Zuwara, the Libyan port from which the boat that sank 100 miles south of Lampedusa, has long been a place that lives by its own rulesPhoto: AP
Zuwara, the Libyan port from which the boat that sank 100 miles south of Lampedusa picked up its doomed passengers, is famous for people smuggling and its semi-autonomy from the rest of the country.
Its role as a place that lives by its own rules goes back centuries, to the time when it was at the heart of the “Barbary Coast”, feared by Mediterranean shipping for the practice of seizing ships and selling crews into slavery.
Italian coastguard personnel in protective clothing carry the body of a dead immigrant off their ship Bruno Gregoretti in Senglea, in Valletta’s Grand Harbour (Reuters)
The indigenous, pre-Arab inhabitants of North Africa are called by westerners Berbers to this day. But the Amazigh, as they are properly known, make up a sixth of Libya’s population, as well as substantial minorities elsewhere and, owing to their history, control trans-Sahara trading routes – once used for spices, now for drugs and people.
Zuwara is important as the main Amazigh town on the Libyan coast and therefore the trafficking route’s outlet to the sea.
David Cameron and other European leaders might be forgiven for not being aware of Amazigh history. But the modern story of Zuwara and its trade in people was a key part of the late Col Muammar Gaddafi’s relationship with theEuropean Union.
As part of the “deal in the desert”, when Libya, Britain and other countries, notably France and Italy, came to terms with the Arab world’s eccentric bête noire, Col Gaddafi agreed to crack down on the trade, plunging Zuwara into recession.
As a result, Zuwarans rose up against him when the 2011 uprising began, and drove out his police.
But the deal was always known to run both ways. Col Gaddafi, as part of a previous row, had threatened to “turn Europe black” by unleashing the trade again, and when the West backed the uprising, that is what he did. The boats started sailing again, and the trade has only grown since.
As with everything else that has followed on from the fall of Col Gaddafi – the militias rampaging, the country dividing in two, Islamic State setting up its enclaves – there was perhaps no easy solution, no risk-free plan available to establish law and order.
But as with Libya’s general insecurity, the most depressing thing about the irresistible tide of migrants heading off from Zuwara is that no plan seems to have been attempted by the conquering powers.
As one Zuwara people-smuggler told The Telegraph last year: “Nowadays there’s no problem smuggling anything in Libya – drugs, weapons or people. With the security situation as it is, there will be more people going every year.”
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