suessi, the proud father of two twin sisters born in these barracks.

The market in Murzuq, a Tebu stronghold in southern Libya.
The market in Murzuq, a Tebu stronghold in southern Libya. Photo by Karlos Zurutuza

In a report released last January, Human Rights Watch denounced the local council of Misrata and affiliated militias for continuing to prevent the residents of Tawargha from returning home. The New York based NGO also pointed out that Tawarghans face ‘harassment and arbitrary detention while perpetrators continued to benefit from impunity since 2011.’ Statistics are eloquent, but the fact that dark skinned people are called ‘Abid’ – literally meaning ‘slave’ in Arabic – a term used openly and casually to refer to black people in North Africa and the Middle East hints at the depth of the problem.

In 2013, the then Libyan government offered to build 500 homes for the Tawarghan refugees in Jufra, an inhospitable region deep in the Libyan desert. The Tawargha Local Council has repeatedly rejected the idea.

The dire situation faced by the displaced in both camps close to the airport area is a common currency amid the rubble of the former naval academy of Janzur, in western Tripoli, today home to 300 Tawarghan families.

‘We are Libyans and we want to go back home, that’s it,’ said Abu Musa, a Janzur camp resident. ‘There were other well known Gaddafi strongholds during the war, and also of lots Moroccans and Algerians who fought for Gaddafi, but none of them suffer as we do’, lamented Musa, before rounding up his whole speech in a resounding statement: ‘It’s just because we’re black.’

Libyans, yet not Arabs

Six hundred and thirty miles south of Tripoli, the city of Murzuq rises as an unexpected human settlement in the flat Saharan sands of southern Libya. The majority here are Tebu, inhabitants of the vast and inhospitable desert region criss-crossed by the borders of Libya, Chad, Sudan and Niger. As the rest of their Subsaharan neighbours, they are also black and, along with the Amazigh, they are part of Libya's non-Arab indigenous population.

Among their most remarkable achievements in recent years is a cultural awakening launched just as Gaddafi lost his grip over the south. Books were released in their language for the first time ever; students were taught at school in their mother tongue. Things had changed for the better after decades during which many had been prevented from getting healthcare, education and employment, and even deprived of citizenship.

Since the war in 2011, the Tebu had been watching the worrying events in the rest of Libya from the safety of their remote areas. ‘Do you see what those Arabs on the coast are doing to each other?’ blurted a Tebu militiamen in Murzuq while watching on TV the serious clashes between rival factions in 2014 which would eventually lead to the split between Tripoli and Tobruk governments. However, the war ‘on the coast’ would finally reach Libya’s southernmost gate in 2015, when the Tebu became engulfed in a proxy war with their Tuareg neighbours. The arrival of the Islamic State, whose militants have exploited the power vacuum to expand their presence all over the region, has just made the environment more deadly and complex.

Tebu militiamen get set to go on patrol in Murzuq, in Libya's southern desert.
Tebu militiamen get set to go on patrol in Murzuq, in Libya's southern desert. Photo by Karlos Zurutuza

Adam Rami Kerki is the head of the Tebu National Assembly, the main political organization for this people in Libya – today aligned with the UN backed government. The representative spoke of ‘complete and utter racism’ and denounced discrimination ‘rooted in the idea that non-Arab indigenous people should not be part of a self-declared “Arab state”.’

For the time being, with no single central government and security and oil revenues falling, Libya is often labelled as a ‘failed state’ where minorities remain the most vulnerable. A report recently released by Minority Rights Group International – an NGO with more than 40 years of experience working with non-dominant ethnic, religious and linguistic communities – categorized Sub-Saharan migrants, ‘black Libyans’ – in reference to Arabized black Libyans such as Tawarghans – Tebu, alongside the Amazigh, as communities ‘at risk of Genocide and Mass Killing’.

The report comes as no surprise for Kerki. ‘What makes you an Arab?’ asks the Tebu leader. ‘Is it the colour of your skin? Your religion? Your mother tongue? We may not be Arabs but we are definitely Libyans, and, above all, human beings.’


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