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« on: March 03, 2004, 01:39:35 PM »

Black Africans tell of discrimination, beatings by racist Libyan populace  

You hear it in the rumbas pulsing from tiny barbershops. You see it in the colorful turbans in Tripoli's old city. You smell it in the backroom eateries that serve up dishes of West African wheat meal.

Libya is filled with immigrants. Hundreds of thousands of Africans have made their way across the vast Sahara, often on perilous, illegal journeys, in search of a better life. The U.S. State Department estimates that sub-Saharan Africans make up a third of Libya's work force.

And while Libya's leader, Col. Moammar Gadhafi, has cast himself as the father of Africa, his people have been slow to welcome the newcomers.

Black African immigrants tell of police shakedowns, attacks by racist youth gangs, employers who refuse to pay for a job well done and seething hatred from all quarters. In 2000, the racial tensions boiled over into four days of rioting west of Tripoli that left seven dead.

"If you're black, you're still a slave in Libya," said Ali, an immigrant from Chad.

Throughout Tripoli, men line the streets, some holding light bulbs, pipes and iron bars to advertise their skills, waiting for Libyans to drive by and offer them work. Most hold nothing, but are willing to do anything.

In the countryside, immigrants ply the backroads, searching for jobs that often amount to sharecropping.

In a televised speech two years ago, Gadhafi said that "Africans should pay no respect to their borders and should be able to move freely." But many of his people have been less welcoming.

"They have done nothing good for this country," said Anis Muktar al-Ajeli, a 35-year-old chef. "They brought diseases and drugs with them. They're criminals and thieves."

Most immigrants say they came only to work -- many aiming to save enough money for the $800 trip on a smuggler's fishing boat to Italy, and on to the rest of Europe.

Few ever make the trip. Saving, they say, is impossible with all the odds stacked against them.

Blessing Anikwenze, 32, came to Libya two years ago and opened a tiny eatery serving wheat meal and chicken in coconut milk to fellow Nigerians.

Seven months ago, she said, three Libyan youths demanded her purse. When she refused, one slashed at her face with a knife, lopping off her right earlobe and leaving a deep gash on her cheek. Another stabbed her in the shoulder.

"At the hospital, they told me I needed a police report," she said. "At the police station, no one listened to me because I'm black."

So she went without stitches, rubbing only iodine on the wounds. Now the scars itch so badly she can't sleep.

Immigrants often tell of attacks by police themselves.

Tony Chidize, 28, said he was picked up last year. The policemen took him to their office, where they hung him from the ceiling and beat him.

"Then they pulled out an electrical wire and put it on my arms," he said.

The men tortured him with electricity for two days, he said, then let him go. His arms still bear the scars.

"There are thousands of Africans in the prisons," Chidize said. "Sometimes people just disappear."

Kofi Hemas, 30, said his ordeal began with a beating by thugs soon after he arrived from Ghana two years ago.

His salvation came in the form of a brotherhood.

Six months ago, he was swimming on a Tripoli beach in the shadow of a glistening new hotel, the Gate to Africa, when a hotel official approached him.

The five-star Maltese-owned hotel, where rooms go for $150 to $960 a night, had a problem with garbage blocking the water intake of its steam turbine generator.

It needed six men to live under an overpass, picking trash from the mesh that serves as a filter. The job was 24 hours a day, and would pay each man 50 dinars a month -- $38.

Hemas got together with five other Ghanaian immigrants. The men built a home of cardboard walls and mattresses under the bridge.

But at night, Libyan youths would come to the beach to drink -- alcohol is illegal in Libya -- and sometimes they would attack with knives. Hemas realized six men weren't enough.

They are now 12, living under strict rules set by Hemas -- no drinking, no drugs, keep clean, dress neatly, keep fit. "The Libyans don't want to see you dirty," Hemas said.

"If we are not strong, they will kill us. We train so they will fear us," Hemas said. "At first they would come and rob us. But we have showed them who we are."

The men sleep two to a mattress, huddled in their tiny shack against the cold. The salary of six is divided among 12. They share everything -- their food, their money, their muscle.

There isn't much to go around. But Hemas said that over time, the men have realized that they have something more important than money.

"We are stranded here," he said. "But now we are family."

Niko Price is correspondent-at-large for The Associated Press

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