On the morning of 12th August, the 169 rescued persons that were embarked on the Aquarius arrived in Trapani, where they were disembarked, following the visit by the health authorities. They had spent two days on board, after being transferred from the Bourbon Argos to the Aquarius that was returning to port. They were from 15 different countries and had travelled from Libya aboard three dinghies that had been successively rescued by Sea Watch 2 and the Bourbon Argos of MSF.
Upon arrival on the Aquarius on 10th August, many of them are talkative and spontaneously tell us their stories, their life journeys, and the reasons that lead them to take this journey: their lives in danger as a consequence of war, persecution, threats, extortion or the impossibility to survive in poverty-stricken countries.
Among them are ten Egyptian men who travelled aboard a small fishing boat with eighteen other people. One of them had been working in Libya for fifteen years, others for three to four years. They are all Christian, from the Al-Minya region where as Copts they felt progressively more threatened after Christian houses and churches had been set on fire. In Libya, the situation was not any better: “When I arrived in 2003, the situation was good, but things only got worse after the revolution. Now everyone is treated poorly, even Libyans amongst themselves. Most of them are heavily-armed. But Christians are even more targeted. We have sometimes been threatened with slaughter”, tells M., a 27 year-old father of two who. His kids stayed in Egypt with his wife.
They are construction workers, day laborers, and as the security and economic situation was getting worse, their salaries were reduced to nothing. “If we were promised 3000 Dinars for our work, they gave us 500 Dinars in the best of cases. Most bosses were dishonest.” Ishaq*, 29 years old, was shot at and beaten with rifle butts on his legs because he claimed his wage. Not to mention the extortion that could take place either in the street or at their dwelling place. “Anyone could be held to ransom. Either you pay or you are dead. They stole 5000 Dinars from me” says Ishaq. “Several men stormed our house, even the landlord couldn’t do anything.”
They had to overcome their fear of crossing the sea, a last resort they would never had considered before, but “no one can stand the situation in Libya anymore, whether Christians or Muslims”, they say, specifying that in the cheap hotel were some of them dwelled, the occupants dropped from seventy to four persons since mid-June. But for them, returning to Egypt was not possible either, because as they would be condemned to misery. “All we ask for is to be able to eat, drink, and provide for our families. In Egypt, the prices of medicines have increased by half.” Yet, they have no illusions regarding what is expecting them in Europe: “We know several Egyptians who are not managing well at all to make a living, but if returning to Egypt was a good solution, we would not have taken the risk to travel by sea.”
Amongst them are also two 15 year-old and 17 year-old unaccompanied minors who used to work in Libya to mix cement on construction sites. “Going to public school in Egypt is useless”, comments M. “You don’t learn anything. On the contrary you unlearn what you have learnt elsewhere.”
Ismaela*, 22 years old, is from Guinea Conakry but was brought up in Ivory Coast where his father manages a small roadside restaurant, that was torn down after the arrival of the new government, and rebuilt further away from the road, causing it to lose many clients. Ismaela would have liked to continue his school education, but as he suffers from high myopia, he had to quit school where he had learnt to speak Spanish, in hopes of becoming an interpreter. “My eyeglasses became too expensive for my father. He could not afford to pay for new ones” he says, while mentioning that in Africa, you are almost excluded from everything when you are not rich. He also wished to join the football school, but with no money, he had to give it up as well.
So he ended up looking for a job in Libya. “We used to sit in group on the roadside and they came to pick us up for daily jobs: cleaning, carrying bricks, unloading cement bags. I ended up working in the restaurant of a man from Burkina Faso who deducted several of my daily wages when I got sick from malaria, despite the fact that I had continued assisting him.” He would have stayed in Libya had he been able to make a living and live in dignity: “We the black people, we have no peace in Libya. Even the non-Libyan white people get in trouble there. There is total insecurity, I was very scared. Even a 10 year-old child can treat you as he pleases. I could not know in advance how bad the situation was there. I would dissuade any friend who would consider coming to Libya, but I also know that they might tell themselves: “If he has managed to reach Europe, why wouldn’t be able to do the same?”
The widespread conflict in Libya is also leading more and more Libyans to leave, as is the case of Mohammad*, 21 years old, who has fled his homeland following repeated threats against him, his family and his tribe. The conflict between the militias Fajr Libya and Zentan started in Tripoli and later spread to his hometown Kikla, adding to tribal conflicts involving his own tribe. The family had to flee and settle down in Tripoli. Although he had found work, Mohammad felt too threatened to stay in Libya. “I could not sleep anymore, I was in a very troubled psychological state.”
To these men coming from a variety of countries and backgrounds, Europe is seen as the last hope: “We consider Europe as our grandfather. When nothing’s going well with our father’s anymore, we turn to our grandfather”, says Ismaela.
Text: Nagham Awada
Photo credit: Isabelle Serro/ SOS MEDITERRANEE