Cover Story

Fight or flight

"Fight or flight" Continued...

Issue: "Libyan exodus," March 26, 2011

That dynamic was especially true for black-skinned migrants from sub-Saharan Africa living with the reality of racism in a predominantly Arab nation. Migrants from countries like Ghana, Nigeria, Eritrea, Sudan, and Somalia reported facing attacks by opposition groups and government forces.

Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, told reporters that "hundreds of thousands" of African migrants in Libya were the most endangered foreigners in the country, and that few of them had crossed the border in the initial wave of refugees: "I believe that thousands of lives, hundreds of thousands of lives are at risk."

The danger is double-edged: The government blamed the Libyan revolt on illegal immigrants, turning pro-government forces against migrant workers. But pro-Qaddafi forces also reportedly tried to hire or force African migrants to fight as mercenaries for the government, turning opposition groups against the African workers. With all sides against them, options are few.

Many Eritreans fled to St. Francis Catholic Church in Tripoli. Catholicism comprises the largest Christian tradition in a country that is 97 percent Sunni Muslim. (Islam is the state religion.) The majority of Christians in Libya are foreign workers who affiliate with Catholics or a handful of Protestant groups.

Indigenous Libyan Christians are so scarce it's difficult to estimate a number, according Bob Sayer, director of Arab World Initiatives for Pioneers USA, a Florida-based mission organization with workers in North Africa and the Middle East. Though he couldn't confirm an official number, Sayer estimated there are probably fewer than 100.

(Sayer reports that while publicly embracing Christianity remains deeply dangerous for Libyans, broader internet access over the last two years has offered more opportunities for Libyans to learn about Christianity, and he says that Libyan traffic to the group's online Arab media ministry has grown.)

Back in Tripoli, priest Daniel Farrugia is trying to help those who can't leave. In an email interview from the capital city, Farrugia said that Eritreans filled St. Francis Catholic Church on Feb. 27, seeking refuge. The local bishop, Giovanni Martinelli, estimated the crowd at 2,000.

After pleading with Italian officials, Martinelli said the Italian government agreed to accept 54 of the refugees. Farrugia says the rest of the Eritreans-mostly women and children-have few options for now: "It was so painful to send them back to their unsecure shelters unable to give them any sign of hope." The priest says the church is trying to help pay rent for Eritreans who have sought shelter away from their homes.

Khataza Gondwe of Christian Solidarity Worldwide says that most Eritreans in Libya left oppressively abusive conditions in Eritrea, and many are Christians who fled severe persecution. Returning isn't a safe option: "They face imprisonment, sometimes torture, even death."

They face death in Libya too. Radio France Internationale (RFI) reported that 25 Eritreans were hiding in an underground hole after looters attacked the workers with metal rods, knives, and guns. Eritrean Ashenafi Fehseha told RFI that three of the wounded were dying. He said when two Eritreans in the group left to get help, they were shot dead in the street.

Human Rights Concern Eritrea, an Eritrean advocacy group, reported that a group of armed civilians kidnapped 19 Eritreans from their homes in Tripoli on Feb. 23.

Somali migrants face similar trouble: IRIN News-the news agency of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs-reported that some 2,500 Somalis were trapped in Tripoli. Migrants told the news agency that opposition forces had targeted them as pro-Qaddafi mercenaries, forcing them to hide in their homes. For Somalis who had already fled a country of utter chaos, the new upheaval is especially difficult. "I came here about a year and a half ago to go to Europe," Shamso Mohammed told IRIN. "Now I am caught up in the same thing that I fled in Somalia."

UN officials trying to help Libyans and migrants in the eastern city of Benghazi said they couldn't reach migrants in the embattled stronghold of Tripoli. Many migrants in Benghazi reported they couldn't find help either, and Qaddafi called on the city's residents to turn against opposition forces and "rid Benghazi of this betrayal." In Tripoli, Martinelli, the Catholic bishop, said the isolation meant that many Eritreans have "no point of reference apart from the church."

Whether Qaddafi remains in power or not, Gondwe says that the danger could remain serious for any foreigners left in the country, and "open the floodgates wider." Gondwe and Martinelli hope Western nations will open their gates to help some of the most vulnerable sojourners.

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