Sidelined by quake, Libyans here still seek Gadhafi ouster

Activists form group to forge ties between Tokyo and rebel council

by Alex Martin

Staff Writer

Japan’s tiny Libyan community found itself in a tight spot when radiation scares swept the nation following the Tohoku triple disaster and foreigners fled the country en masse.

While many embassies urged its nationals to leave Japan, Adel Suliman said Libyans here couldn’t go home, with their nation split in an ongoing, bloody civil war between forces loyal to dictator Col. Moammar Gadhafi and the opposition National Transitional Council being aided by a NATO-led bombing campaign.

“We used to joke that Libyans living in Japan must be one of the most agonized people in the world,” laughed Suliman, who organized anti-Gadhafi demonstrations in Tokyo in late February, before the March 11 earthquake and tsunami erased the Libyan conflict from domestic headlines.

But more than five months later and as Japan slowly gets back on its feet, Suliman, who has made frequent media appearances in recent months speaking on the situation in Libya, said he and other Libyans are working again to organize activities to help their struggling people.

Suliman’s Libyan father currently resides in Malta, unable to return to his home in Tripoli after the unrest started while he was away on a work-related trip. And with Suliman’s Japanese mother temporarily staying with the family of one of Suliman’s brothers in Kobe, his only close kin currently living in Libya are his oldest brother and sister-in-law.

Speaking on the phone with that brother, Suliman said he could hear gunshots and explosions in the background, as demonstrators and police squads clashed nearby.

The civil war in Libya, triggered when a series of peaceful protests on Feb. 15 met violent crackdowns by Gadhafi’s forces, has so far resulted in the deaths of thousands, and possibly tens of thousands, of Libyans, although no official figures have been released.

In the first days of the conflict and when international attention was focused on Libya, Suliman said he and fellow Libyans felt the need to do something to express solidarity with those who were risking their lives to topple Gadhafi’s 42-year dictatorship.

Foreign Ministry statistics show there were 48 Libyans residing in Japan as of December 2008, although Suliman said he believes there are probably 70 to 80 now. But many people from neighboring nations such as Tunisia and Egypt, countries that have also experienced civilian uprisings, as well as Japanese, responded to calls for action.

“At first, many were concerned that if they appeared in public it might threaten the safety of their families back home. But as the conflict intensified, we realized that people were being hurt anyway . . . we would rather take action now than later,” Suliman said.

The two rallies held in Tokyo in late February succeeded in gathering hundreds of protesters, who marched with placards and shouted anti-Gadhafi slogans.

The protests caught the attention of domestic media, and Suliman, who is fluent in both Japanese and Arabic, soon found himself being interviewed by newspapers and making appearances on TV news programs.

Immediately following the Tokyo demonstrations, Suliman and others launched a project named “Save Libya” and planned to host charity events in Tokyo and Chiba Prefecture on March 13.

“But then the quake hit, and our project was put on hold.”

Suliman was born and raised in Tokyo until he was 6. His family moved to Tripoli, where he lived until he was 19. Suliman then joined the Japanese nongovernmental organization Peace Boat and worked for them for several years before taking a job as a translator in Tokyo.

Now 24, Suliman is in his first year at Keio University, and following the earthquake and tsunami, has spent several weeks volunteering with Peace Boat in tsunami-ravaged Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture.

“I just did what I could,” he said.

But while the situation in Japan is distressing for Suliman, so is the ongoing conflict back in Libya.

“My relatives haven’t been directly hurt by the war so far, but the main concern now is the lack of electricity during the hot summer and a hike in gasoline prices and food prices” as Libya entered the holy fasting month of Ramadan, he said.

The acute fuel crisis has led to blackouts lasting six to eight hours a day in some regions, and gasoline now costs about 10 times what it was before the conflict, Suliman said.

Focusing attention back on Libya, Suliman and around 15 other Libyans in Japan created the Libyan Student Association in Japan (LSAJ) in June through a close network of friends formed via Facebook and other social networking sites, and has been working to raise awareness of the plight facing Libyans back home.

LSAJ has been collecting money to be distributed to various aid organizations active in and around Libya, as well as sending petitions to Japanese politicians and government officials, asking them to officially recognize the National Transitional Council as Libya’s legitimate governing authority.

Japan and other nations that took part in a July 15 foreign ministerial conference in Turkey jointly released a statement accepting the transitional council as Libya’s legitimate governing institution.

Suliman said LSAJ’s next step is to find ways to assist the Japanese government in forging ties with the National Transitional Council when discussing what to do with Gadhafi’s approximately ¥400 billion that has been frozen in Japanese banks.

“I believe the Japanese government will encounter difficulty when it wants to contact the transitional council on such issues, and I hope LSAJ can bridge that gap, and work to be some sort of agent that connects the two sides,” Suliman said.

“But in order for us to do that, we need very strong contacts with both members in the transitional council and the Japanese government,” he said.