Mistaken for mercenaries, Africans are trapped in Libya

African workers left behind as international companies evacuate and African embassies close are trapped in a Benghazi camp, too afraid to take the trek to Egypt's border.

Asmaa Waguih/Reuters
An Asian migrant worker stranded in Libya looks out of a refugee camp set up by a Turkish company in Benghazi on March 1. Between 2,500 and 3,000 African and South Asian guest workers and illegal migrants are staying in the Gar Younis camp waiting to get out of the country.

Up a muddy clay road next to the University of Gar Younis in Benghazi lies a work camp, with some 52 rows of white prefabricated housing surrounded by a fence. Dozens of Africans greet visitors eagerly, "Are you from the UN? Are you here to help us? Please help us, we need help."

These foreign workers, left behind as international companies close up shop and embassies evacuate their employees, are in a double bind.

Libyans don't trust them, and they don't trust the Libyans. Since reports circulated that Qaddafi hired African mercenaries to kill opposition forces, several suspected mercenaries have been caught, beaten, and even killed, and many of the Africans in this camp fear stepping foot outside the compound.

"We can't go out on the street here," says Salu Abdulyakini, an electrician from Ghana who has worked for a Turkish construction company for more than two years. The managers of his company left the country on Feb. 19, after violent attacks in Benghazi left around 100 dead and over a thousand injured.

After the managers of the work camp left, looters attacked. They destroyed offices and broke open safes. "They shot in the air to make us afraid, they took everything. They even took our food!" says Mr. Abdulyakini, adding that it was no safer in the streets of Benghazi. "One friend of ours went to town at 10 in the morning to buy something, and two Libyans attacked him with knives and took all his money. Other people have been threatened, 'We'll kill you.' "

1 in 3 missing a passport

Between 2,500 and 3,000 African and South Asian guest workers and illegal migrants are staying in the Gar Younis camp waiting to get out of the country.

The camp is overseen by Libyan volunteers like Sami al-Bah, an engineer from Benghazi. He stalks around holding a sheaf of raggedy handwritten papers which bear the names of those stranded in this camp. His surgical mask, a precaution against rumored tuberculosis carried by the residents, slips from his face.

"Ghana, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, Eritrea ... they come from everywhere," he says. "And there are so many of them. We can barely keep track."

Mr. Bah says about a third of the residents are not in possession of passports – "either because their companies were holding them and did not give them back before leaving, or because they crossed into the country illegally and don't want to say." In the chaos of the situation, he says, it is impossible to verify who is employed and who is not.

The Red Cross is providing only medical aid, and they are not currently involved in transit operations.

Afraid to take the trip to Egyptian border

Six days ago, word came through the camp that a boat was in the harbor waiting to take the camp's residents to safety. But when they reached Benghazi's harbor, "it was only for people from China and Turkey. We are the only black people left," says Abdulyakini.

Many of the workers can't pay for a boat trip. Zakariya Sulemana, a painter from northern Ghana, has been working for a Turkish construction company for 10 months but was only paid for the first two. "I want to go anywhere, anywhere but here. But I have no money."

Now, their only option is to ride free of charge with Libyan volunteers to the Egyptian border, a seven-hour drive.

In addition, many Africans don't trust Libyans to provide the transport. Yusuf Ojely, a 23-year-old geology student at Gar Younis University, helps to organize trips to the Egyptian border for the stranded camp residents. When he arrives at the camp, a disagreement breaks out immediately.

"You can't keep us safe! We will be attacked on the road! It's very far to Egypt," they protest. "They hate to see blacks on the road from Benghazi to Tobruk, they think we're mercenaries," says Abdulyakini. Mr. Ojely assures them that the drivers have security details. But that doesn't quell their fears.

The Libyan volunteers evacuated approximately 600 people on a recent night in a bus convoy with armed drivers. This is the third such trip from the camp at Gar Younis. No security incidents have been reported, and so far everyone has been able to cross the border into Egypt.

Still, many feel helpless in the camps, trapped by fear.

"We need help! We need help from the UN, from the EU! The AUC [African Union Commission] is useless!" shouts Harry Habibi, a Nigerian carpenter who was working in Darfoda. "The Europeans took their own people, the Africans don't pick up the phone at the embassies. If we go out on the street people will shoot us, they will cut us with knives. Let me die here, I am no better than those that are dead."

Migrants have long passed through Libya

But reports of Qaddafi's mercenaries was not the start of Africans' problems in Libya.

The country is a known route of illegal immigration from Africa to Europe. Its southern border runs nearly1,300 miles through the desert and is mostly unsecured from neighboring Sudan, Chad, and Niger. Its busy ports on the Mediterranean give cover to undocumented foreigners who cross into Europe.

"Many of the camp's residents are probably illegal immigrants trying to get to Italy," says Ahmed Hamad, an Egyptian delegate from the Arab Medical Union, who arrived in Benghazi last week with the first medical aid convoy from Egypt and has found health problems among members of the Gar Younis camp.

"Libya's southern borders have always been more or less open," says Iman Bugaighis, a dental professor at Gar Younis University who now volunteers at Benghazi's courthouse, where an unspecified number of Africans suspected of being mercenaries are being held awaiting trial.

"Most of them are not mercenaries," she says. "They may have gotten money to demonstrate for Qaddafi, or they might just be illegal immigrants. It is safer for them to be in the courthouse than out on the streets."

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