In my own words

Five years in hell for Mariam and her family – “I wouldn’t even send my worst enemy to Libya!”

Mariam* and her family lived in Libya for a few years. Rescued at sea by SOS MEDITERRANEE, she talks about why they decided to leave this country when it became hell on earth.

Mariam does not want to give her real name. She is still too scared to be recognized. She has taken shelter with her two children and her husband somewhere on the Aquarius, among the 587 other survivors rescued from drowning on this winter day. As she agrees to tell us their story, she still has not fully realised that their Libyan nightmare is over. In late 2012 she joined her husband in Derna, a city in the country’s east he had moved to a little earlier. There he hoped to make a better living than in Mali, their country of origin.

She was 19 years old at the time, and he was 18. “He was working in a cement factory, and I was a shop assistant in a clothing store. Their two children, now aged two and four, have found balloons they try to inflate, despite the warnings of their mother, who tries to pass them felt-tip pens and paper available at the Aquarius’ shelter instead. A pointless effort …

The hope of a better life in Libya disappeared quickly

Their children were born in Libya, “But they are not Libyans: Blacks have no rights in this country.” The family lived modestly in Derna, Libya, until the day the factory closed, and the road was blocked by the Islamists. Everything became much more expensive. And it became difficult to provide food for our children. Before a small bottle of milk cost 12 dinars [about 7 euros], now it went up to 23 dinars [14 euros]. A pack of diapers cost 7 dinars (about 4 euros) …”

Food, water, gas, electricity, all the prices soared, and their lives changed. The work was useless: either we were paid half or we were not paid at all. For a woman, going out alone in the street had become impossible: they’d catch her, lock her up and call her husband or her family to ask for money … As long as the money is not paid, she stays locked up, and they hit her. Or worse … Libyans regret Gaddafi, and so do we.”  


Crossing the sea: the only chance to escape this hell

Their departure for Europe was not planned, but it had gradually emerged as the only way to escape this misery. She thought of their children first. Stuck in Derna, they first waited a week before they could escape and begin a week-long journey to Benghazi, about 300 kilometres to the west. “There were somebouabas‘ [a kind of police roadblock] that sent us back.” Once there, they spent a few days with an “acquaintance” before leaving for Tripoli, more than 1000 kilometres away. “It took us two weeks.”

“We were lucky because we had someone to stay with there. We asked around and soon enough people explained to us how to leave. We set out to Europe even though we knew the danger”. Mariam knows that quite possibly her family has escaped death, but she does not regret the choice she and her husband made. “I will not even send my worst enemy to Libya.”


Photo: Fabian Mondl / SOS MEDITERRANEE

Translation: Virginie Quémy, Matthias Dalig