Sitting on the dockside in Tripoli harbour is one of the strangest crime scenes left by the Gaddafi regime.
Harbour officials recall the day–Friday, May 6–that a 100ft-long boat sailed off with its name painted over, as well as the reasons for its departure.
“When NATO said there was a no-fly zone, after that Gaddafi [police] caught [migrant workers] in the street and took them by bus and put them on a boat and sent them to Europe,” said Abdul Bost, a harbour official. “Some people were jumping from the boats and swimming back.”
Libya’s new rebel government is to investigate claims that Colonel Muammar Gaddafi tried to trigger an immigrant invasion of Southern Europe as a crude weapon against Nato nations backing the rebels.
Just beyond the mouth of the harbour, the overloaded boat capsized and sank. When it was salvaged days later, holes had to be cut through the hull to drag out what officials said were the bodies of 200 migrant workers trapped inside. Below decks, among piles of salt-stained clothes, The Times found dozens of photographs. Seawater had warped some of the images, creating lurid haloes to ghostly faces of young Somalis, Nigerians, Senegalese and Guineans.
A powerful stench of death still clung to the boat.
Officials from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said they have received consistent accounts of the incident.
“In one instance it was very clear that they had been herded on to that boat,” said Jean-Philipe Chauzy from IOM.
The Times has learnt that the new Libyan authorities are investigating at least one other similar case. The International Committee for the Red Cross said that it had been asked to provide forensic help in identifying the bodies of black Africans on board a boat which also capsized and sank inside Tripoli Harbour on April 22.
Whatever the government findings, the revolution has proved a catastrophe for Libya’s sub-Saharan African migrants, who have always endured racial abuse whilst taking on menial labour in the country. Reports that black African mercenaries fought for Gaddafi forces have sent many remaining blacks into hiding, fearful of lynching by revolutionary forces.
IOM officials said that 200,000 migrant workers had returned to Chad and Niger since the start of the revolution. They added that there were almost no attempts to sail to Europe from Libya in 2010, after a deal between the Gaddafi regime and Italy.
Since February there have been about 20,000 crossings to the Italian island of Lampedusa, whether coerced or driven by desperation or opportunity, is not clear.