How I escaped Gaddafi’s brutal regime

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He is one of a nomadic tribe numbering as many as 10 million, known as the Tuareg, whose existence is not recognised by Libya.

Even though they are indigenous to the country, under Gaddafi, they have no status. Now living more than a thousand miles from home, Akli acknowledges he is one of the lucky ones. He escaped with his life.

Akli Sheika, 27, a Libyan man living in Halifax after he had to flee Gaddafi two years ago. 'Pictured is his traditional Tuareg - his tribe - clothing.

Akli Sheika, 27, a Libyan man living in Halifax after he had to flee Gaddafi two years ago. 'Pictured is his traditional Tuareg - his tribe - clothing.

His battle for survival started almost five years ago when severe drought forced the Tuareg to abandon their traditional lifestyle in the desert and seek shelter in the cities across North Africa. Akli and millions like him were forced to begin building makeshift mud houses in pop-up shanty towns. But they also put themselves at the mercy of government officials.

“We’ve never known normal life. We struggle to find work and if we go out of the camps we face racism. That’s our normal life. We also face random arrest because we don’t have papers,” he says.

“Whenever we built a mud house, the government came and destroyed it.

“They’re trying to push us back to the desert but we don’t have anything to live on there,” he said.

Akli Sheika, 27, a Libyan man living in Halifax after he had to flee Gaddafi two years ago. 'Pictured is his traditional Tuareg - his tribe - clothing.

Akli Sheika, 27, a Libyan man living in Halifax after he had to flee Gaddafi two years ago. 'Pictured is his traditional Tuareg - his tribe - clothing.

In the camp, where skills were passed from mother to child, friend to friend, Akli secretly began teaching his people’s ancient written language Tifangh - banned under Gaddafi.

Then aged just 22, he was arrested and imprisoned where physical, verbal and emotional abuse were all commonplace.

He was held for three months but after his release, he and his friend Basi decided to make a film to show the world the plight of their people. On the first day of filming, when they had shot just 15 minutes of footage, Basi was arrested and has never been seen again.

Akli knew he had to flee if he was to survive. A friend smuggled him in his car through Tripoli where he managed to board a cargo ship. He had spent his life savings on the ticket for a 20-day voyage.

“I don’t know where we went but we ended up in the UK,” he says.

After arriving here he was arrested and handed over to the immigration department who sent him to a hostel in Wakefield, before he moved to Halifax.

His first application for asylum in the UK was rejected because Akli believes world opinion towards Gaddaffi was far more relaxed then.

“Maybe now people are seeing through him. Now there should be no doubt in their minds.”

Akli is now hopeful a rebel-led opposition will take power and some of their members are Tuareg. If that happens Akli’s people might finally be recognised.

“We’re the natives of this country. We’re the indigenous people. This is the only way we can get rid of him. He hasn’t left us an option.”

He is now glued to the TV screen.

“I am suffering every single day about it. These people are just victims for this lunatic man. It’s good change, I’m optimistic. Things are changing quickly. I am sure Gaddafi will fall sometime sooner or later. He’s a chameleon. He used to come to our camps and stand in front of the TV cameras and he would say ‘You are the indigenous people. You are Libya. You are the real Libyans.’ When they left, it all changed.”

People in Libya are being cut off. There is no phone signal and no internet and Akli fears his Tuareg people are being used as human shields to protect Gaddafi and his family.

“Whenever they want to attack a town, he is telling people they are needed to go and fight al-Qa’ida. They are going because they do not know anything else.”

Akli, now 26, feels welcome here and spends his days working with various voluntary groups. But he often feels alone.

“There’s no family or community here. It makes it hard to live,” he says. “I am a Libyan, but I’m not recognised as one. Hopefully there will be more freedom in the country where we can express our culture, our traditions and to be a member of this free state.

“We need the international community to do something. The Tuareg are in danger. They’re now being used by Gaddafi. They’re being accused of being terrorists, of being mercenaries but they’re the victims.”