African viewpoint: Dying to leave Libya

Migrants arriving in Lampedusa, April 2011

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, film-maker and columnist Farai Sevenzo looks at the consequences of the intractable war in Libya.

Back in August 2010, when Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was still being feted across Europe - his eccentricities tolerated, his dictatorship ignored - the Libyan leader warned that Europe would have to pay Libya 5bn euros ($7bn, £4.3bn) a year to stem the tide of illegal immigrants, and avoid Europe "turning black".

"We don't know what will happen," said the brother leader, clearly warming to his role as Europe's saviour.

"What will be the reaction of the white and Christian Europeans faced with this influx of starving and ignorant Africans?"

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There are allegations that since Col Gaddafi has his back against the wall, like the proverbial wounded beast, he has found the time to hatch a master plan that involves flooding Europe with migrants”

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Of course, back then the Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini promised to discuss this inspired solution at a Europe-Africa summit in Col Gaddafi's Tripoli.

Whatever the results of that discussion, we know now that events have turned full circle, and the colonel is under siege from an influx of Nato bombs that have flattened "command and control centres" and killed one of his sons and three of his grandchildren, not to mention their effect on Libyan citizens.

Obviously the coverage has slowed down a little, we have, after all, had a wedding and the killing of the world's most wanted man to focus on in recent weeks, but the Libyan crisis has begun spilling refugees across the Egyptian and Tunisian borders with increasing frequency, and graphic images of falling bombs and protracted war must be the reality for those citizens still within the colonel's control.

And despite large contingents of reporters in Tripoli and Benghazi, it is difficult to gauge the activities of those fighting on the colonel's behalf.

Are they soldiers of fortune or conviction patriots? How long can they continue?

What truth is there in emerging reports that this green-clad army is being forced to rape and commit the kind of war crimes that could one day attract the attentions of the International Criminal Court?

And will the ICC be just as interested in the deaths of black Africans at the hands of anti-Gaddafi rebels?

Nato's dilemma
A supporter removes dust from a framed picture of Muammar Gaddafi, in front of a building that was bombed and burnt in Tripoli on 21 May 2011 A supporter of the colonel dusts his portrait after a bombing in Tripoli last weekend

For those trapped in this reality the next best move then is to undertake the great crossing that has had North African immigrants landing on European soil.

Earlier this month the United Nations High Commission for Refugees alleged that more than 800 people had drowned in unsafe boats trying to make it to the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa and onward to the first world and dubious safety.

While the colonel had once predicted Europe turning "black" because of sub-Saharan economic migration setting off from his beaches, it is in fact the "Arab Spring" and his own stomach for a fight that has set off wave upon wave of immigrants across the Mediterranean.

In the midst of all this there are allegations that since Col Gaddafi has his back against the wall, like the proverbial wounded beast, he has found the time to hatch a master plan that involves flooding Europe with migrants.

How bad is the problem?

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has noticed a significant rise in the numbers of Libyans crossing the seas.

"Until recently, the flow to Europe was overwhelmingly Tunisian and there were no departures by sea from Libya…. [now] a total of 12,360 people on 35 vessels have arrived in Lampedusa and Malta from Libya," said the IOM's spokesman, Jean Philippe Chauzy.

Such figures should not, of course, surprise us - Libya's coast line is 1,770km (1,100 mile) long.

Migration to greener pastures has always been a feature of the modern world, but escape from war and destruction is a stronger human instinct.

A family observe the destruction in Tripoli Street, the centre of fighting between the rebels and Muammar Gaddafi forces in Misrata, Libya, Sunday, 22 May 2011 The bombing has left parts of Misrata in ruins

Which leaves Nato with a dilemma - do they continue to bomb Col Gaddafi's forces in order to "protect civilians" or do they also use their superior equipment to identify sinking boats and save civilians from drowning?

As this year of great events reaches its mid-point, it is clear to see that the news which gripped us when Tunis and Cairo were inspiring great faith in people power has given way to great uncertainty.

Running out of handcuffs

How long will the Libyan crisis continue? And now that spring has arrived in Egypt, has the army changed?

Are they distributing the flowers of their spring or are they still the same institution that kept Hosni Mubarak in power?

Nato jet fighter trails seen over the blue skies of the Libyan capital Tripoli on 17 May 2011 Residents of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, are getting used to regular air strikes

Meanwhile French police were reported to be running out of handcuffs because of the sheer number of Tunisian illegal immigrants being arrested on French soil.

As for the colonel - the noises demanding his departure seem to have turned to an acceptance of his impending death or assassination as a final solution.

The unstated feeling amongst Africans is easy to decipher: If only those Libyan rebels would take charge of their own revolution then we would all feel a little more comfortable with all these uncomfortable events.

As things stand, none of us is aware of the accurate figures for the dead following nearly three months of fighting in Libya.

The fight "to protect civilians" is not doing what it says on the tin.

Libyan citizens are being raped, collateral damage from bombs has included rebels, civilians and the dictator's grandchildren.

And now we learn Libyans are drowning in the Mediterranean within sight of Nato's forces, prompting the UNHCR's appeal to European states to "put in place more reliable and efficient mechanisms for rescue in the Mediterranean".

While there is no such thing as a war without end, who is to say the colonel's last stand will not be felt for years to come, fuelling the kind of conflicts and divisions which will not be easily ended by bombs in both North Africa and southern Europe?

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