By Alessandra Bajec
Libyans in Tunisia find themselves in a mix of living a safe, comfortable life away from violence and much uncertainty to go back home, writes Alessandra Bajec.
Back in 2014, Muataz Gaderboh, 30, was thinking to leave Libya as fighting intensified in the ongoing conflict among rival factions in the oil-rich country.
As a journalist in Libya, he always felt at risk as much as he was unbiased in his reporting. Even not picking any side could be a threat.
Coming from Ajdabiya, an eastern town close to three oil terminals and major oil fields, meant he was living next to a hotspot in the fighting escalating between forces that backed competing governments set up in Tripoli and the east in 2014.
He lost two dear friends and four colleagues in two separate incidents at that time. Besides that, as an anti-Islamist activist he received threats.
“Some said to me politely to stay away, others warned that I would be killed,” he told The New Arab.
Determined to flee Libya, Gaderboh was saving up money before he could go abroad until a job offer came from Watan TV nearly two years ago. Since then he is based in Tunis working as an anchor, regularly travelling back and forth to Libya during his holidays.
For the TV presenter, Tunisia is surely more open, and the capital has gradually become some kind of hub for Libya’s political life as he has been able to build contacts with Libyan politicians, civil society members and media professionals.
“I prefer living in Tunisia than anywhere else. It’s culturally similar and close to Libya,” he said. “I can visit my family, and my relatives can come and visit me easily. We have fifteen flights between Tunisia and Libya every day.”
Tunisia’s borders remain mostly open to Libyans who need visa to enter the country, besides benefiting from a convention that in theory allows them to work, set up businesses and circulate freely inside the country.
Like Gaderboh, many Libyans left their country and moved to Tunisia. Having strong historic ties, sharing the same language, on top of it with more freedoms to enjoy, it is the logical preferred destination for a Libyan wanting to settle in another country.
Soror Alakar, Defender Centre for Human Rights’ protection officer, which is a focal point in Tunisia for Libyan human rights defenders, activists and media workers, identified two waves in Libyan arrivals.
First, those who left because of the 2011 revolution, mostly supporters of Gaddafi, and are established businessmen today.
“There’s a lot of Libyan investment diverted into Tunisia. Mainly trading companies, banks, hotels, restaurants and cafes,” Alakar hinted.
Then, a large number came in or after 2014 fleeing the violent confrontations between militias in the midst of a deteriorating security situation. They are mainly civil society activists and NGO workers who relocated from Libya.
In addition, there are Libyan travellers who have been going to Tunisia for tourism or to get medical treatment since before the revolution.
The official number of Libyans in Tunisia are difficult to be known with estimates ranging from 300,000 to one million, based on IOM sources.
They are mainly concentrated in Greater Tunis (34 percent), the centre-east (29.3 percent), the north-east (16.8 percent) and the south-east (15.5 percent), according to a study conducted by IOM Tunisia and the Tunisian National Observatory on Migration (ONM).
Mohamed Jamaa Al Belili, 28, a journalist and youth activist, has lived in Tunis for the last two years. As a young Libyan, he was struggling to find decent paid work. In his first job at a local radio, he was earning $120 per month which was enough to cover his needs before the revolution, but after that he could no longer live on his modest salary.
What made him want to leave Libya was an incident that occurred in 2016 in his hometown Sorman, around 60 kilometres west of Tripoli, where he was victim of an attempted murder. He was stopped in the street and taken by a group of armed men who were driving him to an unknown location.
“I was kidnapped by some gunmen for five hours, they didn’t explain why. In the end, they just opened the car door and told me to go and keep my mouth shut,” he recounted adding that “till today I still do not know why I was there.”
While ignoring the exact reason for the kidnapping, he suggested that the group may have wanted to intimidate or scare him for holding different views.
It is possible that he was mistakenly thought to hold an anti-military stance, whereas he believes in a civil Libyan state and non-interference of the military in political matters.
Following that event, Al Belili fled to Tunis where he is still working for a Libyan news channel.
“Here I can express myself, there’s some extent of freedom, but not complete if you have a family back home that you don’t want harmed. Every so often I tell myself that I may be crossing a red line, which could turn against my family or hurt somebody,” he said, hinting that one constant worry for any Libyan is that anything could happen to family or friends at home.
Despite the secure environment and relative freedom in Tunisia, the journalist is planning to go back to Libya in the future. He finds it difficult to live away from his dear ones.
“Of course, I’m torn apart,”Al Belili stated. “Whenever my phone rings, I think any of my relatives might have died. Or before I travel to my country, I have thoughts for my family.”
Gaderboh, instead, set his mind on establishing his life abroad and not going back. However, he always has concerns when he travels to Libya because of his media work and criticism of the army leadership. His visits would be unannounced and short, he would either drive or fly to Tripoli then reach his hometown by public transport to avoid being recognised. Sometimes he would not even go out of his family home during his stay.
“It’s certainly hard for me being in this situation where I can’t even announce that I’m back to my hometown or I cannot go out there,” he complained.
Up until today, Gaderboh is not exempt from attacks and smear accusations from the Libyan side even though he works outside his country.
Showing a video from his smartphone, he told that earlier in August a group affiliated with self-proclaimed army of Libyan general Khalifa Haftar in east Libya hacked his public Facebook page, and through the profile page they hacked into his colleagues’ accounts too.
The video showed the hacking of his profile page with a patriotic march song being played in the background. The group called the ‘Electronic Army of the Special Forces’ accused the anchor of “siding with the Muslim Brotherhood.”
A false allegation since Gaderboh, on the contrary, opposes the Brotherhood.
“Even if I don’t criticise these people, I’m still considered a traitor. How could I think of returning to Libya,” he said.
Alakar explained that while Libyans can travel every so often in and out of their country, a lot of them have chosen to stay in Tunisia for longer, especially in the recent period with the security situation worsening.
Those who are thought to be categorically unable to return to Libya are partisans of former Gaddafi regime facing troubles at home, they ended up making Tunisia their home at the time of the revolution.
Libyans may face problems while visiting their home country much depending on the person’s profile or background, whether he is blacklisted, on which list he is enlisted, wanted by a certain militia or group, what are his movements inside Libya, if he has connections to can help to get around etc.
However, except for special individual cases, in Aalakar’s view, the majority of Libyans in Tunisia would go back home.
In spite of their new peaceful and comfortable life, many of them wish to live in their country again someday.
“Most Libyans were forced to get out, but anyone living here would rather go back if he gets the chance to,” noted the Defender Centre’s protection officer. “But because of the situation in Libya right now, they’re forced to stay.
Imagining how returning to his homeland would be like, Al Belili anticipated that he would probably take a different work path since it is impossible to practice journalism in Libya without being biased.
“I may get involved in political life, work with the youth… We’ve had enough of revolutions, we should now correct the political path.”
Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis and Beirut.