In security vacuum left by fall of Gaddafi a volunteer police force has joined together to take on people traffickers.
It’s early in the morning and Islam Halab is putting on his military uniform, including a mask that reveals only his eyes. Fully covered and all in black, he’s about to go to work as a volunteer policeman in his home city of Zuwara in eastern Libya.
Along with more than 130 others, Halab is part of a self-organised anti-crime unit fighting to reinstall law and order since civil war engulfed the country following the death of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
“We’re not allowed to perform any task without wearing this uniform, including the mask,” says Halab. “At first, we wore [it] to hide our identities for safety, especially since even our families didn’t know we were members of this team. But now, after three years, most of us have become well-known by the people in the city.”
Conflict between rival militias has left Libya deeply divided, with vast regions split under the rule of various Islamist and nationalist groups and armed gangs taking control on a smaller scale. Left in a security vacuum without a reliable police or army force to protect them, frustrated citizens in Zuwara have joined together in a bid to take back power.
Known locally as the Masked Men, or Masked Force, the group is loosely affiliated with the government’s criminal investigation centre. Its volunteers include doctors, engineers and former policemen, and members say that what they lack in combat and field experience, they make up in their desire to restore stability to their country.
“Respecting time and order on the team is essential,” says Halab. “Those who are proved to be violating these instructions will be fined, imprisoned or even sacked.”
AQ, another member who asked to remain anonymous, says it’s a stressful job. “All members try to avoid [a leadership] position since it involves huge responsibilities and pressures, not to mention the confrontations with the families of criminals, which is no easy task.”
Although at first they wore masks to conceal their identities for fear of retribution attacks, they’ve since become openly celebrated for their fight against crime, which has helped bring down the number of armed robberies, burglaries and drug deals in the city.
The biggest issue facing the coastal city is smuggling – drugs, alcohol, fuel, but mostly people. The Masked Team says it has made a breakthrough in its investigation of human traffickers, an increasing problem as the refugee crisis intensifies and thousands of migrants assemble to make the Mediterranean sea crossing to Europe.
Halab and his fellow volunteers recently arrested at least 25 traffickers, he says, with more being detained each day.
But the group has faced criticism, too. Some residents feel uncomfortable that they operate without official permits, and are untrained. But AQ tries to assuage their fears. “We only started our job after getting a permit from the ministry of the interior.
“We started our first mission on the very first day of getting it. We arrested a raft of criminals who set the city’s security directorate on fire. Anyone can verify these facts directly from the ministry,” he says.
Team members don’t have other jobs, and often struggle to make ends meet. They are paid between 500 – 800 Libyan dinars per month ($358-$572), but the payments are often late. “Once, I distributed uniforms to my colleagues, but one of them [was left with] a big one,” says Halab. “I told him to [alter it] as there was no extra. However, he told me in private that he didn’t have enough money.
“He was one of the most tenacious and dedicated members of the team. He did not have another source of income. Those who spread rumours that we gain a lot of money ignore or do not know these facts.”
‘We can’t do everything’
In 2013, the Masked Force set up independent headquarters in an abandoned factory built by Chinese investors, and equipped it with offices and cells to receive prisoners.
“In the beginning, we worked with the state’s apparatuses in Zuwara, especially the police and security directorate,” says AQ. “A while later, however, we found that imbalances and favouritism were rampant there. Some of them did not want to have a secure and stable country; [they wanted] to take advantage of chaos.”
Soon after they set up on their own, they were attacked by armed men, says AQ.
“I did not expect to survive that day. I was sitting with my colleagues at the front gate when an RPG grenade hit us. At first, we did not realise what was going on. I took up my weapon and prepared myself.
“I saw one of my colleagues flying through the air from the explosion. Then, another grenade fell. We expected that the city was being attacked from outside because the grenades were coming from the south.” Many of the force were injured in the bombing.
Despite suspicions about their motives from some parts of the community, the men are largely supported by the city’s residents. Their popular appeal was evident at a peaceful march staged by locals in October, to reaffirm support for the team’s efforts.
It’s the fight against human smugglers that city residents appreciate the most, AQ says. “Two years ago, [our] team arrested traffickers and referred them to the prosecution,” he says. “However, they were released after they paid fines that were more like bribes and they went unpunished, which caused [us] to stop going after them. However, when [refugee] corpses started appearing on the city’s beaches recently, we had to return to address this issue.”
August marked the team’s most significant victory, when they captured some of the smugglers alleged to be responsible for the drowning of up to 300 people, an event widely reported in international media.
They’ve since developed a clear action plan to tackle traffickers, but to implement it they’ll need more support. “We are working, believing in our cause and will continue to work,” says Halab. “[But] we cannot do the tasks of all security, monitoring and [government] services.”