Murder and mayhem in refugee camps

Print edition : August 02, 2019

Migrants carry the remains of their belongings from the rubble that their detention centre turned into after it was hit by an air strike, in the Tajoura suburb of Tripoli on July 3. Photo: Ismail Zetouni/REUTERS

Fighters loyal to Libya’s Government of National Accord open fire in the al-Sawani area south of Tripoli during clashes against forces loyal to Gen. Khalifa Haftar, on June 13. Photo: MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP

Illegal immigrants at a detention centre in Zawiyah, near Tripoli, on June 17, 2017. Photo: TAHA JAWASHI/AFP

Gen. Khalifa Haftar, in 2018. Photo: ABDULLAH DOMA/AFP

Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj. Photo: ULF LAESSING/REUTERS

Horror stories are emerging from Libya, where refugees are being held in inhumane conditions in detention centres and rebel groups are battling each other in an unending war set off by NATO and fuelled by Europe.

A man in a Libyan detention centre holds a sign that reads: “European Union pretends they don’t know what is facing us.” He is on a hunger strike. “We don’t need to eat,” says another man through the Facebook Messenger app. Food packets are set aside. They are not interested in this kind of charity. They want to leave the detention centre. They want to leave Libya. “Save us from the next bombs,” they say. “Save us from the violence.”

The men and women in these detention centres along the Libyan coastline are not unfamiliar with violence. They come from places such as Sudan and Somalia, where conflict has marked their entire lives. Others come from West Africa, where they have fled climate catastrophe and economic collapse. They had hoped to reach Europe, which has consistently advertised itself as a place of prosperity and safety. Those advertisements have been the attraction for people who are fleeing various forms of terror.

On July 2, aircraft attached to the armies of General Khalifa Haftar bombed a garage right next to the detention centre in Tajoura. Haftar’s Libyan National Army, one amongst many militia groups, said the garage was a weapons depot but denied the bombing. It said the aircraft belonged to the Government of National Accord, a United Nations-backed government that has stumbled along since 2015. The aerial bombing killed at least 60 people in the detention centre. Over a thousand people have been killed as a result of Haftar’s bid to seize the capital, Tripoli, which began in April.

Immediately after the bombing, Ghassan Salame, head of the U.N. Support Mission in Libya and Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General, said an inquiry would be conducted into what could “clearly constitute a war crime”. Salame, a Lebanese academic, came to Libya in 2017 after working for the U.N. in Iraq. He is a cautious person, so his words need to be taken very seriously. His use of the phrase “war crime” is not rhetorical. He means it. But the real question here is, who perpetuated the war crime?

General Haftar’s war

Libya has been in deep trouble since 2011 when an internal civil conflict was converted by the U.N. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) into an international war. NATO’s bombers came on the side of a rebel army that comprised a range of actors, from former Al Qaeda fighters to liberal lawyers.

Massive NATO bombardment hastened the fall of the Libyan government, whose leaders were either killed (including Muammar Qaddafi) or went into exile. No unified rebel command was formed since the range of militia groups conducted the ground war underneath European planes. Each of these groups was backed by an external force such as Egypt, France, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the United States. After Qaddafi was killed, the rebel factions turned on each other.

The spoils in Libya are great: a massive oil reserve that is close to Europe. But, over the past eight years, no power has been able to establish itself. Several factions claimed to be the legitimate government; gunfire was the mode of conversation. The country was flooded by arms; the war has been unending and the political will fractured. Even the U.N. seemed to slip into the factionalism: a former U.N. envoy named Bernardino Leon had to be removed for taking money from the UAE.

Gen. Haftar, who had been close to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency from the 1980s until his re-appearance in Benghazi, Libya, in 2011, hastily drew upon his old links in the military. When it became clear that he was not going to be anointed as the next strongman of Libya, Haftar built up his army with the help of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Haftar destroyed the other militia groups in Benghazi, including the Al Qaeda variants, and then began to make his move against the U.N.-backed government in Tripoli.

Early this year, Haftar secured most of the oilfields and terminals in the eastern and southern parts of Libya. His forces then began their march towards Tripoli. Some 20,000 people were displaced in the early weeks of the fighting, which has now stalled. The U.N.-backed Government of National Accord has refused to negotiate with Haftar. Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj has offered a new plan for a ceasefire, but it does not include Haftar in any future government. This is unacceptable to Haftar, who has said that he wants al-Serraj gone. The U.N. backs al-Serraj, who has also received arms and funds from Turkey. During the high point of 2011, when the old governments of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya fell, Turkey watched with pleasure as various Muslim Brotherhood governments came to power in these countries. Turkey’s Justice and Development Party, led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is the Turkish franchise of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in these countries set off alarm bells in Egypt’s military and in the families that run Saudi Arabia and the UAE. They formed a bloc to overthrow the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Tunisia, and their backing of Haftar was part of their wider regional war against the Brotherhood. Al-Serraj is not a man of the Muslim Brotherhood, but he is nonetheless a bulwark against the full-scale takeover of North Africa by Egypt, the Saudis and the Emiratis. This war in Libya—ignited by NATO’s bombing of the country—is part of the regional cold war.

Evidence suggests that it was Haftar’s aircraft that bombed the detention centres. But he should not alone be in the dock. Alongside him would belong the architects of NATO and the governments that are part of this regional cold war. All of them bear some measure of responsibility for the dangerous situation in Libya.

Europe’s detention centre

In 2015, Europe faced a refugee crisis. Hundreds of thousands of migrants gathered along the edge of the Mediterranean Sea to make a dangerous crossing into Europe. They fled Syria and Turkey in small boats, heading towards Greece, or got into unstable boats in Libya to cross towards Italy. Thousands of them died. Europe began to find ways to block the arrival of these migrants to its shores. Its coast guard would return migrants to Libya and Turkey, fences rose at its borders, and its armies went into the Sahel region of Africa to virtually build a wall to prevent migrants from getting anywhere near the Mediterranean Sea.

NATO’s war in Libya had made it the prime destination for migrants, many of whom were brought there by people smugglers who would then put them into leaky boats and wish them luck. One in five migrants who got into those boats drowned.

The European Union (E.U.) began to collaborate with the Government of National Accord in Libya and with various Libyan militia groups. E.U. money went to the Libyan Coast Guard, which took to shooting at humanitarian vessels that came into Libyan waters to rescue migrants. In 2017, the Italian government signed a deal with the Libyan government that allowed the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept boats heading to Italy and to return the refugees and migrants to Libya. These refugees and migrants were then handed over to detention centres.

The Libyan government runs close to 20 detention centres, while other entities, including militia groups, run another dozen. Many of the official detention centres are also run by ad hoc militia groups that are paid by the government with the money from the Europeans. The Az-Zawiya detention facility, for example, is supposedly run by the government but is in fact run by the al-Nasr Brigade of Muhammad al-Khushlaf, also known as al-Qasseb.

The U.N. says that the conditions in this detention centre are “inhumane”. It is said that al-Khushlaf is the mentor of a people smuggler named Abdelrahman al-Milad, also known as Bija. Bija, who has been called the “kingpin of Libya’s human trafficking mafia”, is paid by the Europeans for his dual role as a Libyan Coast Guard commander. The detainees in these camps are used as forced labour. Detainees in other camps have been sold into slavery.

Libya has drifted out of the consciousness of the world. It re-enters only because tragedy has struck. The situation on the ground is terrible and the dangers beyond description. Europe’s rhetoric of concern is meaningless here. It is the architect of this tragedy.