In our own words #43: “Even to our families we don’t say anything when they call. Not to worry them.”
Testimony from a group of teenagers
It is the early Tuesday afternoon on the bridge of the Aquarius. The ship is sailing along the Sicilian coast towards Augusta, a port on the east coast. Here, the Aquarius will stop to disembark the people rescued over the tragic weekend of January 27th. A group of young people are drawing on tables that have been set up. They are from Côte d’ Ivoire, Mauritania, Cameroon…
One of them is drawing an ordinary truck, with 3 letters visible on its side: ‘SOS’. Prompted by his drawing he explains: “I went to prison in Tripoli and Zaouira. Every morning we were whipped, we were given one bread a day for every meal. We couldn’t wash ourselves.” These few sentences act as a signal, triggering a collective release of bottled up emotions, allowed by the relief of knowing that you are finally safe. For almost an hour the testimonies of these escapees, the survivors of the ‘Libyan hell’, follow one after the other. In a flood of disordered words all recount privations and torture. Despite the atrocities whose scars they will carry all their lives, they still find the strength to laugh because they are alive.
A Mauritanian member of the group, raised in Cameroon, shares how he ended up locked up in a camp near the Algerian border: “I had gone to Algeria to look for work. My mother and my little brothers stayed in Cameroon. And then a Libyan told me there was work to do in Sabratha. There are a lot of Mauritanians there. But we actually ended up in that camp. And then the Libyans explained to us that we were being held hostage and if we would act out, they’d shoot us.”
“In Libya, blacks are only commodities or slaves”
All of them have experienced prison several times, often as a result of various transfers during which they were sold and resold as mere commodities to be exchanged for ransom: “Prisons are not state prisons and the police and military officers who arrest us are simply armed militia”. Of these places, of which the name and duration of detention is sometimes confounded in troubled memories, there is little hope of getting out if family or friends do not – cannot – pay. Each nationality has a different price: “a Cameroonian is worth 2,000 dinars [about 1,200 EUR]; a Malian 1,200 [about 720 EUR].” The young Mauritanian boy tells how, on another occasion, he found himself kidnapped in the middle of the street by men “armed with Kalashnikovs” and transported in a black 4×4 to the home of one of the men who then demanded a payment of 300 euros.
“You are asked to put your hands flat on a table and are then hit with an iron pipe.”
Soon after, the young Mauritanian was handed over to another group and detained in “the container prison: one of the most scary in Libya,” located in Garian. As the nickname indicates, the cells are actually containers, which “no one enters or leaves: we stay there until someone pays the ransom.” Here, the soup is distributed through a grid and “contains products to make us sleep.” The same young man speaks of the Tripoli prison, where guards give a beating every morning – performing a “morning chore” that causes a “deathly silence” to reign. His neighbour, an Ivorian teenager, went to Tripoli to join his brother working in a factory. Despite his young age he was detained and shares tales of habitual torture at the hands of the hostage-takers: “you are asked to put your hands flat on a table and are then hit with an iron pipe. If you take your hands off, you are then hit on the head.”
“If you say you don’t have any money, you’re shot at point-blank.”
An older man joins the small group. He spent two years in Libya and claims to have spent a total of one year between different prisons. He shows a bullet hole in his shin. He explains that after shooting him, his jailers plunged him into water, his hands tied, to make his wound worse: “If you say you don’t have any money, you’re shot at point-blank.” He also speaks of his brother, who was killed by his kidnappers: he had a stutter, and when he was unable to answer their questions, they killed him. He shares how he had to work as a slave for a whole neighbourhood in Sabratha. Forgetting the violence seems impossible: “Every time I look at myself in a mirror, I see the marks of Libya on my body,” says the young Mauritanian. But others, those who have not lived in prison cannot understand. According to them: “That is why we live in small communities. Even to our families we don’t say anything when they call. Not to worry them. We tell them that everything is fine, that we work, that we earn money.” Yet, concludes the Ivorian teenager: “if the people who went through Libya and were tortured had warned me, I would never have left home.”
Photo: Federica Mameli / SOS MEDEITERRANEE