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Libyans in North Africa scared to return home
Libyan protesters outside a court in New Cairo, Egypt. One sign reads “I am seeking refuge, don’t let me down.”
CAIRO, 16 May 2013 (IRIN) - Until government and revolutionary forces attacked the Libyan town of Bani Walid, about 170km southeast of the capital Tripoli in October last year, Abdullah Warfella had been determined never to leave.
But after two weeks of imprisonment and torture, the 68-year-old former contractor fled.
“They accused me of supporting [former ruler Muammar] Gaddafi during the revolution, which is not true at all,” Warfella told IRIN in Cairo. “These people have turned life into hell for people, not just in Bani Walid, but everywhere in Libya.”
Warfella is one of tens of thousands of Libyans who have fled to Egypt. Many are accused, often falsely they say, of having fought in pro-Gaddafi forces in 2011, or having publicly expressed support for him.
Far from home, many struggle to find employment and affordable accommodation, and lack almost any formal support. But they fear revenge attacks should they return home.
“There is a persistent desire inside Libya now for taking revenge on whoever took sides with Gaddafi against the revolutionaries, even if these people who took sides with Gaddafi were not influential people or fighters themselves,” said Salah Al Turki, a senior executive from the Cairo-based NGO Libyan Foundation for Human Rights (LFHR).
“Some of Gaddafi's supporters who initially left Libya in the wake of the downfall of the Libyan dictator and then returned to their home towns faced problems. Gaddafi's supporters in other countries watch all this and are filled with fear to return, lest they should meet the same fate.”
The number of Libyans who have fled the country is not clear as very few register with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
A source in the Libyan Ministry of Social Affairs said there were 430,000-530,000 Libyans in Tunisia. LFHR estimates the number of Libyans who had come to Egypt after the demise of Gaddafi's regime at 750,000, although the Libyan Embassy in Cairo told IRIN the number is not more than 30,000. Algeria is also thought to shelter tens of thousands of Libyans.
Despite, its geographical size, the Libyan population is only around six million, and government officials say that having such large numbers of citizens outside Libyan borders is a humanitarian and security concern for the government.
Some Libyans in Egypt were formerly high-ranking figures, like Ahmed Gaddaf Al Dam, a cousin of Gaddafi and a close associate who is now at the centre of a legal tussle
in Cairo, aimed at paving the way for his extradition to Libya.
But most lacked senior roles in the Gaddafi administration, and say they feel under threat because of their previous public support for Gaddafi, or for simply belonging to a tribe or town judged “pro-Gaddafi”.
Though many Libyans who have fled to Egypt told IRIN they thought it was not yet safe to return, life in Egypt is far from easy and they say they continue to live in fear.
“Most of these people, particularly those who had committed crimes in Libya before coming here, think that state institutions or even international organizations will spy on them for the sake of the new government in Libya,” Omar Mohamed Al Ogaly, a plenipotentiary minister at the Libyan Foreign Ministry, told IRIN.
“They have this general fear of state or official agencies and this is why they stay away from these agencies.”
Egypt is undergoing economic and political strife of its own after the Arab Spring, and Libyans abroad are struggling with rising food prices and a lack of work.
Mohamed Al Salak, a TV host from the Libyan channel Libya TV, describes meeting one Libyan family living in a cemetery west of Cairo.
“Despite this, the members of this family are afraid to approach the Libyan Embassy for help,” Al Salak said. “Some of them have medical problems, but they are even afraid to go to the hospital, lest their whereabouts are known to the government in Libya.”
LFHR tries to find ways of reducing the suffering of Libyan refugees in Egypt. Organization staff meet these refugees, try to give some financial support and present their plight to the Libyan government.
The current debate
within Libya about what sort of role ex-Gaddafi supporters should have in the new administration is a subject that also divides Libyans in Egypt.
"They are all afraid. They think they will face many troubles when they go back", Naema M. Elhammi, Libya’s General National Congress
In Cairo, fights have taken place in public areas like shopping centres between Libyans who used to support Gaddafi and others who detested his rule and rose up against him.
“We all had to keep silent under Gaddafi even as we did not like the man or his rule,” said Fawzi Al Trapolsi (not his real name), who worked for years as plenipotentiary minister under Gaddafi.
“There must be some forgiveness. Libya will not move a step forward if this desire for revenge continues to control everything.”
On the other side of the political debate are Libyans like Adel Abdel Kafi, an ex-Libyan fighter pilot who flew his military plane from Tripoli to Cairo in the early 1980s and applied for political asylum in protest against what he called “Gaddafi's despotism”.
“Forgiveness?” he said to IRIN. “How can we forgive the people who either participated in killing innocent Libyans or who kept silent while the Libyans were being humiliated for more than 40 years?”
The Libyan government is taking some steps towards reconciliation. In Tunisia, Naema M. Elhammi, the deputy head of the General National Congress, told IRIN she had met Libyans living in poverty but not yet willing to return.
“They are all afraid,” Elhammi told IRIN. “They think they will face many troubles when they go back. The fact is that some Libyans do nothing but settle old scores with their compatriots. This makes everybody afraid.”
A group of parliament members, including Elhammi herself, are paying visits to neighbouring countries to talk to the Libyan refugees and convince them to go back. But they still have to build trust.
In Cairo, the Libyan Embassy has opened a separate office in a different part of the city to the embassy to listen to the problems of the refugees and try to convince them to go back.
Mabrouk Raheel, an embassy official responsible for the office, says 5-7 Libyans visit the office every day to demand help either to continue living in Egypt or to go back to Libya.
“People who did not commit crimes during the revolution have no problem in going back,” Raheel said. “Those who committed crimes, however, must go to court.”
Al Ogaly, the plenipotentiary minister, says if some Libyans are not able to go to Libya at present, at least Libya must go to them.
“We want these people back,” Al Ogaly said. “They must return to their country. Why should they stay abroad?”
He says Libya's revolutionaries are now more receptive than ever before to the idea of the return of their compatriots who supported Gaddafi.
Warfella from Bani Walid, whose son is currently in jail in Libya accused of fighting the anti-Gaddafi revolutionaries, says he is not yet convinced.
“We need a justice system that guarantees that nobody will be put in jail unjustly,” Warfella said. “We need security and assurances that nobody will come out, of his own will, and attack us or accuse us of imaginary things. We want Libya to be for all Libyans.”
When asked, however, whether he thinks these conditions can be met in the near future so he can return and see his children and wife, he sighs wearily: “I have hope in God.”