In the space of several hours on 22nd February, the teams of SOS MEDITERRANEE came in aid to four boats in distress off the coast of Libya. In all, 394 people were rescued and safely taken to Italy. Once aboard the Aquarius, they share their stories of the crossing, but especially their experience of hell before the sea, in Libya. These stories echo the news reports a day earlier about the discovery of 74 bodies of migrants on a beach in Zawiya, east of Tripoli. In the Mediterranean, at the beginning of this year, the situation seems more desperate than ever.
Issouf puts on the clean tracksuit he has just received with his “rescue kit”. With his hat pulled down low, he then isolates himself from the group. Eyes riveted on one of the boats that the team of SOS MEDITERRANEE are still rescuing – the third and fourth of the day – he seems lost in thought. He must still be in shock after what he has just experienced, what he has just survived. The long crossing in the dark, on an inflatable, with 90 people on board. The boat left from Sabratah, west of Tripoli.
He has no friends among his travelling companions, he did not know them before. His only friend, he tells me, was kidnapped in Libya, he could not find him before leaving. Issouf is very worried about him, he could not tell the family of his companion of misfortune, he just fled. He shows me a scar on his neck. “They did that to me with a knife, they wanted to take my money! “. The thick scar is just at the level of the aorta. The young man, barely of age, was probably very lucky that day. He shows me his hands, one of his fingers is bent. “Every morning in prison they twisted my hands” he explains in a stifled voice. He struggles to get the words out. He takes my right hand to let me feel his injured jaw. “It is swollen there. They did that to me by beating me with the butt of a kalashnikov. ” The cold evocation of his suffering takes me by surprise. It is difficult to visualize, to imagine, how this sweet childlike face suffered repeated blows, every day, again and again, without an end in sight, during the seven months and three weeks which he spent in Libya.
“I had only one Libyan friend, his name was Osama, like him,” he said, pointing with a chin to MSF’s cultural mediator aboard the Aquarius. “He was a Libyan but of Sudanese origin. He said ‘But why did you come to Libya? You made a big mistake in coming here! ‘” Issouf repeats this over and over: “A big mistake … “. “I tried to explain to him that I had not chosen, that I had been deceived, forced to come here to Tripoli,” he continues. The spark of joy when he mentions his friend is priceless. “If one day I have a child, and he’s a boy, I’ll call him Osama.”
The faint glimmer of hope disappears so quickly from his gaze. “In Libya, children of 8 or 10 years attack and beat you in the street, in front of adults. Everything you have, the Libyans take it from you, they rob you and if you give them nothing, if you have nothing to give them, they kill you or they kidnap you. “ Never a moment’s respite, if they are not kidnapped and beaten, African migrants must flee. “In January, there was fighting in a neighborhood of Tripoli. The Asma Boys against the police. They told all the blacks to go. I was very lucky, I managed to escape. But there were maybe 6,000 people fleeing. Some were captured, they filled buses with blacks who did not know where to go. And we do not know where they took them. “
“In Libya we can not trust anyone, we never know if those who arrest us and throw us in jail are police or if they are Asma Boys” interjects C., a young Nigerian wrapped in a blanket who has been following our conversation from the beginning. “They broke my leg by striking me with sticks every day. To take my money and there was no one to help me, no hospital. Without doctors people die. I saw people die in prison, many people. “ A few minutes earlier, in the shelter a young woman explained that the corpses of her friends had been abandoned beside her, that the bodies decomposed next to her mattress.
“As soon as I arrived in Libya, I was thrown into prison. In this prison there were doctors who came, they brought food,” continues C.“But the guards do not let the NGOs feed us. They would keep all the food. And we were only given pasta, spaghetti, boiled until tasteless.” In this prison, C. tells us, “the Arabs come to buy the blacks to make them work. They sell blacks for a thousand dinars. “ “When the Lybian police boats intercept us during the crossing and bring us back to the coasts, they tell us that they will deport us to our countries. But all they do is sell us to someone else. “
Curled up under the stairs, Issouf approves with a nod. “It seems that this route will be closed in a month,” he said. He heard about it in Libya, in the camps, and worries about all the Africans who are still there. “I think of my friends who stayed there, I’m afraid for them. My head hurts, I have too many thoughts. “
Maybe because his injured jaw still hurts, Issouf is one of the few passengers in the Aquarius who cannot even smile when setting foot for the first time in Europe, in the port of Trapani. And yet, once the identity checks are over, he will finally be able to call his mom. “I miss her, when I was in Libya she told me to go home, she did not want me to leave. I told her “Let me try …”, he told me the day before, begging me to let him know how many more days he would have to wait before he could phone her. “She’s my mom, she’s suffering too much not knowing if I’m still alive or dead at sea.”
Text: Mathilde Auvillain
Translation: Franziska Heimburger
Photo: Marco Panzetti