Craig S. Smith

Tripoli, Libya

When Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi proposed a borderless United States of Africa several years ago, Kofi Bafoo in Ghana answered his call.

Like hundreds of thousands of other young men living in the impoverished countries along the Sahara's southern fringe, Bafoo left for this oil-rich promised land with hopes of building a life on the Mediterranean coast.

It did not work out that way. Few of the estimated one million Africans who flooded into Libya found jobs in the country's feeble economy, so Bafoo and thousands of other young African men set their sights on Europe. Libya, it seems, was happy to let them go.

"Until 2003, every day boats were leaving," Bafoo said, limping on a foot injured recently while he was running from the police. "The government knew about it, but they didn't care."

The problem began a decade ago. Qaddafi turned his attention south, frustrated by his failure to build pan-Arab unity and by the Arab world's lack of support for him in the face of United Nations sanctions imposed in 1992 to press Libya to deliver suspects in the bombing of PanAm flight over Lockerbie, Scotland. After African countries agreed to defy the sanctions by resuming flights to Libya in 1998, Qaddafi renamed the country's Voice of the Greater Arab Homeland radio station: He called it the Voice of Africa and began talking in earnest about his pan-African plans.

But last year the sanctions were lifted, and the Libyan leader has shifted his focus again, this time from Africa to new friends in the West who are eager to stop the African migration to Europe. The Libyan authorities have begun arresting and deporting those caught without a valid visa, even though visa requirements had been abolished earlier as part of Qaddafi's African outreach.

"For years, Libya said it could not play policeman for the West, but now, with the rapprochement, Libya has entered into a dialogue to deal with the situation," said Saleh Ibrahim, director of an academic institute close to the Libyan leader.

Bafoo, 25, tried to emigrate last year but lost $1,000 to an unscrupulous intermediary who made off with the cash. In January, he lost $1,200 when the Tunisian Navy intercepted his boat and sent him back to Libya.

The Libyan police arrested him a few days ago and took his last $500. He hurt his foot when he escaped by scrambling over a cinder-block wall.

"They discriminate by the color of your skin," said Bafoo, his injured foot smeared with massage cream because he has no identity papers or money for a hospital.

The boat people leaving from Libya are part of a broader wave of Europe-bound illegal immigrants from all along the North African coast, but nowhere has the passing been as easy or the traffic as heavy as it has been from here.

"We have cooperation with Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, but there have been no formal relations with this country and that has created a gap," said a European diplomat in Tripoli who has been involved in talks on how best to stem the tide.

Some of the Africans here say there was a rush of boats leaving Libya in recent months as people took their chances before the seas turned rough in November. More than 1,500 people landed on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa in October.

Libyan officials insist that their country has not abandoned Qaddafi's pan-African vision, but they say the problem has grown to a scale that cannot be ignored. Although Libya is now pushing Europe and the United States to increase investment in sub-Saharan Africa in the hope of keeping young men there, many of the Africans lured here by his past promises feel betrayed.

"Libya told all the Africans, 'Libya is Africa, so you can come,' but many more people came than the country could handle," Abbas Albal Kindam Yusef, a migrant from the Sudanese region of Darfur, said. "Now they want us to leave."

Amin Boubaker said that two years ago he spent $1,200 to get to Italy on a small Tunisian fishing boat with about 70 other people.

They waited two days in the bush near Zuwarah for their boat to appear. When it did, they waded into the sea and clambered aboard in the darkness before dawn.

To pilot the boat, the Africans chose the only one among them who knew how to drive a car. After four days, they spotted lights on the horizon and cheered. But it was not Italy. Within hours, the 70 were picked up by a Tunisian naval patrol, which sank the boat and sent the men to prison. They were released two weeks later near the Libyan border and made their way back to Tripoli.

Since then, the climate for Africans in Libya has rapidly deteriorated. Though the Africans provide cheap labor, ordinary Libyans never shared their leader's enthusiasm for their poor neighbors. In 2000, dozens of Africans were killed by mobs in western Libya. Although some Libyans were punished then, Africans say they have no protection from average Libyans or the police today. They say that Africans are regularly beaten and robbed.

Libya's crude banking system lacks international links, so the Africans have no way to send their earnings home. Some men slice open the brims of their caps and hide cash inside or slip bank notes between the plastic covers of their passport holders and reseal them.

The men say the overland trip home is dangerous, difficult and increasingly expensive, because the Libyan soldiers at checkpoints on the roads demand bribes. Crossing the desert itself is the most treacherous part. Trucks are discovered in the arid wilderness with a grisly cargo of people who died of thirst after their vehicle broke down or ran out of fuel when the driver lost his way.

"I'll take you to the border and you can see the bones of people in the desert, a skull here, a hand there, from people who lost their way," said a man eating from a communal bowl of stewed goat entrails in a building built for chickens that now houses hundreds of Sudanese, instead. "We have no way to go back."

But the draw of Europe remains strong.

"I have many friends living in Italy now," said Muhammad Mutawakil, wearing a yellow baseball cap, "and they are doing much better than we are here or than our families in Ghana."