Libyan Rebels Wary Of Sub-Saharan Africans

Now that Moammar Gadhafi's regime has lost control of the Libyan capital Tripoli, some Africans have been left vulnerable to attack. Many rebels believe any dark man from sub-Saharan Africa is a Gadhafi mercenary. The Africans say they are in Libya either as laborers or waiting to get to Italy. The International Organization for Migration says their plight is a significant problem.

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DAVID GREENE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

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And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Hundreds of thousands of foreigners used to work in Libya. Some came from nearby Egypt and others from as far away as North Korea. A thinly populated oil-rich nation hired many of them for manual labor or menial jobs.

GREENE: Many workers fled during the rebellion of the past six months, but some remain. And humanitarian groups say those from sub-Saharan Africa are especially vulnerable now. Many Libyan rebels accused these dark-skinned Africans as serving as mercenaries for Moammar Gadhafi. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from Tripoli.

JASON BEAUBIEN: A dozen black men are cowering in the back of a guard post on a military base in the south of Tripoli. The base used to be home to Moammar Gadhafi's feared 32 Brigade headed by Gadhafi's son, Hamis, until it was torn apart by NATO bombing and overrun by the rebels.

The rebels say these foreign men are Gadhafi mercenaries. The men claim they're construction workers.

Mr. GODSPOWER WILFRED (Construction Worker): No. No, I'm not fighting for anybody. Please, I'm not fighting here. I'm working in this Libya since two years and five months.

BEAUBIEN: Thirty-seven-year-old Godspower Wilfred is from Nigeria. He says he and the others have been hiding during the recent fighting and they just now come out into the streets to look for food. Wilfred says he's terrified the rebels are going to execute him.

Mr. WILFRED: I beg, I'm innocent. I don't know anything. I beg.

(Soundbite of honking)

BEAUBIEN: Rebels in front of the shattered remains of the military base are shooting their guns in the air and honking their horns in celebration. The ground is covered in shattered glass and bullet casings.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

BEAUBIEN: OK. So the rebels have just told these guys that they're free to leave. However, they're still a bit hesitant to go out the door, because they're nervous about what might happen as soon as they get out the gate.

Just as the men start to walk across the road, another rebel, Mohamed Taraf, orders them back into the base.

What's going to happen with these guys?

Mr. MOHAMED TARAF: These people are killer, you know. They will (unintelligible)...

BEAUBIEN: A half hour later they're released again. This time they manage to walk about a mile to where a couple of hundred other foreigners, all from Sub-Saharan Africa, are staying inside a large dusty lot. They say the owner has let them camp here.

There's one group of Somalis who've been traveling across the desert to try to get to Europe. There are numerous Nigerian construction workers and about two dozen women. A 24-year-old Ghanaian in a tattered British soccer jersey says he wants to go back home, but he can't even leave the lot.

Then a rebel soldier with an AK-47 who won't give his name arrives and orders all of the Africans out of the compound.

Unidentified Man: OK. Go, go.

BEAUBIEN: Samsee John, a bricklayer from Nigeria, says they have nowhere else to go and he hopes the United Nations or some international group will come and rescue him.

Mr. SAMSEE JOHN (Bricklayer): They are going to kill us. There is no life here really. We're scared to stay here. Maybe God bless us. Really, I don't know what's going on.

BEAUBIEN: The black Africans frantically pack clothes and blankets into small backpacks and then file out into the dusty street. The group lingers outside the gate until the rebel waves them away with his rifle.

Unidentified Man: OK. Go. Please. Go, go, go.

BEAUBIEN: But they don't go far. A day later, when Othman Belbeisi from the IOM, the International Organization for Migration, arrives, most of them are back inside the lot.

Mr. OTHMAN BELBEISI (International Organization for Migration): If you are willing to go back home - because we have a boat leaving, so for sure we can help with that.

BEAUBIEN: Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers have fled Libya since the uprising against Gadhafi began in February. 24-year-old Dante Lazoba from Nigeria says he'll join them if the IOM can get him safely to the port.

Mr. DANTE LAZOBA: I'll go. I'm going to my country now. I'm tired of - I don't want to die here. I don't want to die here.

(Soundbite of crosstalk)

Mr. BELBEISI: Those who want to leave, back home. Bring their passports and stand in a line.

BEAUBIEN: Belbeisi estimates there are close to 400 migrants just on this plot. Not all of them want to leave. Some say they hope to be able to work here again once things settle down. Belbeisi says tensions remain high in the Libyan capital and he estimates there are probably still thousands of other migrants hiding across the city.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Tripoli.

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