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Blacks And Migrants: Targets Of Attack In Libya


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we continue our series on aging and the end of life by speaking with a diverse group of seniors about just what growing older has meant to them. But first, we turn to Libya where the leader of that nation's new government, Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril, has announced that the country's long time leader, Colonel Moammar Gadhafi, is dead. Fighters associated with the new government, the National Transitional Council, claim that they are now in full control of Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte.

Please turn to NPR for updates on that situation throughout the day. But we wanted to return to one of the stories that we have been covering throughout the uprising in Libya and that is the plight of black Africans and black Libyans in that nation. You might recall that early in the uprising against Gadhafi there were reports that Gadhafi had hired fighters from Sub-Saharan Africa to defend him against the rebels.

Now, perhaps partly as a consequence of those reports, perhaps because of underlying racial tensions there anyway, we learned that many black Africans in Libya, both foreign workers and native citizens of the country, had been attacked. During the last two weeks, thousands of black Libyans have gathered in a makeshift camp outside Benghazi. They are far from home and fearful of reprisal from rebel forces. Yesterday we caught up with Reuters journalist Brian Rohan who has been reporting from the camp. This is what he told us.

BRIAN ROHAN: The camp I visited the other day was a misplaced persons' camp with former residents of a town just outside Misrata, originally 30,000 inhabitants, now a ghost town. They were driven from their homes because of Misratans considered support of Gadhafi's troops.

MARTIN: Now, the residents of this camp are black Libyan citizens and they are largely from Tawarga, a town known to be loyal to Gadhafi, and Rohan said that many seeking shelter in the camp said that they had been targeted.

ROHAN: The doctors I spoke with at the camp said that they'd been hearing many of the inhabitants telling stories of beatings, reprisals, vengeance attacks by Misratans who drove them from their home. One young man I spoke with said he had spent weeks traveling around towns in western Libya only to be captured and taken to a house by armed men in western Libya and tortured with beatings by an electrical cable and according to what the doctors say, you know, he's not the only one.

MARTIN: The human rights group Amnesty International recently released a report on prisoner abuse in Libyan detention centers. In it, they describe rebel forces targeting and detaining both black Libyan citizens and migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa. Joining us now to talk about those findings is Diana El Tahawy of Amnesty International. She was one of the group's investigators in Libya and she's with us now from London. Welcome, thanks so much for joining us.

DIANA EL TAHAWY: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Now, you just heard Brian Rohan's reports on the situation with citizens from this particular town, Tawarga, and I just wanted to ask what more you may know about their situation and why are they targeted.

TAHAWY: Well, Amnesty International visited Tawarga in September which was a few weeks after it has been taken by revolutionaries from Misrata. When we went into the town, it was completely deserted, completely abandoned. There were no residents there. Some of the homes had been looted, some had been burned. And the reason is, is because in the minds of Misrata residents and particularly in Misrata anti-Gadhafi fighters, Tawarga is associated with some of the worst violations that happened during the besieging of Misrata. Tawarga was viewed as being loyal to Colonel Moammar Gadhafi as the base of his troops.

Now, people from Tawarga including regular civilians, even women and children and old men, are at all risk. They're all facing reprisals and revenge attacks. I mean, I myself was in the hospital in Tripoli interviewing an injured Tawarga man back in September and while I was sitting at his hospital bed about three men, including one of them armed from Misrata, barged in and essentially dragged him out allegedly for questioning for war crimes he has committed.

Now, they had no evidence that he's committed anything. The only thing was that he was a black man from Tawarga and that was enough evidence for them. They didn't have an arrest warrant. They had no right to take him out. The presence of an International Human Rights worker didn't stop them even though I tried to stop them. I tried to speak to the hospital administration. And this is the kind of vulnerability that we've seen a lot in Libya in terms of black Libyans particularly from Tawarga but also from other areas that are seen as loyal to Colonel Gadhafi like - but also Sub-Saharan African nationals.

MARTIN: Do you happen to know what happened to this man who was dragged, as you said, out of his hospital bed right in front of you?

TAHAWY: No, unfortunately I don't know. We have asked the National Transitional Council to make sure that all detainees and prisoners are treated humanely that they don't face reprisals. They have given us promises that they would investigate these kinds of abuses and try to control the various armed militias, but the truth is that they don't control the various armed militias that are taking the law into their own hands and that are detaining people interrogating people, arresting people at random at checkpoints, in the streets, in the workplaces. And people who are vulnerable are generally black people, either migrant workers from Sub-Saharan Africa or black Libyans.

MARTIN: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that. Is it your sense that black Africans or people who look darker are more vulnerable than other people who are suspected of being Gadhafi sympathizers? Or perhaps maybe the better question is - are black Africans being targeted because they are assumed to be Gadhafi sympathizers or is this some other reason why they're being singled out?

TAHAWY: Well, for Sub-Saharan African nationals particularly they are very widespread rumors from the beginning of the uprising into the conflict, that Gadhafi has used, quote-unquote, "African mercenaries" to fight for him and these rumors initially were not substantiated. They were widely exaggerated, however they led to very dire consequences for migrant workers that lived in Libya. According to estimates there, about one to 1.5 million foreign nationals in Libya before the conflict started, many of them from Sub-Saharan Africa so not all of them were mercenaries however, all of them were vulnerable to these kinds of attacks.

MARTIN: Is it your sense though that now these the rebels for whatever reason have decided to conflate the idea of being a black person in Libya with being a fighter? Because we've actually spoken to people who are black people who may have been from somewhere else but who've lived in Libya for quite some time and who are just working there. Were there underlying was that meant against these workers anyway or do you really think that this is really part of the whole fog of war situation?

TAHAWY: I mean, it's certainly part of the fog of war and the widespread reports that were hammered through various media sources but also from some officials close to the NTC from the very beginning that Gadhafi is using foreign nationals, particularly from Sub-Saharan Africa, played into already preexisting racial stereotypes. I mean, the irony is that Sub-Saharan African nationals or black Libyans are portrayed as supporting Gadhafi. But when we look at Gadhafi's treatment of Sub-Saharan African nationals and record on that we also see that they're very vulnerable during his rule.

They're also arrested and beaten in detention. He never recognized the right to seek or enjoy asylum. They're abused by regular Libyans with complete impunity because they knew that they couldn't get their rights from the police or from the courts. So what you really see is a continuation of abuse. And as Amnesty International, we visited about eleven detention centers in western Libya after the fall of Tripoli and what we've seen is that between a third and a half of people who are detained there are Sub-Saharan African nationals.

And for the Libyans, a large portion of them are black. Not all, I mean, there are some Gadhafi loyalists and Gadhafi soldiers that are - that were not black but a large portion was and many of them have complained to us of beatings and other ill treatment. I mean, in fact I myself was sitting in a detention center and I heard the sounds of a whip and screaming by a detainee and guards didn't see a problem with that. They told me that they do this to extract confessions quicker.

MARTIN: And I do want to get your take on one more thing. Reuters reporter Brian Rohan told us that what he saw was that the abuse of black Libyans and blacks in this particular area in Tawarga - it seemed to be concentrated there just because that area was perceived as sympathetic to Gadhafi.

TAHAWY: I mean, certainly, Tawarga is a very much vulnerable population. I mean, Tawarga is the region, but Tawarga is also the ethnic group of black Libyans that come from that region, which is about 40 kilometers from Misrata. But what we've seen, the Tawargas who don't live in that region but who live in Tripoli and many of them, as you've mentioned, have fled the camps, including in Tripoli, where they're hiding from reprisals and revenge attacks, they are particularly vulnerable.

However, what we've seen is that people with black skin get stopped at checkpoints if no one in the neighborhood knows them. They get arrested and taken in for interrogation on the assumption that they're either Sub-Saharan African national mercenaries or black Libyans that supported Gadhafi.

MARTIN: And, finally, Diana, the U.S. government has recognized the National Transitional Council. As you know, our secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, made a surprise visit to Libya earlier this week and there have been discussions between the Obama administration and representatives of the National Transitional Council in Washington, D.C. We know this.

Is there any role that the U.S. government can usefully play or other governments that have recognized the National Transitional Council can usefully play in addressing this? Do you see any useful role for the international community to play?

TAHAWY: Oh, definitely. Definitely. The U.S. government and other governments that have helped out the National Transitional Council throughout the conflict and are now partnering with them in their reconstruction efforts need to urge them to make sure that these kinds of abuses are no longer tolerated in the new Libya. They need to urge the NTC leadership, and particularly a figure like Mustafa Abdul Jalil, who is very well respected, to go on publicly and tell the Libyan audience that this kind of behavior is not tolerated, to counter these racist and xenophobic feelings, to go on Libyan channels, media that Libyans listen to and tell the population that Tawargas are Libyans, that they should not be facing collective punishment just because Gadhafi troops were based there, that they have the right to return to their homes and that they have as much of a stake in rebuilding the new Libya as any other Libyans.

MARTIN: Diana El Tahawy is a researcher for Amnesty International. She was one of the group's investigators reporting on human rights abuses in Libya and she returned in September. She was kind enough to join us today from their offices in London. Diana El Tahawy, thank you so much for speaking with us.

TAHAWY: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.