African migrants take deadly gamble in Libya

Reuters , Sunday 11 Sep 2011

A stream of Africans seeking a better life in Europe is going through Niger's mountain, passes toward Libya as they hope the chaos there will ease their flight to the boats awaiting them

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African Migrants fleeing from Libya, 25 February, 2011 (AFP)

Desperate migrants have heard the stories of Africans tortured and executed in Libya on suspicion of fighting as mercenaries alongside Muammar Gaddafi's forces.

But for them, the risks from gunmen are an acceptable alternative to being turned back by a border patrol.

"They say blacks are being killed as suspected Gaddafi fighters, but I say we all have a destiny," said Sule, a 25-year-old Nigerian migrant who did not want to give his last name.

"I see this war as an opportunity that I cannot let pass if I want to make it to Europe."

Lured by the seductive mirage of a better life in the West, tens of thousands of Africans trek every year across deserts or risk perilous sea crossings in try to slip illegally into Europe via Spain or Italy.

But for Sule and his companions -- and the dozens of others arriving in northern Niger each day -- that gamble means passing through what may be the most dangerous place in the world right now for an African.

Refugee camps within Libya and sprouting along its land borders contain thousands of fleeing Africans telling tales of horror at the hands of rebel fighters suspicious they are pro-Gaddafi mercenaries.

Identity cards of nationals from Chad, Niger, Mali, Sudan and other African states have been found on the bodies of gunmen who anti-Gaddafi fighters say were paid to confront them.

"We are risking our lives but we have been assured by our guide that we'll be alright between here and the Libyan border. The rest is our affair," Sule said.

"If things become dangerous, we can always head to a refugee camp," said Obasi, one of Sule's companions.


Packed Like Sardines

Sule's group travelled 700 km from their homes in Kano, Nigeria, to Agadez, a city in Niger's northern desert just below the Air mountain range.

In this bustling town, once a popular destination for European tourists seeking a taste of the Sahara before a Tuareg uprising in 2007 and a string of Al Qaeda-linked kidnappings made it a no-go zone, Sule's group waits for the signal to complete the 3,000 km journey north.

"The smuggler said he'll bring us to Libya via the mountain trails through Agadez. There are others coming and even if we become impatient, the timing is his responsibility. There are preparations to complete and it is important that we have enough water," said Serin, one of Sule's companions.

Agadez burst onto world headlines this month after convoys containing top officials from Gaddafi's former regime passed through it on the way to the capital Niamey. But the traffic going the other way has gotten less attention.

"These people will stop at nothing," said a police official outside Agadez who routinely checks paperwork of the West African migrants. He said dozens of mostly Nigerian and Ghanaian migrants have been arriving daily.

Sule's group paid 300,000 CFA francs ($625) each to be smuggled to the Libyan border, about double what they would have paid before the war, they said.

They said they had been encouraged to try the route when Gaddafi threatened Europe with a deluge of illegal immigration early on in the uprising against him.

Italy's government said last month it has proof Gaddafi planned to turn its tiny island of Lampedusa, off the southern coast of Siciliy, into an "inferno" by sending thousands of desperate African migrants there.

A deal between Gaddafi and Italy to send migrants back before they entered Italian waters had curbed the flow of migrants until the Libyan uprising brought strict border controls.

Abdul Rachid is a driver in Agadez, paid to run the smuggling routes to Libya's border with a cargo of humans.

He said migrants were given choices between riding in the back of a powerful 4X4 pickup truck -- the "fast and comfortable option" but more expensive -- or being packed into a larger, slower truck.

"If you take a truck you will be 50 people or 60 people, packed in like sardines. It takes at least 10 days if all goes well," he said.

Sule's group said pack animals were another option.

"They will not travel along the marked roadways, but over the Air Mountains," said another driver, who did not give his name. "There are many trails and they will make it to Libya in a few days. As for Gaddafi supporters, only God knows how many have made it into our country."

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