The deadly road to life after war.
As reports of refugees and victims of people trafficking flood our news stream, we hear from a refugee, who has faced the horrors of the journey to safety from his war torn home in Mali.
“In Mali I worked where I could to support myself, mostly on the plantations.
There was constant conflict and outbreaks of disease at home, and I wanted to find a safer place to escape to.”
“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.
I managed to save 500,000 Franc CFA (around £680) and decided to leave. I left Bamako, in Mali at night, by bus and headed towards Ouagadougou in Burkino Faso. The buses were overcrowded, 6 people sitting on 4 person seats, people sitting in the aisle. At each checkpoint I was ordered off the bus and arrested.
They demanded payment. When I refused they would let me go regardless. I then walked to the nearest village and caught the next bus. Just to repeat the process again at the next check point. Two and a half days after leaving Bomako, I reached Ougadougou and headed onwards to Niamey in Niger.
Here I met many other refugees, including a man called Souleman, from the Ivory Coast. He became a good friend to me on my journey and we stayed together. We headed North, to the city of Agadez, where a smuggler approached us and offered passage across the Sahara.
Journey across the Sahara
Souleman and I began the five day journey across the dessert, 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. If they did, they were abandoned in the desert. The dessert was scattered with corpses, rotting bodies, of all shapes and sizes.
A lot of people die there.
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 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 Sabaha, in Libya.
Kidnapped in Sabaha
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 and were sleeping 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 assistant drove us back to the ‘Chad’
On one day, the boss paid us 30 dinar as usual, then 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”, they didn’t stop and drove out of Sabha. We asked them to let us get out of the car…That’s the moment where one of the guys pointed a kalash in our direction and told us to stay quiet.
“That’s the moment where one of the guys pointed a kalash 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 got caught. They were shot in the feet or bitten.
“Some tried to escape, but they got 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, we were all pressed up against each other. Never 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, they would not allow us 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. That they wouldn’t get anything from me.
I was then driven to Tripoli, where I met a Nigerian Smuggler.
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 was paid 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. Without having to worry about being arrested. The police officers are completely passive. It is the worst democracy on the planet. 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.
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 contacted his smuggler, who agreed to pay for all of us to be released.
From there I was taken to the sea to board a boat.
Crossing the med
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. Some rafts are equipped with a compass, but they usually stop working in the middle of the journey. If it’s not the compass, then it’s the phone that breaks.
The assistants did not come with us to sea.
There were about 137 people… on a big inflatable raft… 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 figured 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, 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 the start of a new life.