We’d barely got through the imposing entrance to Khamis army base in southern Tripoli when all hell broke loose.

Suddenly armed anti-Gaddafi fighters appeared, shoving and hitting nine black men into the guard post at the main gate.

They plainly believed they were pro-Gaddafi mercenaries. There was no evidence at hand. They said they had seized guns but couldn’t produce them.

The men were clearly terrified.

“Please,” they begged us, “please don’t go. Don’t leave us. They will kill us.”

Another just asked me: “Will they shoot us? Please tell me Sir. Will they shoot us?”

Herded into a corner, a gunman started slapping them. We asked him to stop.

“They are with Gaddafi. We know this. They had guns.”

“Show me the guns,” I said.

No guns arrived. Some of the men crossed themselves, sweating, praying. One began weeping softly.

Plainly we had to stay with them. A friend of mine here – another journalist – says he witnessed an anti-Gaddafi fighter executing one of the colonel’s men this week. We had to stay.

They said their women were “in the bush” close by. So we asked the fighters to take one of these terrified men as a guide, film the women as proof these men were not mercenaries,  show it to the fighters and – insh’allah – god willing – we could all get on with life.

Somehow it worked. You could see the fighters’ interest in these men begin to ebb away.

Water arrived – though in truth most of it was ours. They were allowed out to cool under a water- sprinkler.

“Thankyou habibi,” (friend) they said to one of the fighters. He in turn kissed their heads.

Yet the fear was still there. All nine sensed a trap, a false kiss before the bullet out of sight from prying journalists.

“Please, please stay,” they kept whispering.

And things calmed further. They were allowed to speak to us. Then give interviews.

All nine were Nigerian. Most were heading for the people-traffickers to try to get to Europe – Italy they said. Two claimed to be car mechanics and working here for several years and they had reasonable Arabic to underpin that claim.

Eventually they were freed to go. It had been tense for them, more, it had been utterly terrifying.

These were hungry, thirsty and desperate people, apparently caught up in the midst of somebody else’s war.

To be a black African in the wrong part of town at the wrong time is to be in a very frightening place. Rotting bodies lie in the streets a around the Salaheddin district on which the base lies.

Locals are quick to point to the massacre sites around this base – but whose are the odd bodies decomposing here and there?

Locals are not so forthcoming and tend to shrug. The product of anti-Gaddafi executions?

So what if we hadn’t been there this morning as the screaming and beating was going on would we have had a few more corpses in Tripoli?

Follow @alextomo on Twitter.