The gates of the prison in the Ain Zarra suburb of Tripoli open to admit an open truckload of detainees. They are all sub-Saharan Africans. Inside, three huge riot police trucks sit in the courtyard with several dozen more detainees inside; most of them are black Africans, too.
The men are all accused of being mortazaga, mercenaries, in the service of Col. Muammar Qaddafi. But they maintain that they are only guest workers caught up in the violence of Libya’s war.
“We will conduct an investigation,” promises an official who declines to give his name. “We will contact their embassies to see if they are who they [say they] are. If they really are guest workers, we will let them go. Otherwise we will send them to the courts.” There are no working courts in Tripoli, and no embassies are open.
Across Libya, a predominantly Arab country, suspicion and resentment of black Africans runs high. While racism is considered partly to blame, it has been compounded by Libyans upset that Qaddafi has poured money into buying the loyalty of black Libyans in the south and other African groups across the country.
Earlier in the uprising, as rebels gained control of cities like Benghazi, thousands of sub-Saharan Africans found themselves trapped, facing food shortages, death threats, and little means to make their way home.
Mass arrests of sub-Saharan Africans have been a hallmark of the Libyan war and a stain on the reputation of the rebels who are now in control of the capital and most of the country.
“What we are seeing in western Libya is a very similar pattern to what we have seen in Benghazi and Misurata after those cities fell to the rebels,” says Amnesty International researcher Diana El Tahawy.
The human rights group found around 300 people, mostly sub-Saharan Africans, in detention in Zawiyah, 20 miles west of Tripoli. “One of them was a Ukrainian man who was accused of being a sniper even though he was missing two fingers,” says Ms. Tahawy.
Claims that sub-Saharan mercenaries fought for Qaddafi are not entirely unfounded. One of the detainees at Ain Zarra was carrying a card identifying him as a member of a special brigade of fighters “to defend the King of the Africans,” as Qaddafi sometimes liked to style himself.
But the National Transitional Council, Libya's interim government, “has wildly exaggerated what was happening,” according to El Tahawy. “They have made matters worse. They have ignited public anger by tapping into an existing xenophobia with very dire consequences for many guest workers.”
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