When CNN broke the story several weeks ago that slavery—not wage slavery, not emotional slavery, not virtual slavery, but actual whips-and-chains-forced labor slavery—was alive and well in the North African nation of Libya, Americans finally started to take notice. Sort of.
While there has been some reporting on the issue and a few statements from government leaders across the world, there has not been a sustained political and social media effort to address the Libyan slave trade akin to the 2014 Bring Back Our Girls campaign for the kidnapping victims of Boko Haram in Nigeria, or even the well-intentioned but poorly conceived Kony 2012 campaign—perhaps because the “African slavery” issue is stickier, more pervasive and, worst of all, involves the United States.
The Root spoke to criminal-defense attorney and asylum expert Yodit Tewolde, who is also a legal analyst for CNN, Fox and TV One, about what is really happening in Libya right now and what responsibility African Americans really have in the current crisis.
Yodit Tewolde (pronounced YO-Deet Teh-WELL-dah) was raised in Dallas, but her family is from Eritrea, and she had firsthand experience with the African slave trade long before it become a late-2017 story.
“People act like this is new; this has been going on for years,” she said over the phone, holding back frustration and emotion.
Thousands of refugees, primarily from countries like Eritrea and Sudan, are fleeing poverty and violence in their own countries, only to end up the victims of smugglers and slave traders at major ports in Libya. The men and women fleeing these countries are taking a substantial risk; they pay large sums of money to smugglers, and they may have to travel long and unsafe distances. Physical violence and torture are almost expected. Smugglers have been known to force young girls to take contraceptives before the journey, since it is expected that they will be raped multiple times during the trip.
“Libya is the only transit point to the Mediterranean to get to Europe,” says Tewolde. “They [African refugees] used to go to Israel, but now that country is blocking them out, so they’re forced to go through Libya to Europe.”
Politically, African asylum seekers have been a hot topic for the conservative government in Israel for years. Advocates in Israel say that it is the peak of hypocrisy for a nation founded by refugees from the Holocaust to now deny asylum to those in suffering. Meanwhile, starting around 2015, the government of Benjamin Netanyahu has given asylum seekers one of three choices: Stay in a refugee camp forever, go back home, or take $3,500 and a one-way ticket to anywhere but Israel.
With Israel no longer an option, most asylum seekers have to take a more dangerous route, like traveling from Eritrea to Ethiopia to Sudan across the Sahara into Libya, says Tewolde. That is the route that four of her cousins took to flee the chaos in Eritrea and how they were caught in the Libyan slave trade.
“People make deals with smugglers,” Yodit said. “My cousin was assured that [he’d be safe]. The problem is, these smugglers sell them to someone else. You’re lucky if you aren’t sold three or four times. A lot of times, you’re kidnapped or tortured. Sexual exploitation is a given.”
Tewolde’s cousins were kidnapped by slave traders in Libya and were forced to make ransom calls to family members all over the world. The choice was simple: Pay the money or your family member will be sold into slavery.
“He made a call to us. When these kidnappers and smugglers find out you have family, especially in America, they’ll make a ransom call,” Tewolde said. “If you pay the money, they may release them, they may not.”
Some had to ask for as little as $1,000. Her youngest cousin, who was only 16 years old at the time, called Tewolde’s family in Dallas asking for $5,000 to save his life. When her family hesitated, the slavers broke her cousin’s arm and forced him to call again. Her family paid the $5,000, hoping for the best. Two of her cousins were released and made their way to Europe. Two were supposedly sent back to Sudan, but no one has heard from them in five years.
This is the point in the story where most Americans, even African Americans, pause and give a condescending sigh about how bad things are “over there.” We might look for a Kickstarter or GoFundMe campaign to click on, then move about our day. The problem is, the Libyan slave trade is a direct result of the United States’ actions under President Barack Obama, so this is more than just a “them” problem.
Last year, in an interview on Fox News, Obama admitted that the overthrow of the Libyan government was the “worst mistake” of his presidency. There is an argument to be made that it’s at least in the top five. Libya has been in chaos since the 2011 U.S.-led NATO bombing campaign overthrew Muammar Qaddafi’s regime, opening the door for human rights abuses like refugee slavery.
Qaddafi may have been a nondemocratic dictator and a human rights abuser, but he was also no direct threat to the United States and was a staunch advocate for African unity and Pan-Africanism. He spoke out about anti-black racism in the Arab community and was pushing for a single African currency. Qaddafi loved black people so much, he was even working on some slow jams to spit game at international crush Condoleezza Rice. (He literally wrote a song called “Black Flower in the White House” about Rice.)
This Libyan open-market slave trade did not exist under Qaddafi, and likely would not have, given his political might and advocacy of black and African liberation. However, Qaddafi is dead, Obama is no longer in office and black people are being sold for less than you pay for a new smartphone. How do we fix this?
“Reach out to the CBC,” Tewolde says. “The Congressional Black Caucus has an African task force; they should be on this. Keep the conversation going.” She also encourages sending emails and making phone calls to United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley to push for humanitarian aid and refugee relocation programs.
“People should be paying attention to this,” Tewolde says. “This is a global issue, and we all have to put across an effort to stop this atrocity.”