Two young men named Oboun Maabi and K.K. Ezekiel, friends and fellow construction workers from Ghana, may have been the only black men to escape from western Libya Tuesday. Their journey was neither safe nor easy.
They had slept in the freezing air for two nights as Tunisians blocked their passage. Waking before dawn Tuesday, they walked far into the Sahara to begin a six-hour hike through the desert. There they were picked up on the road, arrested, and finally deposited in a Tunisian refugee camp.
“It was a really hard thing to do, but what we were facing there was deadly,” Mr. Maabi, 32, said as he searched for a phone to call his wife in Ghana.
What they escaped was a double threat. First, a Libyan population suspicious of anyone with dark skin after dictator Moammar Gadhafi hired thousands of sub-Saharan Africans as mercenaries. And second, a Tunisian border authority that has been preventing thousands of people, especially black Africans, from crossing.
This created a dangerous situation for the Ghanaians, Malians, Nigerians, Sudanese, Congolese and other African workers who rushed to flee Libya this week, only to find their way blocked by Tunisian gangs and soldiers who are controlling the flow of people across the border, often using violence.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees warned on Tuesday that Libya’s western border, whose main road has seen 90,000 fleeing foreign workers in the past week, is becoming a “humanitarian disaster,” and specifically warned about the plight of black Africans. “We are very concerned that a large number of sub-Saharan Africans are not being allowed entry into Tunisia at this point,” said a spokeswoman for the UNHCR.
Indeed, hundreds of black Africans were penned in behind a wall Tuesday, far from the Tunisian entry point. Tunisian volunteers attempted to beat back reporters who spoke to them, but they said they had been held there for two days with little food or shelter. They were part of a group of several thousand foreign workers who were prevented from leaving.
The crush at the border turned menacing on Tuesday, as stick-wielding volunteers from the nearby town of Ben Gardane beat anyone–most were Egyptians–who tried to get through, and left thousands in a crush against a gate. Scores of overheated and dehydrated people were dragged over the wall, some unconscious.
Some Tunisians are angry at the more than 10,000 refugees who are encamped in their small town, believing the men are taking their jobs. Other people from the democracy movements in neighbouring towns are helping the refugees, providing food and volunteering at refugee camps.
But officials from the UNHCR confirmed that sub-Saharan Africans are being singled out for exclusion from the border, and kept in dangerous conditions in the no-man’s-land between Libya and Tunisia. A few hundred Malians were allowed through over the weekend, but no black faces were visible Tuesday among the more than 10,000 people who did get through.
Tunisian officials say they are keeping the crowds corralled away from the entry point in order to limit the flow of refugees into camps along the border, which currently hold 9,000 people. Some 5,000 people leave for their home countries each day, but their places are quickly taken by those coming in. On Tuesday night, the UNHCR erected another 1,000 tents, each capable of holding eight to 10 people.
Tunisian officers ordered the volunteers out of the border area, provoking fistfights between soldiers and townspeople, watched with amazement by the thousands crushed against the border gate.
Officials said the sub-Saharan Africans were being kept back because of a policy of allowing national groups through one at a time. Many Bangladeshis and Chinese crossed over the weekend. But aid organizations said there appeared to be a systematic restriction of black Africans.
“They call out country by country–Bangladesh, Egypt, China–but they don’t call out any African country,” Mr. Maabi said. “They tell us they do not want any blacks to come in here.”
The Malian government has been quick to fly its nationals back home, while other countries, notably Egypt, have been slower to respond. Egypt finally sent several ships to Tunisian ports on Tuesday, collecting several thousand workers, with more ships to come.
“I never had any troubles as an African in Libya when I was working there,” says Mr. Maabi, who worked in the town of Zawiya, now fully under the bcontrol of anti-Gadhafi forces. “It is only this conflict. It has suddenly turned skin colour into something people fight about.”