It had been exactly 1 year and 3 days since I last saw my mother.
“Abu, please come back to me. Don’t get on that boat.”, my mother cried on the phone. I tried to explain to her that coming back was not possible. Even if I could manage to somehow earn enough to pay for a trip back through the desert, there was still the chance of being kidnapped and resold to another Libyan trafficking ring. “The only way out of here is by sea”. That was the night I left the Libyan cost on a rubber boat with 120 other people.
My father is from Gambia and my mother from Ivory Cost. They met in Abidjan, where I was born in 1992. Shortly after my birth, my father took me to live with his relatives in Gambia. My mother and my youngest Sister stayed in Ivory Cost. A year after the death of my father – I had just finished high school – I decided to live with my mother in Abidjan. I had not seen her in 15 years.
I always wanted to be someone, who is recognised as a good and productive member of society. I must have inherited that from my father, who was an Iman and encouraged me to join the Gambian Red Cross when I was a teenager. “There is joy in serving others”, he used to say. But who could I help in Ivory Cost? I was a foreigner and did not speak French.
I had heard about working in Libya and the high salaries. That would given me chance to support my mother and save enough money to go and study Chemistry at university. Or so I thought. When I shared my plan with my mother, she was skeptical at first but I managed to convince her to lent me some money to pay for the trip.
That was one year and three days ago.
The journey through the desert was terrible, but nothing compared to the horror that awaited me in Libya.
We were 26 on a Toyota pick up that left Agadez in Niger for the Libyan town of Ghat. We were told by the driver “you better hold one. If you fall off we will will not stop to pick you up”. When I saw how many people were pushed on each pickup, I was terrified. “Are we really driving through the desert in this?” I asked one of the drivers. He hit me on the head with his fist and yelled at me to keep my mouth shout. I was not use to violence, then.
On the fourth day in the desert we got lost and run out of fuel. The little water that had been given to us had been finished the night before. The drivers informed us that we should start praying. We did. Some prayed the entire night. Many cried. Many were to afraid or shocked to do either. We began to drink the water from the car’s engine. One tiny sip per person; and we waited.
The next morning a car appeared. We were saved. We later learned that another car from our convey never arrived.
was still missing. It was found the next day and driven back to the compound where we waited for the next leg of the journey. Of the more than twenty passengers and drivers, there was only the luggage left.
We stayed in what all travellers refer to as “Ghettos”: little hidden compounds where we were kept hidden until we could continue. The mostly-Libyan guards told us that the fee we had paid was not enough to get us to Sabha. They told us to empty our pockets. I ended up paying another 750 dinars (490€) for me and two Malians who had no money. “I could not leave them there. I saw what they did to people with no money, they took them to a room and told them to call their relatives, while they beat them up.” After a week of waiting we continued to Sabah.
In Sabah, we were taken straight into another Ghetto. This one was different though, it was a prison. Directly after we stepped off the truck, they started beating us. After the beating, they told us to strip and they searched all our belongings. They took the rest of my money out of my bag. As they heard that I paid for the two Malians, they took me to another room, where I was chained to the wall. They must have thought I was rich. They yelled at me “Call your family! They need to pay another 3000 dinar”. I tried to explain that, my mother was poor, all the money we had, was on me. The used two electric wire to electrocute me. Repeatedly.
After a couple of hours, they let me go. I don’t know why. They throw me out on the street. I roamed the streets, disorientated. No money, no phone to contact anyone. Thankfully, I met a Malian who took me to another warehouse. Hearing my story they felt pity and supported me for a couple of weeks. By then, I had befriended one of the drivers, who offered me to take me Misrata.
The first couple of months in Misrata were good. I had found work with a Libyan family. I cleaner the house, cooked and cared for the garden. They offered a decent salary and they paid it too. One morning on the way to the market, I was inattentive and I got picked up my the immigration police. As I could not produce papers, I was sent to a detention center and told that I would not leave until I paid a fine. Here in Libya, all migrants are treated like drugs: sold and resold, an easy way to make money.
It was hell on earth. We were so many in the tiny cell that we had to sit in a row, which each men in front between your legs. The water we drank came from the toilet. People had been in these cages for months, with no hope of getting out. I begged them to let me call my boss. After nearly a months of pleading, I managed to convince them hat the only way for me to pay the fine was if I could call my boss. Thankfully, I came immediately and I was free to go. In order to pay off my debt I had to work for another 2 months for free after that my boss had to let me go as he himself was fearing repercussions from the authorities. I drove to Tripoli overnight.
In Tripoli I found fellow Gambia’s who told where to stand in the morning in order to get picked up for work. I did the odd jobs here and there. Sometimes, I even got paid at the end, most of the time though, when the day was over, payment was refused. In particularly bad case, a boss held 20 of us captive on his construction site and threatened us with guns. At night we were kept locked up in containers, so that we would not escape. Eventually, I managed to escape in a mass break out form the site. That was the moment I decided I needed to flee this country. This constant cycle of detention, violence, no pay, was just too much for me.
Again luck was on my side, I found another ghetto with fellow Malians and Gambias. They could relate, they all had similar experiences. We became friends and tried to support each other. It is there that I met a smuggler who told me that for 1000 dinars he would take me on one of his boats.
It took me several months to save up. Three of my friends added a couple of dinners each. I had 505 dinar in total. By that time, I was so desperate that I pleaded to the smuggler that I would pay the rest once out of Libya. I just wanted to leave this place for good. He took pity on me and said to join him at the beach that night and if there was enough space he would put me on.
That is the nights I last spoke to my mother on the phone. There was space for me to travel and I took the chance to call my mother who begged me not to go. There was no turning back now. I offered the smuggler all I had. He looked at the 505 dinars. Took 500 and returned the 5 dinars and say “keep them as a souvenir”. I still have that note in my pocket. It reminds of all the people who are still in these prisons.
I have been rescued though and tonight I will call my mother. When I look back to the day I left one year and three days ago, I shudder at what I have been through and I think of all these people still trapped in these prisons. But I survived.