Deep in the Libyan desert at the confluence of several migration routes from sub-Saharan Africa, this oasis city of 130,000 hit the headlines earlier this year. The United Nations migration agency reported that some new arrivals at this staging post to Tripoli and the Mediterranean coast, 400 miles north, were being “sold” at modern day slave auctions.
It’s a worrying development for Sabha – always liable to become involved in the modern refugee crisis by its position – and World Refugee Day 20 June serves as a reminder of how vulnerable migrants are in places like this semi-lawless enclave, caught between tribal and political factions in post-revolution Libya.
At least half of the 180,000 migrants who arrived in Italy via Libya last year passed through Sabha. “The majority of west African migrants come through Agadez in Niger, then through Qatroun. And the east Africans come up from the border with Chad,” explains Ashraf Hassan, at the UN’s International Organisation for Migration. Then through people-smugglers migrants negotiate further passage north – or not, if the slavery allegations are true.
Sabha doesn't drive people-smuggling... it’s just the initial assembly pointAshraf Hassan
“Sabha is not the place that drives the people-smuggling... it’s just the initial assembly point,” explains Ashraf Hassan, at the UN’s International Organisation for Migration. Currently the local municipality are too under-resourced to regulate the situation.
For the situation to improve in favour of empowering migrants rather than smugglers requires a complete change in Libyan fortunes, adds Hassan: “The country in general needs to be stabilised before Sabha can support the integration of migrants.”
The city in numbers …
- 8 – millimetres of annual rainfall in the city
- 365 – average cost in dollars for a migrant to reach Tripoli
- 10 – dinar denomination of the banknote on which the city’s Italian colonial fort is featured
- 12 – tonnes of thrust delivered by the West German Otrag rocket tested near Sabha in 1981
- 150,000 – estimated km2 of the prehistoric mega-lake of which the Sabha oasis was once part
… and pictures
Few images are available on social media from the city, but this photo from the archives shows a unidentified biker riding between Sabha and Waw el Kebir in the Paris-Dakar-Cairo rally in 2000.
Sabha in sound and vision
Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was said to be politicised at secondary school in Sabha, and looked to the south as his hold on Tripoli slipped in the middle of 2011. Here’s a speech he gave in the city.
And this is CNN’s through-the-keyhole tour of Gaddafi’s Sabha bolthole – “recently redecorated by Nato” – in September 2011.
History in 100 words
The current trade in human beings is simply a grim evolution of the trans-Saharan networks that criss-crossed the Fezzan region (of which Sabha is capital) for centuries, maybe millennia. The city was once an oasis stop-off for Tubu traders running salt and Hajj pilgrims across the desert; now it’s bootleg petrol and economic migrants. Italy left behind Fort Elena in their efforts to pacify the Fezzan in the 1910s; the French seized it in 1943 and further developed the environs, still only occupied by a few thousand people in the 1960s. The Jamahiriya announced by Gaddafi in Sabha in 1977 launched an ambitious programme of rural renewal in the Fezzan that, coupled with the 70s oil boom, ensured that the city continued to grow as an administrative centre. By the 90s the low-rise sprawl around the oasis was Libya’s gateway for Saharan trade, swelled by refugees from the Tuareg uprising in Niger and Tubu exiles from conflict in Chad.
What’s everybody talking about?
The monkey, owned by a shopkeeper of the Gaddadfa tribe, that sparked four days of tribal clashes last November after snatching a headscarf from a schoolgirl. The aftermath saw the girl’s Awlad Suleiman retaliate against the former strongman’s faction in clashes involving tanks and mortar in which 16 died and 50 were wounded.
Post-revolution Sabha remains heavily divided since fighting broke out between the Awlad Suleiman and Tubu tribe in 2012 – possibly sparked by suspicions that the Tubu minority were planning to take over the town.
“This Saharan crossroads used to be very different, says Hassan, who lived there prior to 2014: “Sabha was a melting pot. A spot where Arabs and sub-Saharan Africans were living together. You see the Sudanese, you see the Chadians, you see the Nigerians, you see the Libyan Arabs, the Libyan Tubus. I am from Sudan, so when I went to Tripoli I didn’t feel like I was welcome. But in Sabha, I felt like I was welcome.”
What’s next for the city?
The economic development of Sabha and the hinterlands rests on re-establishing air links with the north, says Hassan: “When the roads aren’t safe, you need an airport.” The main international airport has been closed since 2014 due to the local security situation. The nearby Tamanhent airport, a military airbase 30km to the north-east, opened for commercial flights last year, but is currently out of action following its seizure last month by the rebel Libyan National Army. The IOM have tried to put in place initiatives to stimulate the agricultural and trade economy in Sabha and Qatroun and prevent exploitation of migrants. But there is no chance of serious business development without solid transport links to the northern ports.
For everything from Sabha rap to students carrying guns check out Fezzan Libya Group who take a closer look at the country. The Libya Herald, launched after the civil war, covers the region extensively for English-language readers.There has also been some great international reporting on the region, including this Mail & Guardian Africa piece on smuggling.
Do you live in Sabha? What key facts, figures have we missed? Follow Guardian Cities