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Shashank Bengali: At crossing few Libyans going into Tunisia, most exiting are migrant workers

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SHASHANK BENGALI: Nearly one week into the allied air strikes over Libya, nearly 2,000 people are crossing every day from western Libya into Tunisia. But despite the air strikes and the political turmoil in Gaddafi’s western Libya stronghold, few Libyans are making the crossing. The majority of arrivals here are migrant workers from Africa and South Asia who hope to return to their home countries. The Libyans who drive through the border checkpoint here at Ras Ejder have their passports checked and they drive off without saying a word. When Tunisian policemen ask them about the situation in the home country, nearly all of them say everything is fine. Some people worry that the secretive Gaddafi regime is stopping many Libyans from leaving. Ambulances have been parked at the border post here for days with little activity. Foreigners who make it across say that the road to the border is filled with checkpoints, where soldiers and militiamen loyal to Gaddafi demand money and take people’s cell phones. Some Libyans are interrogated, their bags searched, although most are allowed to continue. But because international aid workers have not been allowed inside western Libya, they say it’s very difficult to know what’s happening on the other side of the border. I spoke to one African migrant worker, a 30-year-old from the East Africa nation of Eritrea, who said that he’d passed through dozens of makeshift checkpoints along the road to Ras Ejder. Soldiers and pro-Gaddafi militiamen, some of them no older than teenagers, terrorize travelers, he said, stripping them of their cell phones and robbing him of $200 in cash. He said that Libyans were treated the most harshly at these checkpoints, with gunmen emptying their bags and interrogating them. And he worried that some Libyans weren’t being allowed to leave their country. He said that in recent days Gaddafi’s regime had armed scores of Africans who were walking the streets of Tripoli. He was riding in a shared taxi one day when he heard his fellow Libyan passengers refer to these men as Nigerians and accused them of killing civilians. But the Libyans said almost nothing to the Tunisian policemen who waved them through across the border. One police officer who didn’t want to give his name said, quote, “It’s very difficult for us Tunisians to know the Libyans. That is their nature, and it’s the nature of the regime,” end quote. But he said that amid the reports of a weeks-long crackdown by Gaddafi’s forces, he worried that tragedies were unfolding just a few miles across the border. Quote, “There are no injured people coming over, no one with bullet wounds or anything. They die over there,” end quote. This is Shashank Bengali in Ras Edjer, Tunisia.

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Shashank Bengali reports for McClatchy from more than 25 countries and covered conflicts in Somalia, Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq and Georgia. Before moving to Africa in 2005, he was a roving correspondent for The Kansas City Star. Originally from the Los Angeles area, Shashank studied at the University of Southern California and at Harvard University, where he earned a Master's degree in public policy. He speaks French and broken Kiswahili.