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Libya’s Masked Men Take on Human Traffickers

The crime-fighting group is a breath of fresh air for worried citizens and incompetent officials alike.

Image by Tobias "ToMar" Maier via Wikimedia Commons

In the Libyan coastal city of Zuwara, some 130 young men, often referred to as the “Masked Men” in reference to their all-black fatigues and balaclavas, have formed a provisional police force in the absence of rule of law. They began patrolling their neighborhoods to protect against militia infighting and general crime in 2012, but have since also found themselves taking on human traffickers and taking care of migrants.

Unrest and lawlessness after the 2011 Libyan uprising have contributed to the migrant crisis. Zuwara, as the closest point on Libya’s coastline to the Italian island of Lampedusa, has been making headlines as boats containing desperate migrants capsize, sometimes causing hundreds to drown. Aside from their crime-fighting activities, the Masked Men have also taken it upon themselves to clean up the washed-up bodies of those who didn’t survive their journeys.

Map showing Zawara, Tripoli, and Lampedusa

The men first wore the masks as a way to protect their identities. They then became recognized and even celebrated for what they represent, and have even received support from the city council, though their efforts remains largely underfunded.

Although this is a small effort led by a mix of inexperienced and exhausted young people looking for stability, the Masked Men are gaining credibility and boast some major victories: They were able to arrest some of the key smugglers allegedly responsible for the mass drowning off the coast of Libya last summer, and are now considered a real force to be reckoned with.

A spokesman for the crime-fighting group, Adam Absa, mentioned that finding out who owned the boats involved in August’s mass drowning, and confirming their location was “easier than you can imagine.”

Statements like Absa’s make one wonder: If a self-organized group of policemen, brought together out of desperation, have been able to make a dent in the crisis, shouldn’t a more robust force such as the European Union be able to do more to prevent those deaths and abandonments?

“We are working, believing in our cause and will continue to work,” said Islam Halab, another member of the patrol, “[but] we cannot do the tasks of all security, monitoring, and [government] services.”

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