A. is Gambian. At nineteen years old, he’s been through more than what anyone his age should have been. He tells how he was trapped in a cycle of violence, ill-treatment and kidnapping in Libya and soon could only save his life, by getting on a rubber boat and fleeing across the sea.
I met A. last Sunday morning on the starboard side, as the Aquarius was entering the port of Messina. 19 years old, Gambian, he had a tough story to share, “No problem at all, please have a seat,” he told me. So we sat down on the wooden bench, and he started telling me in detail what happened to him in Libya.
A. didn’t really want to come to Europe, he wanted to “travel”, to “explore” other countries, not knowing that this trip would bring him aboard of our big, orange ship.
In Gambia, he had a business of bike rentals for tourists and a small travel agency. “I had my business, I was happy, I had a good life”. So why did he decide to leave? “I left because a friend told me to come to Libya,” he answers.
“But there I fell into a trap, I fell into the hands of smugglers who are helped by our people, black Africans, they collaborate with the smugglers and make money from this human trafficking” he says with anger.
“As soon as I arrived in Libya, I was thrown into the jail in Bani Walid. In Libya, black people, we are always kidnapped, beaten and imprisoned. Then we are asked for money and we have to tell our families to send the money to an account in Egypt. They asked me for 5.000 dollars, to be released. But I didn’t have this kind of money and I had no way of getting it.” He sighs. Here comes the tough part of his story.
“In prison, if we didn’t pay they would tie our hands using bending iron, and then use electric shocks. This happened many times (he shows a scar on his wrist). They do it so you pay the money, they use electric shock and then they give you the phone to call your relatives.”
“You know some of our people deal with these gangsters. Some Ghanaians, Nigerians and Gambians are working for the Arabs and are smuggling people to come to Italy. In Bani Walid, some black people just approach you, they tell you that they’re prisoners like you, and then they tell you to come with them to sleep for the night in a house and you go because you don’t know anybody else and you’re afraid because in Libya black people are always targeted on the streets.”
“But the morning after, they come to you and they ask you to write your name and a telephone number they can use to reach you. And then they sell this information to the smugglers.” A. asks me to write exactly this.
“After a while, they finally lowered the ransom to 1.500 dinars (1.000 euros). I managed to find that money and was released from the prison. I went to Tripoli to try and find my friend, the one who told me to come to Libya, but I couldn’t find him and some people told me he was dead and had been killed,” he explains.
“I couldn’t stay in Tripoli. I had to leave. Why? Because last week hundreds of black people were killed in Tripoli. You don’t know that? You don’t read the news? 100 people have been killed, they have been told to leave the areas of the city where they usually stay, Grigaras and An Colombia. They issued a warning to all the black people to leave last week, on Friday. I think it’s the Libyan police who told us to leave, because of an infamous smugglers group. For these people, blacks are like money. But our own people, the black people, deal with them, they even gave them the idea. They told them that our families would pay the money for us. And they take a percentage. For example, I know that in a prison in Zawirah people had to pay the money to an account in Gambia in order to be released”, he stresses again.
“At that point, I had no other choice than to flee to Europe. So I took the boat in Sabratah. I was asked to pay 1.200 dinars (800 euros) for the journey, but I didn’t have all the money and so I only paid 900 dinars (600 euros). To reach Sabratah from Tripoli, they put me in the boot of a car, then we stayed there for a week and after I don’t remember, I just found myself on the boat”.
“Can you imagine? These are our people doing this business? I never thought people could do such things, I never thought this possible, really. In Gambia, I had a happy life; I was working in tourism and travelling. I speak three languages, I was just curious to explore and to go and to visit my friend in Tripoli. But then, once in Libya, I kept biting my fingers, thinking: why did I come here? If I had known all that before, I would never be here now”.
Before disembarking and saying goodbye, A. wrote down the URL of his business’ website in Gambia in my notebook. Later on, I checked on the Internet and found the page. On the front page you could see a picture of him smiling on a mountain bike. It was maybe a year ago, what now seems like a lifetime ago.
When this picture was taken, A. had no clue that he was about to embark on the worst journey of his life, ending up taking his first steps on European soil barefoot, wrapped in a grey blanket, a chilly morning of January 2017, in a Sicilian port town called Messina.
A.’s broken dreams suddenly broke my heart.
Text: Mathilde Auvillain