Faces of Humanity
After La Revolution in Tunisia and the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Libya has become the centre of people-power inspired revolts across North Africa and the Arab world. Libya is also home to thousands of Bangladeshis who work in the oil and construction sectors of the beleaguered country. When rebels seized power in the country's second-largest city Benghazi and it entered into what seemed like a prolonged civil war, Bangladeshis started to flee Libya in their hundreds. The Daily Star's MORSHED ALI KHAN has recently been to the North African country to cover the war that is still raging on. He writes about the trauma and tribulations that Bangladeshi migrant workers are still facing in the war-ravaged country.
PHOTO: MORSHED ALI KHAN
The immigration officer at Tunis Carthage international airport looked at my passport with curiosity. “Bengladesh?” he said in a French accent as he turned the pages, “Mais ou est votre visa?” (But where is your visa?). I handed him over the sealed envelope given to me by the honorary consul general of Tunisia in Dhaka, Badrul Huda Khandker (Rownak).
I was hoping for a three-week visa but the sealed envelope ensured only a week. The visa duration was too short for my job at the Ras Jdir border, about 1,000 kilometres in the south of Tunis. The Chief of airport immigration intervened as I tried to persuade the officer at the desk. “Listen Monsieur,” said the chief, “Bangladesh and Tunisia are great friends. You do not need to worry about visa here. At the airport we can only give you a seven-day visa. But, not to worry. Stay as long as you want, just pay a nominal fine for overstaying when you return home,” said the friendly young man dressed in a business suit. He gave me his cell number and asked me to phone him if I had any problem with overstaying.
Hundreds of Bangladeshis wait at Djerba airport to take a flight back home.
From the airport I was soon on my way to Tunis, the capital of this north African country by the shores of the Mediterranean sea. The highway looked immaculate with four lanes and junctions. Tunisia, the country still emerging from the heat of the popular uprising they called 'la revolution' early this year that ousted the 23-year old dictatorship of Ben Ali and sent waves of unrest across the Arab nations craving for a change. Unemployment still reigned high here and the youths waited for their country, now in the hands of a transitional government, to embrace multi party democracy and freedom of speech.
My journey does not stop in Tunis. Tunisian revolution stirred up its neighbour Libya too where the population rose to oust one of the longest serving dictators, Muammar Gaddafi. The crackdown on his own people rising against him was quick and ruthless. For over 42 years Gaddafi single-handedly ruled Libya, totally obliterating opposition and critics. His clan, it is widely believed, stretches across the borders of Libya into countries like Sudan, Chad and Niger and as far as Venezuela. His assets could turn the richest man on earth look small. This time as people rose in Tripoli and elsewhere in the country, the international community, having hundreds of thousands of people working in development projects and in its inexhaustible oil sector, was quick to side with the protesters. The long suppressed opposition's voice could not be silenced easily. With Benghazi falling to the rebels, now well-armed, the stiff resistance to Gaddafi's regime gained momentum. Fighting between the rebels and Gaddafi forces forced up to a million migrant workers in Libya flee the country. I was on my way to Ras Jdir border where Bangladeshis as well as people from 30 other countries, crossed into Tunisia from Libya in their thousands.
Waiting to know when they are going home.
The taxi driver on my way to the airport early next morning for a flight to Djerba, was more interested in talking about Bangladesh. He told me he had spent years in Tripoli working as a manager at a construction site frequenting lots of workers from Bangladesh.
Tunisian elderly man offers milk to a Bangladeshi arriving from Libya.
Libya has been home to thousands of Bangladeshi migrant workers.
“Bangladeshis are so gentle and hard working, I never had problem with them in Libya,” he said. “The only thing I did not like was how those workers were under the grip of organised gangs of labour traders.”
Soon the driver changed the topic and talked about the Libyans. “Gaddafi, the Ali Baba,” he said implying that Gaddafi stole a lot of money. “You will see, they cannot oust him so easily, he has his clan members in the army, among the top officials, and everywhere, who will do everything to keep him in his chair for their own interest.”
A bright morning sun and a crystal clear blue sky spread over the horizon at Djerba international airport. I was still about 160 kilometres away from Choucha, the border camp where the stranded men were sheltered. Djerba looked pristine with its clean roads and traditionally built houses and offices. Olive plantations on both sides of the road stretched over miles. The blue water of the Mediterranean could be seen between the handsome structures along the road.
From the very first step out of the small aircraft at Djerba I was fighting against a formidable enemy called time. Bangladesh standard time was five hours ahead of Tunisia and whatever I did, I would have to despatch my pictures and the report before the deadline of 8 pm in Bangladesh, which is 3 pm in local time. March 13, my first day there, I did not know yet where exactly I would have access to internet. I decided to rush to Choucha first.
The wide and smooth road cut through the desert in a straight line without sign of any traffic. The digital speedometer of the latest Peugeot soon reached 170 km per hour. The driver played a traditional south Tunisian music and swung his head from side to side with the rhyme of flute and drum. The sun has been up a few hours now but the temperature never rose. A chill wind constantly blew from the Mediterranean, neutralising the desert heat and spreading a cold wave.
Halfway through, the taxi driver gave me the bad news. There was no internet connection anywhere between Zarzis and Choucha. That meant I would have another enemy popping up for the distant assignment. From Choucha I would have to return to Zarzis, about 100 kilometres, for filing my story and for as long as I would be here.
Military check posts along the way started to appear more frequently. But every time they asked about my identity the very name of Bangladesh played magic on the heavily armed men. A broad smile followed by a greeting opened the road ahead of us, sans problem.
Choucha camp by the main road was extremely crowded. Thousands of displaced Bangladeshis sat in front of the IOM office to hear about their fate. A roar went on among them as they learnt I had just arrived from Bangladesh to report on behalf of The Daily Star. Young men, hungry and distressed from long journeys from one or the other Libyan cities into Tunisia besieged me. Most had the same tales. They told me how they were robbed of their last belongings by the Libyan bandits waylaying them on their way to Tunisia and how they were cheated by the recruiting agencies in Bangladesh, how they were treated by Bangladesh Embassy staff in Tripoli. Emotional outbursts by the young men were frightening. I kept taking notes and pressing the click button of my camera, forgetting many a times to adjust it. It was as if the slightest distraction from what was happening would detonate a bomb.
Bangladeshis fleeing civil war in Libya have gone through untold sufferings.
Sabed Ali, a hero for the desperate.
“I sold my land and paid the agency for coming to Libya a year ago,” said one of the men in his thirties, “I spent four months in captivity in Libya and they have not paid me six months' salary. Whatever I had was taken away by Libyans. You have to tell me what I will do back home.”
Day after day in Choucha camp I had to face the same statements and questions. As more and more Bangladeshis were repatriated, many more arrived there. Each of the displaced persons I talked to represented a long story. I was bombarded with invariable stories of exploitation, deception, persecution, confinement and helplessness. Could I not find a positive story to write home about?
I shall never forget some faces and their stories. On March 25 I met Sabed Ali, a farmer from Taghuria village of Jamlpur district. Sabed, about the age of 40, and two others stood in front of a tent at the fringe of the camp. The night before a large number of Bangladeshis, including several families, had crossed the border. UNHCR authorities had to set up more tents to accommodate the new comers. Sabed waited there to talk to a man named Mahtab who had just arrived from Tripoli with his family. The last thing Mahtab wanted at Choucha camp was to be spotted by Sabed and his friends because in Tripoli he had been operating as a dalal (a labour dealer).
“When we arrived in Tripoli we realised the recruiting agency in Dhaka sent us there on false working visa,” said Sabed, “We were confined in a warehouse with little food for several months before Mahtab found some of us employment.”
“We worked there for three months without any salary when the fighting erupted,” Mahtab said. “As six of us living in the dormitory had not a penny on us, I went to our Embassy and told an official there about our desperate situation. The official rang Mahtab up while I stood there and asked him to organise my salaries.”
“A day later Mahtab gave me a thousand dinars but refused to pay anything to my roommates,” said Sabed. As soon as Sabed received the money he knew he had to flee Libya. Sabed was in a dilemma. At home he had mortgaged his land to procure Tk 2.6 lakh for the recruiting agency operating from the seventh floor office at Kakrail Micro House. He was today returning home almost penniless. His friends in the dormitory, who hailed from different other districts of Bangladesh, did not even have money to pay for the journey to Tunisian border. They were penniless.
“I entered the dormitory with 1000 dinars in my hand and told my roommates to get ready to go home,” said Sabed.
Nur Karim from Kamalnagar in Lakhipur was one of the six friends in the dormitory. “If Sabed bhai did not give us the 100 dinars each we would not be able to come here. We do not know how we shall pay back this debt,” said Nur Karim. Sabed's fellow feeling and his honesty at the height of the crisis in Libya would remain engraved in the hearts of the young men who were standing there under the bright sun waiting to confront the faceless dalal, trying to hide from the very people he had deceived.
“If you ask me, I want to kill Mahtab in front of his wife and children in the tent for what he did to our lives,” said Nur Karim, “but looking at Sabed bhai I have changed my mind.”
The group of young men, led by Sabed slowly retreated to their tent on the other side of the camp and waited for their flight back home.
Tunisia, with a population of around twelve million is a beautiful country mainly catering for hundreds of thousands of western tourists. The tourist spots are picturesque and immaculately maintained throughout the country.
Its people, in the beginning of the exodus from Libya in February and before the arrival of the international aid agencies at Choucha camp, had averted a humanitarian disaster by coming forward to help the displaced persons. Every Tunisian raised funds in shops, schools, and streets to feed the thousands of displaced men and women. Dr Gilbert Greenall, the leader of the United Nations Disaster Management Coordination Team in Choucha has been working in the field around the world for thirty years. He told me he had never seen anything like the Tunisian generosity towards the displaced persons in his career.
“The spirit of the Tunisians to help the people has been remarkable,” said Greenall, “Families, individuals and the government, all just came forward to help the people. This is extraordinary.”
All along the areas from Ras Jdir border to Zarzis, signs of booming Libyan economy, prior to the troubles were apparent. Hundreds of makeshift money change booths sprouted along the desert highway. The two neighbouring countries, enjoyed visa-free access to each other's territories and the overwhelming presence of expensive vehicles with Libyan number plates told a story of good relationship between the two peoples.
In the taxis and in cafes, heated discussions on Gaddafi and the rebels indicated the Libyan strongman had his supporters in the area too. Many people I talked to told me what they thought about the Western intervention in Libya.
“The western countries are intervening in Libya not for the love of its people but for the Libyan oil, nothing else.” Almost every day as I talked to people, most had the same statements.
On a Friday afternoon I was in Benghardene, a border town some 40 km from Ras Jdir broder. Just after the Jumma prayers my attention was drawn to loud slogans coming from another street nearby. When I arrived there, I saw a group of about 300 men, with Libyan flags in hand, chanting slogans in favour of Colonel Gaddafi. They took out a procession around the town centre demanding withdrawal of western intervention from Libya. The following day, as I read La Presse, one of the two French language national dailies in Tunisia, in the inner page I found a small report about the demonstration in Benghardene. It said without much elaboration that money (from unspecified source) was spent for organising the demonstration.
Gaddafi's presence was nonetheless felt in Benghardene on the day, 160 kilometers away from Tripoli in this small town in Tunisia.
As I approached the immigration officer on my way back home, he turned the pages of my passport and looked at me. “You have overstayed by more than two weeks,” he said calmly.
“Yes, I have also overspent in your country and I am unable to pay any fines,” I replied.
Then suddenly someone shouted from the immigration office nearby, “Hey, Bengladesh! How are you?” I looked up to find the Chief of immigration in his usual black suit. I waved to him and walked in, leaving the desk officer with my passport open mouthed. The chief shook my hand with all his might and asked me how my stay was. By then the desk immigration officer came towards us and gave the Chief my passport.
The Chief then walked to the desk, picked up the departure seal from the officer and bang – "Off you go, bon voyage, Bangladesh," he said with a broad smile.
The writer is special correspondent, The Daily Star.