The brutal reality of Alid’s journey to life after war
My journey started in Mali but the real horror began when my friend Souleman and I reached the Sahara.
We began the five day journey across the desert on the back of a pickup truck with 10 other people. The smugglers drove very, very fast and in some cases people fell out of the trucks. When that happened the smugglers abandoned them in the desert. I saw the desert scattered with corpses, rotting bodies of all shapes and sizes.
A lot of people die there.
The smugglers do not care about us – from the moment they have their money, the rest doesn’t matter. In the desert there were also looters, I was very afraid of them too. With gasoline burns from the journey, we made it to Sabaha in Libya.
According to the IOM (the International organisation for migration) – the death toll from crossings of the Sahara is likely to be twice as high as that recorded in the crossing of the Mediterranean Sea.
The smugglers brought Souleman and I to a house where we stayed for a couple of days. We had rooms where we could get some rest but no beds, we slept on the floor. To earn money for our onward journey, we started to work.
Every day, Souleman and I went to the ‘Chad’ (an informal place where you go to pick up daily jobs) and it was more or less the same routine:
- we arrived,
- the boss drove us to work,
- the day ended,
- the boss paid us,
- then either him or one of his assistants drove us back to the ‘Chad’
On one day, the boss paid us 30 dinar as usual, a car pulled up and some guys called out. They told us to jump in. So we did, just like we did any other day.
We realised something was wrong when the car reached the “Chad”, but didn’t stop. They drove us out of Sabha. We pleaded with them to let us get out of the car.
That’s the moment where one of the guys pointed a Kalashnikov in our direction and told us to stay quiet.
They drove Souleman and I for 9 hours, and we arrived at a house in the centre of Beni Walid, a city in the North West of Libya. The house was surrounded by two thick barriers, it was secured.
It was a big grey house made out of cement, with a large courtyard, where there were people standing. I don’t know how to describe them. They looked so feeble, so thin, some were wounded, they didn’t have clothes, only underwear.
The men who had kidnapped us, took all our belongings, our clothes, our money, everything. They forced us all into a room and locked the door from the outside. They demanded money from us in exchange for our freedom. The price varied depending on each person. For some it was 700, for others 1000 or 2500 Dinar.
We didn’t have it, so they kept us there.
With only a small window and a locked door, we were allowed outside once a day to go to the toilet. We were given our only food at 7am. A small piece of bread, a cup of coffee, a glass of water and sometimes sardines.
Some tried to escape, but they were caught. They were shot in the feet or bitten.
There were about 10 people running the house, all in their early twenties. It’s hard to say how many people where kept in captivity there, as we were only allowed in small groups.
In my own room there were 30 people. The room was small and we were all pressed up against each other. Not able to lay down, I usually slept with my back to the wall, while my legs served as a pillow for others.
“I was held there for nine months”
In the nine months I was there, we were not allowed to shower. I wore the same underwear the whole time. 4 months passed, and then Souleman was released. His family paid 1500 dinar for his freedom (about £849).
After 6 months, they picked me to be the ‘boy’ of the house. I would clean and do other jobs. They finally released me when they realized that I was a lost cause. The reason I let Mali was that both my parents had been killed in the war. There was nobody to pay my ransom.
So they drove me back to Tripoli, where I met a Nigerian Smuggler.
Mali’s human rights situation seriously deteriorated in 2018 as attacks by armed Islamist groups against civilians spiked, the army committed atrocities during counterterrorism operations, and intercommunal violence killed hundreds and precipitated a humanitarian crisis. – Human Rights Watch 2018
Smugglers are in charge of all the logistics; from your housing to your travel. The Nigerian smuggler I met put me up in his house where I lived with him and his family.
I lived and worked in Tripoli for a year. Mostly in supermarkets, but I also worked in construction. I received 300 dinar (169£) per month, from that I kept 50 dinar (29£). The rest went to the smuggler.
I didn’t like Tripoli. In Libya, people can beat someone in front of the police and then walk away as if nothing had happened. There is no threat of being arrested, the police officers are completely passive.
People are dangerous, they use weapons as if they were smartphones! And they don’t hesitate to use them just to scare people … even little children.
After a while in Tripoli, the smuggler I was staying with told me to go with his Libyan assistant. He told me I would be driven to the sea so that we could get onto a boat. Instead, the Libyan man delivered us to a group of armed men.
They took me and 6 others captive and held us for a couple of weeks. They demanded money and we had to call our smugglers, asking them to free us. Mine did not respond. In the end one of the other captives managed to make contact with his smuggler, who agreed to pay for all of us to be released.
From there, smugglers took me to the sea to board a boat.
Crossing the Mediterranean
The smugglers assistants owned the boat. They trained one of the migrants and taught him how to manage the crossing. They gave him a phone and told him to call a rescue boat once we reached the international water.
To navigate they told us to follow the stars and that at the end, was Italy. They left us at the boat and did not come with us to sea.
I boarded a large inflatable raft with 137 other people. Where I was seated, I could barely see what was going on around me. There were two parallel pieces of wood in the middle, and people sat on them, or around the edges.
During the trip two men started to fight. When it started everyone tried to get away from the punches. In the chaos 4 people where crushed, I saw two corpses with my own eyes, I found out the other two had died when the rescue came.
During the fight, two pieces of wood were broken. Everyone froze and there was a long silence. We all thought that the piece of wood would go through the plastic and tear the raft apart.
We were scared that the boat was going to deflate. Everyone was crying, we all thought we were going to die. There were big waves and the water was getting in. At around 6am, we managed to reach international waters, the person who had been trained called the rescue boats, then threw the phone into the sea.
He did not want to stand out from the rest. If they found it was him that had called, he risked going to jail. When he called the rescue boat, a drone was sent to verify that there were people. Then a rescue boat and helicopters arrived, we were taken to a large vessel.
They asked for my name, took pictures of me and offered me food.
Two days later we arrived in Italy and were all sent on to different locations. It was the end of a journey which lasted more than two years and I was hopeful. The start of a new life for me.
(names have been changed due to the sensitive content contained within of this piece)
The reasons people leave their countries are usually deeply traumatising and so is their journey to reach safety. While we fight to change this cycle of despair and human loss, we cannot stand by and see the individuals impacted by political crisis suffer.
This story is typical of the stories we hear every day in Northern France, where, despite the horrific experiences people have already had, they still have not reached a place that is safe. They are still living without basic supplies like food, water and shelter.