New Internationalist

To be black in Libya

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They’re either Libyans or migrants but all of them have at least one thing in common: they’re black. It’s a stigma which makes life even harder in a country where chaos is the only rule, reports Karlos Zurutuza.

23.06.2016-black-in-libya-590.jpg [Related Image]
A refugee from Tawargha explodes in anger after her brother was kidnapped by militias in Tripoli. © 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.

Karlos Zurutuza
Sub-Saharans wait to get occasional work in construction, in Tripoli's Gargaresh district. 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:

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

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

Karlos Zurutuza
Tebu militiamen get set to go on patrol in Murzuq, in Libya's southern desert. 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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  1. #1 Azulii Toure 30 Jul 16

    Yes it seems to be stigmatic to be Black of most Nations, anywhere where European Western culture and attributes are seen as ideal! Too bad!

  2. #2 Adam 22 Sep 16

    It's a shame that the reporting is so negative and nothing objective has come out of this. What's the point? Is it to tell us that Libyans are racist? I can do the same in any country. I live in Tripoli and I have several Tawerghan friends living in Tripoli. Why aren't they stigmatised. These Tarwarghans in the camps need to work and move out and get a life instead of relying on free handouts and sympathy. There's a good portion of the Libyan population that is of coloured including my family. Tawerghans need to stand up and be strong and get their town (Tawergha) back (from Misrata)or integrate themselves where they are. It's all one country.

    As for the illegal immigrants, firstly they are not all innocent refugees. There are many criminal elements too. You should have gone to the police stations and asked how many Libyans have been murdered by the gangs of illegal immigrant gangs. Finally, if I was a refugee looking for a boat to heaven (Europe), where the roads are paved with gold, I'm not going to tell you life in Libya is good or I was treated nicely, fed or clothed. Of course they all got robbed, raped, abused racially or otherwise. But in the end they popped up with a few thousand dollars for ransom or a boat to Europe. Are you kidding me? I'm sorry this is racist journalism.

    * Abid or Abaid is a term of endearment now used even by blacks themselves even though it means slave or servant. There are also the 99 names of Allah, and they start with Abid such as Abdallah (Servant of Allah). Is that racist too? Does that mean that all Muslims are racist too? Do blacks have a monopoly of racism and slavery or what? Did you know that Libyan black or dark-skinned patriots find it really offensive to be called black or coloured.

    Finally on the migrants issue, We have a joke in Libya that one Libyan parked his car Mercedes at a Tunisian hotel and looked around if there were any suspicious characters around that might steal his car, a Tunisian guard saw him and said to him, 'Don't worry about it, all the criminals have gone to Libya!’ That really sums up who are the victims here? It's the Libyans.

    On the Tebu, Tuareg and Amazigh issue, these issues are historic, probably before the time of Islam. The Tebu population is split between Libya, Chad and Niger. The Tuareg are split between groups from Southern Libya all the way to Mali and Mauritania. Pretty much the Sahel area. There are tensions between them too and the Amazigh too, in Ghadames. It's a issue over land. Tuareg are torn between settling and the nomadic life. Successful Libyan government i.e. Kingdom and Qaddafi issued passports to family groups or tribes to these two different groups but some of their members missed out for various reasons. To add to that Qaddafi used these events as favours and recruited many to his revolutionary cause, resulting in continuous friction locally, and between the Arab tribes with whom their land is inter-connected. Some were pro and some were against Qaddafi. In the end most of it is about land and opportunities. The Tebu and Tuareg enjoy the lucrative migrant trade, bringing in the migrants all the way to Tripoli from Niger or Sudan. They are neglected and need alternative incomes instead of relying on smuggling i.e. Tourism in that beautiful part of the country.

    The Tebu and Tuareg have a close history with the East of Libya historically, especially strengthened by the Senoussi dynasty during the last 200 years. All together , Amazigh, Tebu or Tuareg, they are all Libyans and I'm absolutely proud and fascinated by their history.

    Over the last 42 years of Qaddafi's reign most of Libya was neglected for the African Union, African independence. Qaddafi threw billions of Libyan money to Africa, neglecting his own country (To the extent many Libyans convinced themselves that he wasn't Libyans!). He influenced every African economy and every election. Remember? Remember when he used to fly in all the leaders at the expense of Libyans and load their planes with millions of dollars 'to build their economies' on the back of the average Libyan 'Racist'. Remember, when he used to throw money outside his car window in Niger and Nigeria. Who's money was that? Remember when he was crowned King of Kings in Uganda? This is nothing, there's more. Hey Karlos, get you head out from between your legs and rewrite this article.

  3. #3 AngelJaiah 04 Dec 16

    Please stop with trying to say ’Libyans but Black’.

    Umm Libya is in Africa the Tawergha are the natives to the land and the original Libyans. The Arabs are the invaders and foreigners who are committing genocide. There is no such thing as ethnic Sub-saharn african, there is only African and the different Nations native to Africa such as the Tawergha, Punt, Nuba, Nubians, Xhosan, Ashanti, Himba and many more.

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