60 miles off the Tripoli coast. It`s almost 6 pm and the sun begins to set obscuring the view from the “Ras Al-Jider” Libyan coastguard patrol boat. The sailors watch from the deck, observing the horizon when they spot far away from their quarry: a rubber dinghy with around 90 migrants aboard – a black dot in the middle of nothing. The captain Mustafa and his crew set sail from the naval base five hours ago the moment they received an SOS from the Maltese Air Force giving the coordinates of the dinghy.
The Maltese aircraft flies over the “Zodiac” dinghy once again to assure itself that the Libyans have intercepted it, then turns north and leaves the coastguard to fulfil the duty required of it by the European Union: to gather the migrants and take them back to Libya and the detention centres. A contradictory mission, and sanctioned also by the Italian government, which has provided vessels and logistics.
The closer the patrol boat gets towards the dinghy, the more lively the sailors become. Preparing the rescue operation, they shout “Bye-bye Italy” or “If you don`t like Libya, go back to where you came from”. When finally the dinghy is just a few tens of metres off, the migrants appear, desperate, huddled together in the middle or sitting perilously on the gunwales, the women and children hidden forward.
As soon as the migrants distinguish the flag flown by the patrol boat, the dinghy changes course, trying to escape. But it`s hopeless, the dinghy`s speed is too low and fuel is by now exhausted. Not to add to that, with no point of reference whatsoever, they`ve completely lost their bearings. They begin to shout, argue with the Libyans, displaying resistance “If you want to continue, go on – but you may die”, Captain Mustafa shouts. “Give us your women and children, and die” another sailor shouts.
But a Libyan is already in the water with a rope, which he ties around the dinghy`s motor. It`s all over, the migrants will jump on board the “Ras Al-Jider” and take the route back to Tripoli, that port considered safe by Europe but which has become a torture for sub-Saharan migrants doomed to endure all kinds of privations, not only in the many and dreadful detention centres, there to suffer mistreatment and torture, but also outside, where they have become nothing less than the victims of a migrant hunt, a mechanism created ad hoc by authorities, militias and a part of civil society in order to fleece these unlucky adventurers, threatening them with beatings. Chaos reigns in Libya.
The plywood platform dinghy is brought astern, where disembarkation operations begin. The stench is insufferable as the first migrants come on board, broken and sad, faces angry. They maybe haven`t washed for days, weeks, months, have been confined in some house, expecting to embark. A woman, Sarah, refuses to board. She threatens to throw herself into the water, abandoning her son Amir, only five years old, to his fate. She`s stopped in time by a sailor who has jumped onto the dinghy to expedite the disembarkation. Some of her travelling companions try to calm her. “Better to drown in the sea than return to Libya” she cries repeatedly when the patrol boat is already en route for its Tripoli base. Sarah is a Sudanese refugee, from Khartoum. Amir her son has known nothing but detention centres and flight in his young life. He has never been to school. But Sarah knows for sure that they will not stay another minute in what she calls “the Libyan Hell”. She wants Europe.
Before departing, Captain Mustafa watches while one of his men scuttles the dinghy, lancing it with a knife and throwing the dry bread in the sea, the only food given to the migrants by the human traffickers. The only thing taken on board is the motor: “By seizing the motor we stop the traffickers using it again.” But Sarah knows the truth is the opposite: “They`ll sell that motor for thousands of dollars to the traffickers and make a killing. That`s how everything in Libya works.”
The women, including Sarah, are left astern. They fall asleep despite the horrendous noise of the nearby motor, while the men are brought to the bow deck. They look to the horizon, imagining the horrors that await them from the moment they disembark.
“We`ll give them everything we`ve got. Water, food, even our uniforms if necessary” Captain Mustafa says. It`s not up to me to decide if Libya is or is not a safe port. I limit myself to saving human lives. Mustafa is young. He seems humane and kind, contrary to some members of his crew, rude, hostile. One of them takes water to the dehydrating children, who fall in a scrum to get a sip. “Behave properly, or you`ll be sorry” says a Libyan. The presence of two journalists certainly calms them: they have heard that migrants who have already attempted the crossing say that other times the coast guards beat and mistreated them. Many of the migrants are in a state of collapse from fatigue, while others dry their clothes in the wind or gaze blankly at the horizon.
“When we arrive at Tripoli they`ll put electric wires on our testicles. Understand? Our testicles”, says Afaim, a Senegalese migrant who has already attempted the crossing five times. “They`ll ask us for 500 Euros to get out of the detention centre” adds Kona George. “Blacks are a means of exchange. For the Libyans we`re bargaining chips. They get organised, kidnap us, flog us, then ask for your parents` number to force us to pay. That`s how the houses get built. That`s why we escape from Libya. It`s dangerous and not everyone wants to do it, but we have no choice. Kona tells how they ended up in their present position. “We didn`t have a pilot. We took turns at the helm. It was difficult because we`d run out of water and couldn`t swallow the dry bread the traffickers gave us to eat. They told us to sail in a certain direction for six hours and then to steer with a compass and then continue for another six hours. We sailed for 18 hours, it was better to die in the sea than return to Libya. Europe or death”.
It`s already night, the tide is rising. Water floods the deck and the migrants try to shelter where the swell arrives less violently. The lights of the Libyan capital and its skyscrapers are visible. There’s not a sound. The “Ras Al-Jider” enters the port, everyone gets up. It berths in a deathly hush. The emergency services are not there, only two functionaries of the International Organisation for Migration, partner of the European Union, who observe and count the present migrants, who have been disembarked and lined-up, squatting, in four rows. For lighting, the headlights of the buses come to take them to the detention centres are directed on their faces. The busses` destination, “Tajoura”, written in Arabic, is a detention centre bombed only a few days ago with more than 50 people killed. While the migrants are being put on the busses, two try to escape, rushing blindly into the dark. A police car speeds after them. Sarah too, hiding behind a vehicle with the other women, whispers something and tries to escape, holding Amir by the hand. She`s easy prey for the guards, who stop her and, seeing her tenacity in resisting and protesting, take the terrified Amir howling “Mamma!” hostage. Sarah too must surrender.
All depart for the detention centre, where they will have to pay to get out, avoid torture, and try again to earn enough money to buy another nightmare voyage to escape the Libyan Hell. But it may take years of suffering.
Translation by John Lanigan