'Libyans don't like people with dark skin, but some are innocent'

Any black African can expect arrest without proof he was not part of Gaddafi's forces. Patrick Cockburn reports from Tripoli

Yassin Bahr, a tall thin Senegalese in torn blue jeans, volubly denies that he was ever a mercenary or fought for Muammar Gaddafi.

Speaking in quick nervous sentences, Mr Bahr tries to convince a suspicious local militia leader in charge of the police station in the Faraj district of Tripoli, that he is a building worker who has been arrested simply because of his colour. "I liked Gaddafi, but I never fought for him," Mr Bahr says, adding that he had worked in Libya for three years laying tiles.

But the Libyan rebels are hostile to black Africans in general. One of the militiamen, who have been in control of the police station since the police fled, said simply: "Libyan people don't like people with dark skins, though some of them may be innocent."

Going by Mr Bahr's experience, any black African in Libya is open to summary arrest unless he can prove that he was not a member of Colonel Gaddafi's forces.

Fathi, a building contractor who did not want to give his full name and was temporarily running the police station, wanted to know why Mr Bahr had a special residence permit that an immigrant worker would not normally obtain. "You must have been fighting for Gaddafi to have a permit like this," he said. Mr Bahr said that three years earlier he had walked through the Sahara and crossed the Libyan border illegally with other West Africans looking for work. They had been picked up by the Libyan police, but he had eventually bribed them to get a residence permit. He had been watching television with nine other African immigrants when they were arrested, though no arms were found in the house.

Racism against black Africans and Libyans with dark skin has long simmered in Libya. Before the war there were estimated to be a million illegal immigrants in the country, which has a population of six million and a workforce of 1.7 million.

In 2000 there were anti-immigrant riots in which dozens of workers from countries like Ghana, Cameroon, Niger, Chad, Nigeria and Burkina Faso were killed. The war has deepened racial hostility. The rebels claim that many of Colonel Gaddafi's soldiers were black African mercenaries. Amnesty International says these allegations are largely unproven and, from the beginning of the conflict, many of those arrested or, in some cases, executed by the rebels were undocumented labourers caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But there is no doubt that all black Africans are now under suspicion. The head of the militia in Faraj, a short bearded man in a brown robe named Issam, explained how well-prepared local insurgents had taken over the area on 19 August, telling Colonel Gaddafi's supporters to hand over their weapons and stay at home. There was almost no resistance from the demoralised regime and few people had been arrested. Then Issam added, as an aside, that his men had also detained "tens of Africans whom we sent off to prison". He did not explain why they had been jailed.

Black African immigrants in the past benefited from Gaddafi's aspiration to be a pan-African leader. The position of illegal immigrants was always uncertain, but they were essential to the economy. With the fall of Gaddafi, those who have not already fled face persecution or even murder. Last weekend 30 bodies of mostly black men, several of them handcuffed and others already wounded, were found after an apparent mass execution at a roundabout near Gaddafi's Bab al-Aziziya headquarters.

Issam, the temporary chief of police, insisted that Mr Bahr had not been mistreated and was being fed well. Any interview with a prisoner must come with a health warning, since he or she are unlikely to speak freely about their treatment while still under arrest. Mr Bahr confirmed that he was being well treated, but he did look very frightened.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£13000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to be part of a ...

Recruitment Genius: 1st Line Technical Support Engineer

£19000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT and Telecoms company ar...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Manager - Visitor Fundraising

£23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Visitor Fundraising Team is responsi...

Recruitment Genius: Developer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future