March issue 2011
Two Weeks of Hell: Pakistani Workers Fleeing Libya Tell Their Tales
Fierce gun battles have been raging in many cities across Libya as pro-Gaddafi forces try to retake towns and cities lost to demonstrators and anti-Gaddafi rebels. With each passing day, the death toll is mounting, with the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon saying over a thousand people could have been killed in the clashes.
As with the governments of other countries, the Pakistani government has also started efforts to evacuate Pakistani citizens from Libya. With Pakistani workers in the country numbering in the thousands, the task has been challenging. A statement released by the Foreign Office stated that Pakistanis are being evacuated through all means. With chartered flights being few, many Pakistanis are looking to flee Libya through neighbouring countries such as Egypt and Tunisia. The first group of Pakistanis, 10 workers from a factory in the city of Al Zawiyah, recently arrived in the Tunisian capital of Tunis.
Uzair Shah, from Rawalpindi, has been working as an administration assistant in a Korean construction company in Libya for the past two years. Despite being a university graduate, lack of employment opportunities in Pakistan forced him to seek employment in Libya. In the comfort and safety of the apartment provided to him and his fellow Pakistanis in Tunis, he can finally relax enough to recall his horrifying experience. “When people took to the streets in other cities, Libyans in Al Zawiya also followed suit. But forces loyal to Gaddafi quickly moved in and took control of the city. There was continuous gunfire, and seven or eight people had died the day we managed to escape.” Latest reports by the Associated Press suggest that Al Zawiyah has fallen into the hands of anti-Gaddafi rebels.
According to Uzair, between 100 and 200 Pakistanis were living in Al Zawiyah alone, a dozen of whom were employed in his company. Despite Al Zawiyah being just 50 kilometres away from Tripoli, Uzair and his Pakistani colleagues chose not to head there. “We heard that battles were raging in Tripoli, and no one was safe. The airport was packed with thousands of people already waiting to leave. We did not have any chance of leaving Libya via Tripoli in the coming few days. With news of anti-Gaddafi rebels preparing to march onto Tripoli, it was a bad place to be stranded in such a time.”
The Korean company that employed Uzair focused on evacuating Korean employees first. With each passing day, chances of the Pakistanis at the company to escape were getting grim. Supplies of food were running dangerously low. Shops were hardly open, and the little food being sold in the markets was expensive. “We used to buy over 30 loafs of bread with one dinar. When the trouble started, we could hardly get one loaf with one dinar,” he says. The fear of being attacked by looters kept them up at night. “I slept last night after two weeks.” After weeks of living in hell, the company managed to arrange a bus for its Pakistani employees to the Tunisian border. They did not receive any additional help or compensation from their company. Their last two months salary also remained unpaid.
Getting on the bus to the Tunisian border, Uzair and the other Pakistanis breathed a sigh of relief. Little did they know that their ordeal was not yet over. “When we hit the road, there were checkpoints after every kilometre or so. At each checkpoint we were stopped and our belongings were searched. Every valuable item we had, our mobile phones, my laptop, memory cards, cash and even mobile SIM cards were snatched from us at these checkpoints. By the time we reached the Tunisian border, we were penniless with nothing other than our clothes.” When asked who was manning these checkpoints, Uzair replies, “Mostly they were men in military uniform, but some checkpoints were also manned by men in civilian clothes holding the green Libyan flag.” The all-green Libyan flag has become a symbol of allegiance to Gaddafi.
Taskeen Ali, from Gujrat, works as a Foreman in the same company as Uzair. He was in the group of Pakistanis who managed to make it to Tunis. Since he left, he has been in contact with other Pakistanis who are stranded in Libya. “Many Pakistani are simply afraid to get out of their company camps and homes,” he says. “Everyone who gets out is being looted, so people are staying inside fearing for their lives.” Taskeen expressed dissatisfaction at the Pakistan embassy in Tripoli. “They were of no help at all.” Will he consider returning to Libya if the situation gets better? “Never, even if they pay me to go back,” he says.
Among the group was Samsoon Gill, a crane operator from Sialkot. With fear still noticeable in his voice, he recounts his tale. He says that workers at his company took turns to patrol their compound armed with sticks. He witnessed a company compound being looted firsthand. “They were in civilian clothes. They were in the hundreds. The project manager said to them, take all the cars, take all the money, just don’t hurt anyone.”
In other places, Pakistani workers have stood their ground and defended their lives and property from looters. Ijaz Hussain, a mechanic from Sargodha, talks of such an incident. “There is a town called Misrata where there is a construction company which employs almost a thousand Pakistanis. A group of around around 100 to 200 Libyans attacked their company compound. The Pakistanis fought back and were able to repulse the attack, wounding many of the attackers.” With police stations being closed, stranded Pakistanis have no one to protect them but themselves.
After many unsuccessful attempts to cross the border into Tunisia, the group of Pakistanis finally managed to make it through. But the camp set up by the Tunisian authorities was overflowing with refugees. Most, according to the group, were Egyptian. The group was provided with basic facilities at the camp, such as food, water and medical care. Asked whether they think the Tunisian authorities did enough, they reply, “Considering the thousands of people coming to Tunisia each day, they did a great job.”
The group stayed three days at the border camp, waiting for paperwork and formalities on the part of the Pakistan embassy in Tunis. Once these were done, the Pakistan embassy arranged for them to be transported to Tunis. So far, the group has no complaints. In fact, Samsoon Gill rates the facilities provided by Pakistan’s diplomatic staff as “100 out of 100.” He adds, “The cooperation from the embassy in Tunis has been excellent. They are treating us like friends. They have provided us with comfortable accommodation, food and everything else we need. Even our tickets back home have been arranged. This is much more than we could have asked for. We feel at home.”
The group of Pakistani workers, lucky enough to be the first to escape through Tunisia, boarded a flight to Karachi the next day. But the tales of horror will not end with their departure. According to sources, an estimated 300 more Pakistanis are waiting on the Libya-Tunisia border. With an estimated 16,000 Pakistanis living in Libya, many more are expected to follow, each arriving with his or her own horrifying story.
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