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In Libya, the peril of being black

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TRIPOLI, Libya — Vivienne looked out through the bars of the Tripoli jail cell where rebel authorities had held her for five days. She is one of a group of 90 Ni­ger­ian migrants who were rounded up during the climactic battle here last month against Moammar Gaddafi’s troops, accused of possessing weapons and killing Libyans.

Vivienne said her only crime is her black skin.

“They think because we are black, we are fighting for Gaddafi,” she said this week, afraid to give her last name. “We were hiding. We were afraid. There were gunshots and bombs.” Around her, other women — hairdressers, housekeepers, one pregnant — told the same story.

Since the uprising against Gaddafi’s 42-year-long rule began in February, many dark-skinned Libyans and sub-Saharan Africans here have feared for their lives. They have been targeted for arrests and killings, they say, because of perceptions that they colluded with the autocratic leader, who is accused of using foreign African mercenaries to mow down his opponents and counted black Libyans among his staunchest supporters.

More than 1.5 million sub-Saharan Africans are thought to work in Libya, a country of 6.5 million, according to Refugees International, most of them as day laborers in low-paid jobs. The International Organization for Migration said that it has evacuated about 1,400 migrants from the capital and that about 800 others have taken refuge in the fishing port of Janzour, just west of the city.

Driven from home

At a makeshift camp in the port, the migrants sleep under decrepit boats hung with blankets and cook in tin pots over fires. Some said they were forced out of their homes at gunpoint. Others said they ran when they lost family members or heard of friends being killed. With no money, they say, they don’t want to go home but feel that they cannot stay in Libya.

Peter Bouckaert, the emergencies director for Human Rights Watch, said there was violence throughout the uprising against black Libyans and sub-Saharan Africans in the capital, adding that his group had confirmed Gaddafi’s use of foreign mercenaries there. The persecution, he added, was still going on.

“It really is racist violence against all dark-skinned people,” Bouckaert said. “This situation for Africans in Tripoli is dire.”

Dealing with racism that came to a head during the uprising is among the biggest challenges facing Libya’s new rebel authority as it seeks to replace Gaddafi’s repressive rule with a transparent and accountable democracy.

The rebels’ Transitional National Council has called for restraint and an end to revenge attacks, but as it struggles to gain control of the country, it has done little to curb racial persecution.

On Friday night, troops loyal to the new Libyan authority launched military offensives against two of Gaddafi’s final bastions of support, according to fighters whose relatives were participating in the assault. Fighting broke out outside Sirte, 300 miles east of Tripoli, and fighters entered the town of Bani Walid, 96 miles southeast of the capital, where three of Gaddafi’s sons are believed to be holed up. The offensives came a day earlier than the rebel-imposed deadline for the towns to surrender or fight.

In Janzour, meanwhile, migrant families sleep on bug-infested mattresses. Before aid groups began providing fresh water and medical support this week, they drank and bathed in salt water from the sea. The women go in fear of rape.

“They need to be moved somewhere where they are safe,” said Niklas Bergstrans, the communications officer for Doctors Without Borders in Tripoli. “It’s disappointing. We haven’t seen any concrete actions from the Transitional National Council and other international organizations.”

On Friday, Edobar Igwe, 27, sat in the shade of a fishing boat. He has been sleeping in the Janzour camp for a month after fleeing Misurata, 131 miles east of Tripoli, when armed men came to his home and killed his girlfriend, he said.

Misurata residents are particularly vengeful toward black Libyans and African migrants because of Gaddafi’s use of the predominantly black neighboring town of Tawargha as a base during the long battle for their city this spring. Many of their women, they say, were raped by Tawargha residents and pro-Gaddafi forces. Now Tawargha is abandoned, and if the residents return, they will likely be beaten or killed, Misuratans say.

Igwe fled to the capital and hid until he heard that Janzour was “a safe place for blacks.” A mason, he came to Libya from Nigeria three years ago to find work.

“I can’t stay here, and I can’t go back because I have no money,” he said. “The rebels took $7,000 from me. They chase us with guns if we go out. Because of this war, they think we are those people who came to fight the rebels. But I don’t have a gun.”

Jailed in Tripoli

At the Maftouh jail in Tripoli, Aisha Mohammed pulled on the bars of her cell. She and 10 other women — from Chad, Mali and Nigeria, countries where Gaddafi is said to have hired mercenaries — were being held for their protection, rebel fighters said. Of the 323 detaineeshere, 188 are African migrants, held separately because of fears that they might carry infectious diseases, the guards said.

“You treat us like animals. You cover your nose when you give us food,” Mohammed screamed at the guard. “We are not animals. We just want to go home.”

The hairdresser said she was picked up while walking to the store and has been in the prison for 18 days.

Mohammed al Dhamoudi, who oversees the jail, dismissed the women’s accusations of ill treatment, pointing to the clinic and the food supplies. “We treat them well here, and if they didn't do anything, they will be released,” he said. “We'll send them to their countries, God willing.”

The authorities have yet to set up a judicial system to process detainees, although they now require arrest warrants.

“ What is really lacking is a judicial process that would quickly and immediately, with a fair investigation and hearing, distinguish between the unfortunate people caught because of their color or status and those who committed atrocities,” said Salah Barghani, a Libyan human rights lawyer working with detainees. “More than 50 percent of these people need to be released. They can’t all be mercenaries.”

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