They huddle beneath dry-docked boats at the edge of the Mediterranean, petrified that the rebel gunmen who now own the streets will confuse them with mercenaries for the despot.
“We are workers, we are not soldiers,” said Godfrey Ogbor, 29, voicing a plea shared by hundreds of men from sub-Saharan Africa trapped at this makeshift coastal camp 15 miles west of Tripoli. “We don’t know politics. We have no guns.”
But the new masters of Tripoli suspect that many are something else: shock troops for a reviled regime, collaborators who deserve no pity.
For decades, impoverished young sub-Saharan Africans came to Libya to work in construction, hotel, car-repair and other blue-collar and service jobs. But Moammar Kadafi also avidly recruited poor black men, both Libyans and sub-Saharans, for his security forces. Government rallies inevitably featured contingents of seemingly delirious gun-toting young blacks waving the leader’s signature green flag. Rebels have not forgotten.
With Kadafi on the run, the hunt for loyalists has made all young black men suspect, vulnerable to arrest or worse on edgy streets where snap decisions substitute for measured justice.
These days, the world waits to see what kind of government emerges under new leaders: one based on tolerance and justice or on vengeance. The concern is particularly acute in Europe, where many fear that violence against blacks and others perceived as Kadafi loyalists could lead to a desperate new boat exodus across the Mediterranean.
“I had to run for my dear life to get away,” said Peter Mbanudo, 32, a Nigerian who recounted his narrow escape as fighting raged in Tripoli, where he said he worked as a house painter. “I’m afraid to go out now. They may catch me and lock me up. Or kill me.”
Many marooned sub-Saharan migrants are crammed into an abandoned former military base turned informal refugee camp along a desolate stretch of the coast. Now suspected of being mercenaries, they were once welcomed as a remedy to a chronic labor shortage in an oil-rich but thinly populated country.
The rebellion caused multitudes of African workers and their families to flee the country, many in rickety boats that capsized, causing hundreds to drown. Many of those who stayed have gone from trusted worker to suspected fifth column.
Many black men — perhaps thousands, no one knows for sure — have been arrested and warehoused in improvised jails in the capital and elsewhere. The rebel leadership has urged its fighters to treat the prisoners humanely, but amid the bedlam, independent monitors have not gained regular access to detainees.
Amnesty International warned this week of the threat to suspected Kadafi loyalists, “in particular black Libyans and sub-Saharan Africans,” who, the rights group said, “are at high risk of abuse by anti-Kadafi forces.”
Rebels routinely detain black men on the streets and at checkpoints. Beyond skin color, the evidence against them often seems scant. A few days ago, a Kalashnikov-wielding rebel led three tall, apparently terrified blacks into a Tripoli school that had been converted to a detention center.
“They have no job, no family, so probably they are with Kadafi,” the young insurgent concluded nonchalantly. “We give them food. We cannot kill them. It is haram,” forbidden.
Frightened men have clustered in this onetime military base, which, during the final months of Kadafi’s rule, was a jumping-off point for boats taking migrants to Europe, especially Italy. But no boats are leaving now.
The men — from Nigeria, Gambia, Ghana, Mali and elsewhere — have little food, inadequate water and no proper toilet facilities. To create shade in the blazing North African heat, they have strung blankets from the idle fishing boats. During the day, many lounge about, shirtless, with nothing to do. They fear that revenge-minded assailants could arrive at any moment.
“Nothing is safe in Tripoli for us anymore,” said Kelly John, 19, who said he worked as an elevator maintenance man, earning as much as $1,000 a month. “It used to be beautiful here. We had chances we didn’t have at home. We could move up, not down. But now it’s crazy, full of guns and bombs.”
Residents say armed men — it’s unclear whether they were rebels — have raided the camp and looted their belongings, snatching life savings at gunpoint. All those interviewed Thursday said they had never taken up arms and were neither pro- nor anti-Kadafi.
“We don’t know who is a rebel, who is with Kadafi,” said Zainab Ezukuse, 29, one of a number of women here. “All we know is Libyans. I don’t speak Arabic. I don’t know politics. We are civilians.”
Several small stands sell basic foodstuffs and bottled juices at inflated prices at the camp, which is about a mile from the main road that leads east to Tripoli, west to Zawiya. Men venture out cautiously each day in search of water. Many say they have diarrhea and other maladies. They have little news from the outside world.
“Some of our brothers [friends] went out and we never heard from them again,” said Emmersion Abdul Rezak, who said he worked at a soft drink plant. “We think they are arrested. Maybe they are dead.”
During its life as a military base, the impromptu camp was heavily guarded, but in recent in months, several people from the area said, Kadafi’s government facilitated the entry of Africans hoping to migrate by boat to Europe. He apparently viewed the throngs arriving on Italian shores as payback for the NATO bombing of Libya.
The military base was run by a Kadafi operative named Zuhair, according to several people familiar with its operation. As rebels approached Tripoli, they said, Zuhair was seen taking off in a speedboat, accompanied by his top aide and two bodyguards.
As the fighting reached the capital, migrants said, the camp population grew rapidly. Many sub-Saharans saw their colleagues being targeted as suspected mercenaries. It was time to get out of town.
“No place was safe for us, so we came here,” said Mbanudo, the house painter. “We are workers. We don’t have time for guns. Now all we want is to get to someplace safe.”