North African Road Trip Hope Meets Hate in the New Libya

One year after the Arab Spring, SPIEGEL correspondent Alexander Smoltczyk set out on a journey through the Maghreb to assess the region's transformation. On the second leg of his journey, he travels through post-revolution Libya and finds a country marked by a mixture of hope, desperation and the will to build a new democracy.


On Dec. 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a young man in rural Tunisia, poured gasoline on himself -- and ignited an entire region. One by one, the people of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya toppled their rulers. One year after Bouazizi's self-immolation, much has changed in the Maghreb. But a lot has remained the same. In places where secular rulers prevailed for decades, Islamists are now trying to seize the reins of power. And many people there are just as poor and hopeless as they were before the revolutions.

This is the second article in a series by SPIEGEL correspondent Alexander Smoltczyk as he travels along the Transmaghrébine highway from Morocco to Egypt together with a photographer. On the second leg of his journey, he travels through Libya and finds people who have freed themselves from dictator Moammar Gadhafi, but not from the demons he left behind. Be sure to also read the first part of the series.

Ben Gardane, the last town before Tunisia's border with Libya, is a hive of smuggling and contraband -- a transit zone consisting of a jumble of unpainted concrete shops, storage sheds, barbecue stands and dirty hotels. Every few hundred meters, illegally imported gasoline is sold in bright red, blue and green bottles. Everyone in Ben Gardane is involved in smuggling, from young children to old men.

After it passes Djerba, the Transmaghrébine, the highway of the revolutions, extends along the flat Mediterranean coast. Youngsters hold up dried fish and crabs. Plastic toys and gutted sheep swing in the gusts of wind from the trucks roaring down the highway.

There they are, behind a bulwark of sand, the camps of those who fled Libya, shortly before the last checkpoint in Tunisia, under the flags of organizations like UNHCR and Islamic Relief. The men here come from countries like Somalia, Niger and Sudan. There are reportedly some 1,400 of them still here.

Abraham came here from Eritrea. "Eighteen days without seeing a tree," he says, describing his journey. The 36-year-old is a teacher and a computer specialist. He purchased his passage through the desert for $1,600 (€1,230) and worked for the Japanese Embassy in the Libyan capital Tripoli. Then the revolution began, in the guise of a civil war.

The refugees say that they are afraid of being beaten to death in the new, liberated Libya because they are black. They can't return to their countries or go back to Tripoli, and they don't want to stay in Tunisia either. "They don't like us," says Abraham. "No matter how well you speak Arabic." The camps are slated to be cleared in early January. Only 600 of them have received official refugee status. What can they do but hope for asylum in Canada, Australia or the EU? Their only way out is north across the sea.

The beach is just 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) away.


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