Smugglers paradise: On the border between Libya and Tunisia
It was not yet 7am but already more than 500 old pick-up trucks, lorries and tractor trailers piled high with jerrycans had gathered on a scorched stretch of no man’s land between Tunisia and Libya. The sand, dotted with black puddles, exuded a haze of fumes that created the effect of a mirage.
Judging by the number of cans on each truck, around half a million litres of fuel was being transferred between Tunisians and the Libyan regime in this smuggler’s bazaar.
From here, the fuel reaches the black market in Tripoli where ordinary people queue for days to buy it. According to the smugglers the fuel also goes into the regime’s war wagons and trucks.
Hundreds of men wearing a uniform of oil-stained clothes worked methodically, transferring fuel from one barrel to another.
The Guardian travelled to the bazaar with Nour, a short man in his 50s with sunken eyes and dishevelled hair.
He carried five barrels and 24 jerrycans in the back of his beat-up Peugeot truck. The smell of petrol hung heavy in the cab as he explained how the trade worked.
“I bought all of this from Algerian petrol stations,” he said. “A litre costs 1.1 dinars (about 80 US cents) in Algeria. In Tunisia it’s sold for 1.25 dinars. We sell it to the Libyans for 1.8.”
In theory, the smugglers say, there is a quota of 20 litres that Algerian fuel stations are allowed to give Tunisians, but this can be bypassed if you pay a bribe. The smugglers believe the Algerian government is turning a blind eye to the massive amounts of fuel siphoned from its petrol stations on the Tunisian border because of its sympathies with the Gaddafi regime.
Until earlier this year petrol flowed in the opposite direction, from oil-producing Libya to Tunisia. Now the Gaddafi regime has only one small refinery in the western town of Zawiya, producing meagre amounts of petrol and diesel.
Demand in Tripoli is massive. Queues for petrol stretch for kilometres. Men spend hours in their cars rotating in shifts with friends and family members. The price of a litre has increased 50-fold, from 0.15 Libyan dinars to 7.5 dinars.
Smugglers have been plying their trade on the border for years, said Nour, but before the conflict in Libya border guards were much more alert and it was a risky, clandestine business. “I was arrested once by the Tunisian army,” he said. “I lost my car and had to pay a fine.”
Now the Tunisian army is weak and tired, their energy sapped by the flood of refugees and border skirmishes. “They are overstretched and can’t risk opening a conflict with the people of this area if they stop them from smuggling,” he said.
At a Tunisian army post comprising a tent, two Humvees and a few weary-looking troops, a tired, sweaty soldier in a khaki T-shirt and fatigues inspected our ID cards in seemingly surreal oblivion of the fuel dripping from the sides of vehicles. We were waved through with dozens of other trucks carrying countless barrels and jerrycans.
‘They pretend they are not seeing’
“They just want to make sure no weapons are coming into Tunisia,” said the smuggler, holding his right hand over one eye. “They pretend they are not seeing.”
The barrels shook and rattled as we passed through the border. Beyond, hundreds of smugglers had already set up shop in a scene akin to a car boot sale. Nour drove his car slowly, looking for buyers, pulling up next to Libyan trucks and shouting “petrol”.
Many wanted to buy but Nour preferred to swap it for Libyan diesel. Libyan currency has been losing value and no one knew for sure how much a Libyan dinar was worth.
The smuggler pointed at two Toyota trucks perched on the edge of the bazaar with armed men sitting in the front and back.
“Gaddafi brigades,” he said. “They want to make sure no saboteurs and rebels are crossing [the border].”
After another 10 minutes Nour found a Libyan buyer. Two thin young men, heads wrapped by long scarves, quickly agreed on the barter—four and a half litres of diesel for each litre of Nour’s petrol.
The jerry cans were unloaded and a smuggler in a checked shirt and flipflops climbed over the barrels in the back of Nour’s truck. He inserted one end of a plastic tube in the barrel. His Libyan counterpart in orange T-shirt and black combat trousers sucked at the other end of the plastic pipe. When the precious red fluid moved down the pipe he quickly thrust the pipe into an empty jerrycan and spat out a mouthful of petrol.
“How’s the situation?” asked Nour. “Well, thanks to God,” replied one of the Libyans wearily.
As the sun came up and the heat became unbearable one of the young smugglers started talking about the situation in Libya.
“It’s very hard for the people,” he said. “Food and everything is too expensive. How we will survive Ramadan I don’t know.”
Driving back to the Tunisian side Nour smoked and punched numbers into an old Casio calculator. He reckoned he had made about $97 in profit.
At one of the many “oil traders” along the road leading back to Ben Gardain—not much more than a brick room with jerrycans piled outside—Nour sold his fuel before driving home to fill up and head back to market.
“We do three trips every day,” he said. “For the past few days the amount of Libyan diesel coming in is shrinking but more petrol is going out.”
Did he have a boss or someone who controlled the fuel business at the border? “No, no one controls anything. This all done by local people to help our brothers in Libya.”
Not everyone agrees with this assessment, however. At the border post a young UN worker sitting in a café said there was far more to the situation than altruism.
“The Ben Gardain mafia controls the fuel that goes in and out of Libya and they are much stronger than the government here,” he said. “This is a very difficult area. There is a big mafia that controls all the business here at the border, not only fuel but everything else. When we first came we had a confrontation with them but soon realised we can’t do any work here without them. They are everywhere.”
Outside the café dozens of huge trucks carrying cement bags were coming into Tunisia from Libya.
One smuggler outside the police and customs office said, tilting his head towards Libya: “There is no state here or there. Before [the conflict] we would bring one truckload secretly. Now we bring dozens and in daylight - electronics and other goods. The Libyan merchants and businessmen need cash. They are selling everything—cement, equipment, they are emptying their warehouses.”
He added: “We used to smuggle cement from here to Libya. Now they are sending everything in exchange for food supplies. A few customs officers make some money but no one pays taxes or customs.”
Further south in the Tunisian town of Tataween, a Libyan businessman working with an Arab charity fears it is running out of supplies.
“There is so much food coming to Tunisia to support the Libyan refugees, but much is stolen and sold back into the black market and it will be smuggled into Gaddafi-controlled territory,” he said. “Tunisian Red Crescent officials, charity workers and even rebels are all looting.”
“We had supplies that would be enough for six months. Now we are running out after only three,” he added. “My family lives in Tripoli and I know there are people making fortunes out of this war.” - guardian.co.uk