The Aquarius is a 77m long, seaworthy former fishery protection vessel. Our teams on board make up a family of 37 people and the Aquarius is our home. It is always incredible to see how this home that can sometimes feel small to the family that lives on it, magically expands to shelter everyone after a rescue. Whether we are 37 or 606, every night everyone can find a little space to rest and share their worries, their joys, and stories – just like in every other home.
“We used to be normal people, you know. We all left Somalia for different reasons. But whatever made us flee, going through Libya only made everything worse.”
This was the beginning of my talk with a group of Somalis on board of the Aquarius, following the 6 rescue operations conducted between the 10 and 11 of October 2017: “None of us fled to then get tortured. We were all looking for serenity, peace, and freedom,” but all that going through Libya did was take the little freedom they had left away.
I will never forget the strength of their gazes and the terror with which they pointed out the moment they lost their last bit of freedom and humanity. They explained to me how, ever since their departure from Somalia, they were abducted by groups of armed people. They spent all their money to buy a ticket to freedom, and instead they bought their imprisonment.
“You don`t really know where they take you. They make you pass through the desert and it’s really hard to know where you are. Being in the desert is like being on this sea: you can only see the sky and stars above you and the great unknown below you. Then if you survive the desert, they take you to their prisons.”
The only word they ever used to describe the Libyan detention centers where they were held captive by the militias, was prison. By definition a prison is a place of confinement for people that have committed crimes. The only crime this group committed was hoping to survive civil war, extreme hunger and violence. Migrating to find better life conditions, migrating for survival is part of human nature.
If surviving the desert-crossing in critical conditions wasn’t enough, these prisons is where, they say, the true suffering starts. “The life conditions there are horrible. You don’t get any food, and there are hundreds or thousands of people in very small spaces.” They re-enacted how tightly they would have to stand, and two of them showed me the system they had found to lay down by twisting their already extremely malnourished bodies so they would take up even less space. Yet, once one found a way to lie down, they said that sleeping more than a couple of hours was impossible because the cells were infested with lice to the point that one could never even try to close ones’ eyes to rest, “How could anyone sleep with their body tormented by insects?”
Imagine living like that for months, sometimes years and in addition, suffering the most atrocious torture.
This group of Somalis included at least 10 people, who lived in these conditions from three months to three years. All of them made sure to show me some of the signs of torture on their bodies, almost to prove that those absurd things they were telling me really happened. Some of them also showed me scars from gunshots, bomb injuries, and other wounds that they incurred in Somalia. Experiencing torture and enslavement should be unacceptable in 2017, but yet this is the reality for thousands of people today.
One of the men spent three years in different detention centers across Libya. He had completely lost sensation in his feet because “they would tie my ankles and hit me at the bottom of my feet so that I couldn’t walk. Most of the time what happens is that they ask you for money: if you don`t give it to them they torture you, and if you do they will sell you to other groups and bring you to other centers.” It becomes a vicious circle of atrocity. “See these marks here on my back? They set pieces of plastic on fire and melt them on our bodies.”
Sitting with us there was also A., a young man from Somalia who did not speak and seemed to suffer from psychiatric conditions. As they were showing me the marks on his body, they told me that he had stopped talking because of the torture he had endured.
“He was perfectly normal when we arrived in Libya. We used to spend time together, but when the punishments increased, when the torture increased, he went out of his mind.” They explained that he was unable to pay the money they asked for, and therefore he was never given a break from the punishments. “Can you see his hands? They beat him on his fingers with metal pipes. We all got the same violent treatment, but when he got to this stage, they started to get more violent with him because they thought he was pretending to be insane.” Some other friends of A. told me that he was often whipped on his back as well as electroshocked.
“Women are treated just as badly” – they told me. One of the women in the group had the courage to say it out loud, while all the others lowered their gaze in shame. “We are violently sexually abused, and some of us are forced to marry the people keeping us prisoners. Sometimes, some of our very young children are spared, but not all of them are so lucky. Many of us have to deliver babies in those horrible prisons. There is nobody there to help us, or take care of us if we need a doctor.” At this point, over 10 of the women aboard the Aquarius were pregnant.
With us was also a 13-year-old boy, who fled Somalia to be able to access education. This young man, who had his childhood stolen too early, was in the detention centers with all the other adults in the group and had the same horrible experiences. “They used to beat me so hard,” he said “I am afraid I won`t be able to have kids one day because they would always hit me between my legs to knock me down and hurt me more.”
“What we saw in Libya is indescribable. I don’t think anyone understands. Those Libyans are inhumane. They have no sympathy for anyone or anything. They treat people worse than animals.” They said that they are haunted by the thought that there are still hundreds of people suffering in these conditions and knowing that a lot of them will not survive.
Testimony and text: Isabella Trombetta
Photo: Anthony Jean