The Disinvited: The New Libya's New Racism

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Sergey Ponomarev / AP

African migrant workers whom rebels had suspected of being Gaddafi mercenaries stand outside the military base in Tripoli on August 28, 2011. Hundreds of migrant workers remain stranded in Libya after six months of war, unable to flee the country.

The Libyan rebels at a checkpoint in the western suburb of Ghout al-Shaal are handing out flyers to passing drivers to wish them a happy Id al-Fitr, the celebration that marks the end of a month of fasting for Ramadan. "Thank God for making our holiday into two holidays," the flyer reads. "The Id al-Fitr and the holiday of our victory over the injustice and oppression that the dictator [Muammar Gaddafi] and his cronies inflicted on us over the course of 42 years." Much of Libya is celebrating this week, after rebels pushed into the capital nearly two weeks ago, ushering in a new era.

But several miles away, just off the same stretch of coastal road is a camp full of men, women and children who have lost a lot and gained little from Gaddafi's downfall. Hundreds of black African migrant workers have filled a small fishing port here, filtering in over recent months as they sought an escape from a country at war. Many were already refugees who had fled civil strife in Sudan or Somalia to find a better, safer life in a country that was once uniquely welcoming of sub-Saharan Africans. "Now I don't have any place to go," says Abdel Nasser Mohamed, who fled with his father from Sudan's war-torn Darfur region at the age of 5, after losing half his family to tribal clashes.

Nearly 25 years later, Mohamed found himself on the run once again, as fighting engulfed the Libyan coastal city of Misratah where he grew up, and foreign Africans became figures of suspicion.

The makeshift camp he and the others now inhabit is woefully devoid of food, drinking water and toilets. A representative for the international aid organization Doctors Without Borders says that diarrhea and other diseases born of poor hygiene are running rampant. And shelters consist of little more than blankets and rope strung haphazardly between grounded wooden fishing boats.

The displaced mostly hail from countries across West Africa, like Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone. Many have lived in Libya for years — even decades — and carry the legal papers to prove it. Their presence is rooted in Gaddafi's legacy of fostering close relationships with fellow African regimes and recruiting loyalists from among their citizens. But for a man who often sought to portray himself as a leader of the continent, Gaddafi may have done more to divide his country's future than to encourage tolerance and respect.

It's popular knowledge among the predominantly Arab and Berber rebel ranks here that Gaddafi funded questionable African warlords and armies, even as his own population struggled. And at his home in Tripoli's Bab al-Aziziyah compound, rebels hold up old pictures of Gaddafi posing with African children dressed in fatigues as further evidence of their former ruler's betrayal.

His alleged mercenaries — particularly the men who populated the fearsome Khamis Brigade, which was used to assault the rebels over the course of their six-month revolt — often came from the southern town of Sabha or the neighboring countries of Mali, Niger and Chad. The foreigners were alleged to receive benefits and even fast-track residency in exchange for their services as loyalists and fighters — a practice, whether real or exaggerated, that has fueled deep tribal, ethnic and geographic mistrust.

The line between regime soldier and dark-skinned southerner or migrant worker has grown murkier in the fog of war. Throughout the conflict, the rebels have often been eager to offer reporters their proof of foreign fighters in the form of dark-skinned bodies, foreign passports and ethnic charms that they've found along the front lines. And in the aftermath, foreign blacks and southern Libyans remain prime suspects, even as rebels sweep pacified neighborhoods of Tripoli.

On Monday, rebels who had taken over a military airbase outside the capital prodded two new prisoners in the bed of a truck. They were Sudanese men who the rebels said were certainly mercenaries because they had no papers. "The Sudanese rape women," one rebel said matter-of-factly.

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