Lost in Libya: A Refugee’s Story of Captivity and Escape
By John ThorneDecember 21, 2019
THE STRANGE BOAT drew alongside them, and as they had feared, their rescuers were Libyan.
They were miles off the coast with a puncture somewhere in their inflatable craft and no hope left of reaching Europe. The Libyans had guns. “Abdi” knew the rescue was a form of capture — probably all of them knew that, or sensed it — but there was no choice. He watched the other passengers rise shakily and climb aboard the Libyan boat, and then he was climbing aboard himself.
Every year thousands of migrants and refugees try to reach Europe by boat via Libya. Some are fleeing war or persecution, some are fleeing poverty, and some are fleeing all those hardships and more. The route presents one danger and obstacle after another. There is the Sahara Desert. There are smugglers and human traffickers, who imprison, torture, rape, or enslave their victims, or subject them to a combination of abuses. And there is Europe itself in the form of policies on migration and asylum.
European governments accept only small numbers of refugees evacuated from Libya by the United Nations. At the same time, some try to block arrivals by sea in what they describe as efforts to fight human trafficking and irregular migration. The European Union helps train, equip, and organize the Libyan Coast Guard, and backed the establishment of the coast guard’s official search-and-rescue area. The coast guard is aligned with a government in Tripoli that is recognized by the United Nations, and returns to Libya the migrants and refugees it intercepts at sea. Most go straight into detention centers.
In theory, those detention centers are under the control of a Tripoli government agency called the Directorate to Counter Illegal Migration. In practice, they are usually controlled by local armed groups. Detainees are locked up indefinitely, often in dirty and overcrowded conditions, and risk abuses including torture, forced labor, and sexual violence, as well as malnourishment and disease. The risks to detainees in and around Tripoli shot up dramatically after April 4, when General Khalifa Haftar, who is allied with a rival government in eastern Libya, began a military campaign to take the city.
The man we are calling “Abdi” — a pseudonym to protect his safety — was in a detention center near Tripoli called Tajoura when the fighting broke out. The following month, he began communicating in secret with the nonprofit Human Rights Watch, for which I was then working as a researcher.
Human Rights Watch has called on Libyan authorities to stop detaining migrants and asylum seekers arbitrarily, release those currently so detained, and find alternatives to detention; and on European governments to ensure and support European search and rescue in the Mediterranean, allow those rescued to be brought safely to Europe for a fair assessment of whether they may stay, and help evacuate detainees from Libya to safe places including European countries.
We and others have documented widespread abuses at the detention centers — including Tajoura, which our researchers visited in June 2018 — and among smugglers and traffickers in Libya. We find Abdi’s story consistent with the accounts of other migrants and refugees there, and have verified its plausibility wherever possible. Thousands of people like Abdi, who pass through Libya or remain there today, have similar stories. His own began with trouble in his home village, in Somalia, that he traced ultimately to one of the village cafés.
The café was like any other in the village, and consisted mainly of chairs by the roadside where people might spend a whole day drinking coffee or tea and talking about this and that. One day Abdi was holding forth in front of some young men and boys. Who were al-Shabab, anyway, he said, to decide what was and wasn’t Islam? After that, Abdi and his wife received death threats from the group, and the couple decided that he should flee.
Abdi went to Ethiopia. His wife was to follow. But an al-Shabab man threatened her into marriage, with a sheikh to make it official, and seized control of her and Abdi’s child. She called Abdi secretly with the news, and a jolt of shock and anguish went through him. It was as though he were dead, and the other man had inherited his life. The idea gnawed at him and refused to let go. He considered drinking poison. And he still feared that al-Shabab might catch him. Keep running, said his family. He resolved to try for Europe.
In early 2017, Abdi joined travelers heading north via a network of smugglers. The smugglers moved them from vehicle to vehicle and escort to escort as they crossed Ethiopia and Sudan. When they reached the Sahara, they joined a larger group in a pair of trucks. They entered Libya, and new escorts appeared: local gunmen in pickups, hired by the smugglers to act as guards.
Inside the trucks, the travelers were baking and faltering in the heat. The water they were given had traces of fuel, but they drank it, and still it was never enough. One day as they neared the town of Umm El-Araneb, in southwestern Libya, the trucks stopped, and Abdi watched the gunmen deposit a group of corpses in the sand.
On their last evening together, the gunmen made camp beside the trucks, and cooked pasta and meat for the travelers. Some of them tried to flirt with the women. Then, during the night, three gunmen forced three young women into the desert. The other travelers repeatedly heard screams and saw the women try to flee. The gunmen warned everyone not to make a fuss, or else. One of the women said later that she had been raped.
The next morning new escorts arrived in pickups and four-wheel drive cars, and the travelers left the trucks and the gunmen behind. They passed through Umm el Araneb and the city of Sebha, where the smugglers split them up. Finally Abdi and the other Somalians found themselves in the town of Brak El-Shati, and the hands of a local smuggler. At this point, their journey slammed to a halt.
The smuggler’s business was to transport people, and like anyone in business he expected to be paid. He locked Abdi and the other Somalians in two warehouse-like buildings in a compound on his farm. There they would stay, he said, until they had produced money for passage to the coast. To drive the point home, the smuggler and three guards gave two men electric shocks with wires from a wall socket and beat the rest with plastic tubes.
Abdi was trapped in one of the buildings for two months, beaten and twice given shocks, until his mother was able to wire money to a middleman. After that, he was merely confined to the smuggler’s compound.
In the meantime, the smuggler had a farm to run. The travelers weeded his onion beds and bagged his onions, on pain of being beaten or locked indoors with nothing to eat or drink. Once, Abdi was so hungry after a day locked up that he and several other men climbed the compound wall and stole dates from a nearby farm, were spotted returning, and got locked up again.
As weeks and months passed, the effects of confinement began to show. A gentle Ethiopian of Somalian origins who had fallen ill on the road wasted away, and when the smuggler finally let him out he was too far gone to save. A young Eritrean locked himself in the kitchen, where a gun was kept, and shot himself dead.
One evening, Abdi left the kitchen with a dish of pasta to share with his friends and saw one of them staggering, supported by two other men, as though he were drunk. A few onlookers were laughing. Abdi’s friend had lately complained of pain in his stomach. Abdi urged him to gather his strength and eat. His friend only waved everyone away. Then he toppled over, his eyes rolled back, he writhed for an instant, and was gone.
The baby came and went so quickly it was barely there at all. It was a girl, a tiny little thing, born to the woman who had said she had been raped. (It was unclear whether that incident might have brought about the pregnancy.) The smuggler’s brother came in the night to collect the body. He promised the travelers he would bury it in the desert, as they had buried the Ethiopian, the Eritrean, and Abdi’s friend.
Meanwhile the smuggler, who was Libyan, was rumored to be quarrelling with a business partner, who was Eritrean, over the deaths and the delay in sending travelers to the coast. Abdi came to see that in Libya, the people smuggling or trafficking foreigners like him were often foreigners themselves.
Nine months after Abdi arrived at the farm, the smuggler’s patience appeared to break. He delivered — or sold — Abdi and other Somalians to another local smuggler. That smuggler, too, locked them in his compound to extract payment, until a Somalian underling begged successfully for their release. Abdi’s mother wired yet more money to yet another middleman, and the smuggler trucked him north with some of the others.
There was another town — Bani Walid, southeast of Tripoli — and another two months or so of confinement, forced labor, beatings, and shouts of “Get up, slave!” They worked mainly on nearby farms. Twice the smugglers forced Abdi and others into the tank that caught waste from the toilets, to remove by hand what the pump truck had missed. After Bani Walid came almost three months of confinement by smugglers near Garabuli, on the coast.
In early 2018, the smugglers brought Abdi and other travelers to the shore, took away their shoes, packed them into the inflatable boat, and sent them motoring into the night. Abdi reckoned they numbered at least a hundred or so. By morning the boat was losing air, and they were arguing over whether to press on anyway or wait for the vessel they saw in the distance.
With any luck, the vessel was European — maybe even one of the rescue ships that searched the waters between Libya and Europe. But if the vessel was Libyan, they feared, they might disappear either into the world of smugglers and traffickers, or into one of the detention centers tied to the government in Tripoli. As it turned out, the vessel belonged to the Libyan Coast Guard.
Tajoura detention center was situated in a compound east of Tripoli, in a suburb of the same name. A guard at the compound gate directed Abdi to a Sudanese detainee working as an assistant. The Sudanese asked him his nationality, led him down the street to a long, low building known as a hangar, ushered him through one of the doorways, and shut the door behind him.
Oddly enough, it was now that Abdi felt a twinge of hope. True, he was trapped again behind walls and gates. But he had heard that it was in detention centers like Tajoura that you could be registered by the UN refugee agency, to be whisked to safety in a new country. Then he saw how things actually worked.
The visiting UN officials would meet with the center’s director and set up a table outside the hangar. The guards would call detainees forward a few at a time. There was always a lot of jostling and shoving to get to the front. Finally the officials would leave, having registered a handful of people. Abdi found that detainees registered long before were still waiting for evacuation. He braced himself for a long wait, too.
The room where Abdi lived was crammed with men and teenage boys from several African countries. In the mornings, he rushed to beat the line for the toilet. Each new day of crowding and frayed tempers brought new opportunities to get into arguments. Sometimes these flared into brawls along ethnic lines, as men laid into one another with fists, pasta dishes, and even crutches.
Otherwise, they found ways to pass the time. They played football on the sandy ground opposite the hangar, if the guards allowed it. They played cards and dominoes, or watched the TV, or tried to escape into sleep. And they talked.
They talked about their homes, but also about Tajoura, the sea, the desert, and smugglers. They questioned newcomers about developments in places like Brak El-Shati and Bani Walid. For all they longed to put Libya behind them, still at times it dominated their thoughts.
Every day the door opened three times for meals, always the same and never enough. Bread for breakfast, pasta slathered in watery tomato sauce for lunch and dinner, and water to drink. To get more or better food, they had to escape the hangar. Only a few of them managed that.
There were detainees whom the guards chose to work in the compound — typically Sudanese who spoke Arabic. There were those chosen for coveted jobs in the office and kitchen. And those chosen or forced to work outside Tajoura, who might be paid in food or cigarettes.
At night, Abdi would find a place on the floor and lay out his mattress. The air was so hot that sometimes the men couldn’t sleep. Eventually someone got fed up and broke a window, and the guards came in and beat people.
There was always the chance of a beating at Tajoura. The guards beat with their hands, but preferred sticks. They beat for even a minor provocation. And they beat for no apparent reason at all.
Outside the hangar, across the street, was the office for the migrant detention center. Everyone called it simply the Administration. But most of the compound — a rough grid of streets and yards and drab, utilitarian buildings — was the base of a militia called the Katibat Al-Dhaman. Militiamen occupied those buildings, plus the open country surrounding the compound. Everyone called their office the White House.
Abdi was naturally industrious, with a knack for waking up early, and found a job at the Administration. He would go there each morning and spend the day tidying and doing whatever other chores they threw at him. He became experienced at washing cars. Then some of the militiamen that hung around discovered that he spoke several languages, including English. One day, they summoned him for a different sort of work.
They were a small group, operating from a room at the heart of the compound, and the operation was extortion. Their victims were typically West African men. Abdi’s job was to translate demands for ransom via another detainee, who spoke Arabic. The militiamen gave Abdi food in return, and in any case he could hardly refuse. On his first day, he didn’t actually see the beating. But later the militiamen summoned him when beatings were underway. Once, he arrived just as they stopped giving a man electric shocks.
He watched one captive after another pass through the room, saw their battered and bloodied faces, and felt a strange sense of resignation. Evil no longer surprised him. Later he would liken the feeling to ink darkening a sheet of paper. Over time, he became convinced that he would never escape Libya. And as a consequence, he would later reflect, he began to feel that in some mysterious way he was dead — a ghost of a man, dead to everyone but himself, who alone still dared to believe he was alive.
At first, the job in tank garages seemed like a good change of pace. The garages were in two warehouses just outside the compound. In one, the militiamen had forced detainees to build a central block of storerooms and living quarters. They let Abdi sleep there and gave him food — onions, tomatoes, and green chilis — and in return he kept the place clean and watched over their store of munitions. Then the militiamen altered the arrangement. Now Abdi also had to clean tanks and weapons, and was forbidden to leave. In return, they would refrain from beating him, unless of course he made a mistake.
In late summer 2018, various militias fought one another in Tripoli, and there was a burst of activity at the tank garages. Sometimes the militiamen woke Abdi and other detainees there late at night, and even worked alongside them, in a frantic scrubbing and washing and moving about of weapons and ammunition.
The weapons were mainly the 14.5-millimeter heavy machine-guns that the militiamen mounted in the beds of their pickups. The detainees cleaned them with fuel as a solvent. They poured fuel into half-jerrycans and plastic tubs that reminded Abdi of how nomads did laundry, and washed bullets. They washed tank shells with fuel as well, and scrambled onto the tanks to run cleaning brushes down the guns. The militiamen even taught Abdi how to rotate the turrets, and raise and lower the gun barrels.
After a few weeks, the fighting ended. One day in October 2018, officials from the UN refugee agency visited Tajoura and registered hundreds of detainees. This time Abdi was among them, many months after his arrival.
Then, in April 2019, General Haftar made war on the government in Tripoli. Abdi helped clean weapons and tanks, as before. This time, the militiamen also brought him to work at the front. They delivered water and food such as bread, jam, and honey, and he saw other detainees washing blood from vehicles. They collected weapons from the field, and he saw militiamen kicking the dead in mockery: “Get up! Get up!”
Rockets began to fall. One evening, as Abdi neared the tank garages on his way back from the compound, he heard a tremendous crash and saw a cloud of dust roiling up several hundred feet away. He worried more and more about the munitions and fuel stored near where he slept.
The fighting around Tripoli brought growing scrutiny from the outside world on detention centers like Tajoura. The guards began hunting for detainees they feared were communicating with journalists, foreign organizations, or the UN. Abdi heard that his name had come up. In May, the guards held two men overnight at the Administration and beat them, and Abdi feared he might be next. He rose early in the morning, hid with three other men, and when the coast was clear, they ran.
They came to a road, out but not away, and not yet safe. At any moment, they might be recaptured. They had tried to arrange a taxi via a friend in Tripoli, but had struggled to communicate to the driver how to find them. Then, as if by providence, Abdi felt, a pickup appeared. Would the driver believe they were ordinary migrant laborers? He brought them to a main highway without asking questions. The driver of the taxi they flagged down there was dangerously chatty, but believed their story. Still, for days afterward Abdi moved from place to place in Tripoli, terrified of recapture and even of phone calls from friends in Tajoura lest the guards be listening at the other end.
In early July, less than six weeks after Abdi’s escape from Tajoura, munitions from an air strike flattened a large section of the detainee hangar. In its place was a chaos of bodies and debris. At least 53 detainees were reported killed, and scores were reported wounded.
By then, Abdi was out of Libya. Over the following months, his thoughts would turn and return to his future, which was far from clear, and to his home, where another man still held dominion over his wife and their child, and to Libya and the burden of his memories, and to all those in danger of torment and captivity, or captive already as he had been.
The Libyan Coast Guard has continued to catch and return migrants and refugees to Libya — at least 8,848 so far this year, according to UN figures. At Tajoura, the authorities opened the compound a few days after the air strike and allowed detainees to leave. About a week later, they began to refill it.
John Thorne served as Acting Libya and Mauritania Researcher for Human Rights Watch from January to July 2019.
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