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The People I Hear Nos. 1&2

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Ros Atkins Ros Atkins | 10:29 UK time, Friday, 18 March 2011

Each week, I'm writing an article about some of the conversations I've had or heard while hosting WHYS. The articles are going to be carried by newspapers and websites, but I'll also post them here as well. Here are the first two in reverse chronological order.

The People I Hear No. 2

Latif had been trying to get through for two and half hours. To do that, he'd rung a relative in Ghana who listens to World Have Your Say to get our number. Five minutes before the end of the programme, the line worked; at last he'd made the connection.

The unrest in the Arab world has educated us all about the migrants who've travelled there for a better wage. Pakistanis and Bangladeshis in Bahrain, Sudanese in Cairo, Filipinos and West Africans in Libya. We're learning about their lives as upheaval shakes societies so hard that their least visible inhabitants have come tumbling into view.

In Libya, with an equal measure of inevitability and unfairness, the migrant has become a target.

Just as Bahrain employs Jordanians and Yemenis to bolster its security forces, so Colonel Gaddafi employs sub-Saharan Africans. It's hard to be precise, but some reports say men from Chad, Niger, Mali and Sudan are being paid to fight. To Latif, their nationality doesn't matter. They are black and so is he, and that's causing him terrifying problems.

'We are workers from Ghana,' he said on a line that hissed and crackled. 'The protestors came to us, took our money and tried to kill us. We saw an uncompleted building, and that's where we all ran. We are 11 in number, we don't have any food. The protestors are threatening any blacks so we're all afraid.'

Listening to this was Faraj. He's a doctor in the UK who hails from Benghazi. Minutes earlier he'd spoken with pride about the safe and tolerant atmosphere that rebels have brought to his home city. Latif's was a different story, and Faraj sounded exasperated with those protestors betraying his ideals.

'Latif, go to the nearest mosque. You are welcome in Libya. Tell them, you have nothing to do with fighting for Gaddafi.'

'But who will come to my aid?'

'Tell me where you are? I'll send you a tribal chief.'

'I'm at... ' I cut Latif off. Broadcasting his whereabouts to a listening world seemed a very bad idea.

'Let's keep this conversation going off air,' I suggested. Two minutes later the show was finished, and our sound engineer went to talk to Latif.

The line had gone again. We've texted him several time since but haven't heard back. We'll keep on trying.

The People I Hear No. 1

Sara is a British Libyan living in Dubai and she emailed me an hour before our TV edition. Please call me she urged, I want the world to know about my father. So we did.

Her voice had an urgency and her words a high-tempo. 'He's a 70 and lives in Tripoli, and I think has spoken to the media. This morning he was attacked by eight men who support Gaddafi. They put a gun to his head, dragged him around the house and then made him sit and watch one of our family's nannies being raped. She's Indonesian, she has nothing to do with it!'

Her story became a plea. 'The world has to intervene. People are disappearing, they're being tortured, they're being murdered. The world can no longer sit and watch. Words are not enough, Gaddafi doesn't care about words. This is what I have to say to the world.' And with that she ended her call.

For Ahmed, a Libyan doctor in Manchester, Sara's words had an awful ring of truth. 'My three brothers and father have never carried a weapon in their lives. They disappeared this week and we have no idea where they are. My mother is beside herself.'

I often marvel at the calmness and eloquence of people in situations of unbearable pressure. As we talked, I flinched as I imagined living the day that Sara and Ahmed were halfway through, wrestling with the maddening thought of loved ones suffering out of your reach. 'I'm a psychiatrist, I'm just managing to keep things together,' Ahmed explained. It still seemed remarkable.

Earlier in the week, I'd spoken to a Ramira. She lives in Manila, but her husband Alberto works in the oil industry in Libya. She'd stayed up late to take our call and hers was better news. Alberto was in Benghazi and looking certain to get out.

'Do you resent him working so far from home,' I wondered. 'Oh no,' she replied, 'he can earn much more money there.' 'And what about the future, would you want him to go back?' 'Of course, we need the money, there is no other way.'

This is the long view that says that Libya can offer good work whichever way history's path turns. It's hard to believe that Sara's father's nanny would feel the same way.

Jalal followed Ahmed and Sara. He lives in the opposition stronghold of Benghazi n eastern Libya.

Ahmed mocked Colonel Gaddafi's claim that this people love him and wanted to know Jalal knew anyone who felt that way. 'Gaddafi is delusional,' replied Jalal. 'I'm certain even his children don't like him.' Not that they could see each other, but the two men smiled across the screen.

Zainab broke that united front. She called from Libya, and her anger and frustration matched Sara's. 'You're not getting a clear picture. I live in an area held by the revolutionaries, and they have hijacked the place, and kidnap those who oppose them.' We don't want you here, was her unequivocal message.

It's always said of the Palestinians and the Israelis that there are two parallel narratives. The same applies to Libya, and we continue to hear both.

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