TRIPOLI (Reuters) - For the rebels who toppled Muammar Gaddafi, the new Libyan era has ushered in unbounded political freedom and deep personal joy. For Dijmon, a 25-year-old Nigerian laborer in the newly captured capital, it brought fear.
The rebels’ elation at victory has in some places turned into rage at people like Dijmon, whose dark skins identified them with Gaddafi’s foreign soldiers of fortune even if they had nothing to do with the former leader.
“There was shooting all around the car wash where I worked,” he recalled of the day he fled his home in Tripoli. “Then the boys from the neighborhood came and attacked me with hammers.”
The treatment of African migrants and dark-skinned Libyans is an early test of the new rulers’ vows to build a democratic state, which their European and U.S. backers feel would justify their intervention against Gaddafi on humanitarian grounds.
Race and skin color were already dividing lines for Libyans, and as in other north African Arab states, many people have a dismissive attitude toward black Africans.
But the atrocities attributed to black mercenaries during the uprising against Gaddafi, as well as the allegiance some regions populated by dark-skinned Libyans showed him in the war, have given the race question a new and deadly currency.
Rebels who swept Tripoli rounded up hundreds of Africans as Gaddafi fell, pointing to identity papers from African states found on dark-skinned corpses in Gaddafi strongholds as evidence that the population of African workers and migrants included many hired soldiers and Gaddafi loyalists.
The arrests, fueled in part by accounts of a black mercenary role in suppressing an abortive Tripoli uprising in February, filled the city’s jails, schools and sports facilities with detainees and sent thousands of Africans into hiding.
Those who fled recount a campaign of violence against them which leaves them little hope of a future in Libya.
“We are still in danger,” said Dijmon, one of approximately 600 Africans squatting at a fishing port in Tripoli’s suburbs, where they hang blankets from rickety boats to shield themselves from the sun and cook over open fires amid the acrid stink of urine.
Residents of the camp, whose entrance is controlled by a unit from the surrounding Janzour district, receive drinking water supplied by aid groups. But they say they faced armed robbery and assaults, including rape, when they arrived at the port, and fear further attacks.
“People are dangerous,” said a Liberian who identified himself as Michael. “If children see us they hold their noses, and revolutionaries sometimes shoot by us. Blacks are Gaddafi, they say. We need to leave.”
Some of those at the port worked in Janzour, its walls — like those all over the city — festooned with spray-painted caricatures of Gaddafi, once the self-styled “King of Kings” among African leaders he cultivated as clients.
In these derogatory portraits, Gaddafi is depicted as African himself, his lips often exaggeratedly large and the spelling of his name tweaked to incorporate the Arabic word for monkey.
African workers remain, though their numbers are diminished from before the war, when foreign workers of various nationalities — including Egyptians and eastern Europeans — accounted for up to a quarter of Libya’s population of just over six million.
At a grill restaurant in the district, where a sub-Saharan African washed dishes, the proprietor offered his explanation of the plight of those at port.
“It’s not good to be black. And if nobody knows them, they can get in trouble.”
The treatment of Africans, and the status of those detained by rebel fighters, was raised by the European Union days after the leaders of France and Britain — the most vocal European champions of the ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) — pledged further support and received promises of favorable treatment in future business dealings with Libya.
After the EU issued a statement expressing concern over the stigmatization of blacks as mercenaries, the NTC this week told the U.N. Human Rights Council: “We do not make any distinction among people on grounds of color. And we do not discriminate against our brothers from African countries.”
Acting justice minister, Mohammed al-Alagi, added: “The Gaddafi regime declared war on the Libyan people, and used foreign mercenaries ... But when captured they will still have the right to an appropriate trial before an ordinary judge and according to international law.”
But Libya’s ability to provide impartial justice is an open question, according to international rights groups.
New York-based Human Rights Watch, while noting evidence of the recruitment of African mercenaries, called it “a dangerous time to be dark-skinned in Tripoli” and urged the NTC to swiftly establish a judicial process for detainees.
A member of the NTC’s security committee for Tripoli, Osama Abu Ras, told Reuters the NTC was beginning to grapple with judicial oversight of detentions.
But those steps are lagging even as various armed units continued to arrest people, with little sign of central oversight, said Samira Bouslama, a member of an Amnesty International team that has investigated attacks on and detention of Africans suspected of being mercenaries.
As many as half of the approximately 2,000 suspects held in Tripoli’s formal detention centers that the group had seen were either from countries such as Mali, Nigeria, Chad and Sudan, or dark-skinned Libyans, she estimated. Few had the chance to see a judge or security committee official, and accounts of torture or other abuses in detention were common.
“Some had signed statements to the effect that they were involved in killings, and most of those said they had signed just to stop what was happening to them,” Bouslama said.
The NTC, which Amnesty said had welcomed its call to bring prisons and jails under control of civilian authorities, has publicly eschewed revenge against Gaddafi fighters after the bloodletting of the capital’s fall, which included summary executions, and stated its determination to bring all arms under central authority.
The militiamen — “thuwwar” or revolutionaries, banded in groups named for their towns or neighborhoods — seem at times to have acknowledged that not all dark-skinned foreigners are mercenaries.
Mohammed, a 21-year-old Somali who entered Libya weeks before the battle for Tripoli in hopes of crossing to Europe, recounts his capture and eventual release by gunmen in the capital’s Tajoura district.
He was traveling with a group of 58 people, including a Somali woman with her child and three orphaned nephews and nieces.
Speaking at the site of a Muslim charity that has taken in 109 Somalis fearing for their safety, Mohammed said the group came via Sudan and was taken into custody as they waited for their smuggler.
“They put us in prison at the Petrol Institute; we stayed for 14 days and then they gave us to the charity,” he said.
Ahmad Adel Ali, another Somali handed over by local militiamen, said they were mistaken for mercenaries: “They fired at us.”
The question of migrants seeking to reach Europe via Libya, which Gaddafi used as leverage in dealings with the region, is already central to the new leadership’s diplomatic relations.
Gaddafi’s 2008 treaty with Italy — which included an indirect apology for abuses of Italy’s period of colonial rule in Libya as well as a pledge to pay it $5 billion — contained provisions to fight illegal migration, including deportation of would-be migrants.
Libya’s new leaders in June agreed a deal with Italy that mirrors the pledges in the treaty, which Italy suspended in February. Gaddafi had said Europe would be swamped with migrants without his cooperation to stop them.
At the Tripoli fishing port where Africans have taken refuge, gunmen complained bitterly of their presence and said they had mounted attempts to flee by sea.
“If these people start getting into boats, Italy is going to say ‘This is not a clean revolution’,” said one fighter guarding the camp. “They are a problem for the Council and for Libya.”
Another hint of the future for pledges of color-blind reconciliation can be seen in Tawargha, a town whose dark-skinned inhabitants enjoyed Gaddafi’s favor and was the staging point for attacks on the nearby city of Misrata, which withstood months of shelling by Gaddafi’s forces.
Seized by the rebels last month, the town is now partly in ruins, its population dispersed.
“We did a lot of bad things but it was just a few of us. We say, ‘Don’t make a judgment on everyone’,” said 26-year-old Riyad, a native of the town, at a protest in Benghazi to highlight revenge attacks and abductions its people say they have suffered at the hands of Misrata’s rebels.
“The blood is starting. We say, don’t kill with your own hands.”
His sentiment was echoed by the family of a Tawargha native who was set on fire by unknown assailants, then hospitalized in Tripoli.
“He just got out of the hospital,” that man’s uncle said. “Then the thuwwar came and took him.”
Additional reporting by Mohammed Ben-Hussein and Emma Farge; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall