FRAGMENT OF LIVES
This article is based on almost one year of chats, telephone calls and messages on WhatsApp and Messenger with refugees detained in Libyan prisons and detention centers.
Last summer I got to know David from Eritrea through a good friend in Athen and since then, we have had almost daily contact. David spent the last two years in different detention centers in Libya, not knowing when – if ever – he will get out again. Since autumn he has been in Zintan prison, as it seems, the worst of them all, located in the small town Zintan in the Libyan mountains, 150 km from Tripoli.
Apart from David there are 800 other refugees and migrants from Eritrea and Somalia in Zintan. Forgotten and desperate, always locked up behind thick walls without access to fresh air and sunshine and very little to eat. Within the last four month thirteen people have died in Zintan Prison, mainly because of tuberculosis. The sick are just left on their own, with no medical help. Left to die among the people still alive. TB is easily spread in the overcrowded prisons and detention center in Libya, and nobody knows, how many are infected.
Because of security all names and places have been changed
One morning a message ticks in on WhatsApp. It is David, a refugee from Eritrea – the East African country, perhaps better known as Africa’s North Korea. The message is from Zintan prison, and it says:
-Today we are out in the sun. We are sitting outside. I did not get any sunshine or fresh air since 15/10 2017.
The date 15. of October 2017 David has mentioned for me a thousand times. That was the day when the dream of reaching safety in Europe forever ended. The day, when the soldiers captured him and brought him to one of the many detention centers in Libya. Centers placed in old prisons or big hangars with hundreds of refugees and migrants locked up, mainly due to EUs strict border policy. With hardly any or no access to fresh air, poor food, abuses from brutal Libyan police and guards and left with very little hope ever to get out again. The Libyan police accused David of entering the country illegally. In Eritrea he was working in the airport, until he escaped. His goal was Europe, where most Eritrean refugees obtain asylum because of the inhuman regime in Eritrea.
I got in contact with David through a good friend from Eritrea. One day I got a desperate message from Athen, where she and her three children have asylum. Her brother was trapped in a detention center in Libya. Sick and lonely. What can I do, she asked.
-All of us are ill, David writes:
-We never ever get any sunshine or fresh air and proteins. Only spaghetti cooked in salted water. Always spaghetti. We are hungry. We are freezing. We are suffering. Help us.
The messages are often and many, but today David and his inmates have been allowed to go outside. I ask him, if it means that they can go outside every day now?
-I don’t know, he replies.
After a few days I ask him again. If they are still allowed to go and enjoy the sun?
-Ha, ha, no, It was only one day. Now we are locked up in prison again, he writes, followed by a crying emoji.
A FAILED STATE
Being a citizen from Eritrea David is registered with UNHCR and officially under their protection. According to international laws he has the right to seek asylum in a safe country, but there is no such procedure in Libya. The country is a so-called failed state, lead by a weak government and different militias, among them ISIS. EU and Italy have made agreements with the Libyan government and the Libyan Coast Guard – and they pay lots of Euro — to keep refugees and migrants away from Europe.
The European countries have trained people from the Libyan Coast Guard and paid different equipment so that they will be able to stop more boats reaching Europe.
As a result of this policy David is on his second year in Libya. He is one of the few lucky ones, who still has his telephone and is able to communicate with the outside world. Normally the Libyans take peoples money and their telephone, when they arrest them. Up to now David has been able to hide the telephone, but he is terrified, if the guards discover it:
-If they find mine phone, they will arrest me, beat me and sell me for money, David tells me. He is very scared of being sold. CNN has documented, how migrants and refugees are sold on big markets for slaves in Libya.
Human Right Watch and Amnesty International have just documented in two reports, how human rights are constantly being violated in the detention centers in Libya. Centers managed by the Libyans, but financed by EU.
The 10. Juli 2018 Elijah, 26 years and from Sierra Leone tells Human Right Watch:
-This place is hell. They seem to be nice people, but they burn you with electricity. Three times they have beaten me, when they handed out food. They forced us to sit or stand up and look directly into the sun. When we protested, they beat us. They bring people to a particular room and beat them, they took me there, they tied my hands and then they beat me on the soles. A friend of mine got struck the face during beating.
Human Right Watch also writes, how the four detentions centers, they are allowed to visit are overcrowded, dirty and without sufficient medical assistance.
-We heard about bad and too little food and water in all the centers, it says in the rapport.
HELL ON EARTH
From friends on Facebook in Libya I hear desperate cry-outs.
-We die here.
-Libya is hell on earth.
Diseases are in the overcrowded and unhygienic centers: Scabies and tuberculosis.
-When people are going to die of TB, they are moved to another room, and we never see them again, David is writing on WhatsApp, his favorite app to write from as it is encrypted and should be secure.
-I am also afraid of getting it. People are spitting blood.
Noa is a trained veterinarian from Eritrea. He has been detained for nine month in a detention center in Tripoli. He is a calm guy with an overview, and he is the one, I am asking, if I need certain facts. He posts all the articles he can find on Facebook about the conditions for him and all the others in the detention centers of Libya. He just hope that one day the world and its citizens and politicians will open their eyes and release them. Six months ago he wrote on Messenger:
-Hi Madam, I am from Libya. I am living as a refugee in detention center. What we want from you is to expose the hidden and harsh life, we are passing, always we are locked up, like a prison.
Worried I ask him, if it won’t be dangerous for him to inform me about the life in the detention centers.
-Do not worry. I will send secretly. The only thing, they can do, is to jail me, and if most of the suffering people get freedom in sacrificing of me, it is a good luck for me, he responds.
Noa tells me about the many people infected with TB.
-And we all live together. The very sick and the ones who does not know, they are infected and the ones, who are not yet ill.
According to my sources only very few get treatment and medicine. And if they do get some medicine it is not followed up, when they run out of the pills.
I JUST RAN
Hassan from Somalia is a detainee in Zintan prison too:
-Everybody is sick here. I want to get away. I will escape as soon as possible, Hassan writes one night in January.
When I first got in contact with Hassan, he was hiding somewhere in Tripoli. Now and then he had a job loading cardboard on a truck. The small salary he spend on food. For a while I hear no words from him. Then one day he send me a message from Zintan prison. He has been caught by police, and he too is now in Zintan prison.
I do not know how he was caught. There are so many terribly stories. I do not get them all.
KIDNAPPED BY ISIS
During the two years David has stayed in Libya, he has been detained in several detention centers, but Zintan is the far worst. According to Noa, UNHCR or other NGO organizations rarely go to Zintan in the mountains, 150 kilometers from Tripoli. The ride is too dangerous. David is very angry with UNHCR. All the registered refugees in Libya feel that UNHCR are letting them down.
Where is the UNHCR? They are supposed to protect the refugees, he keeps asking me on Messenger.
David’s first detention center was out in the desert. One night ISIS came with a big truck and kidnapped 60 of the detainees, including David and his friends. The ISIS people ordered them on the truck, and when the local Libyan militia arrived, the ISIS people quickly drove into the desert with their load of human beings. While they were driving, three people fell off the truck and were killed.
Later a lot of tumultuous happened, and the prisoners succeeded in escaping. After walking for 150 kilometers in the desert they finally ended up in Tripoli.
In Tripoli they were arrested by the police and placed in a large hangar along with 1400 other refugees and migrants from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia. I met David first time, when he is in the hangar in Tripoli. The hangar was placed at the airport, and in autumn 2018 a fight broke out between different Libyan militias.
David tells me about the shootings round the hangar:
-This is dangerous. I am scared. We are all scared. We might die.
And he send me photos of bullet holes in the roof of the hangar. Finally they are evacuated. On big trucks they are taken the 150 kilometers from Tripoli to Zintan prison in the mountains.
-Now we are in a real prison, David tells me on WhatsApp after several days of silence.
WATER THREE TIMES A DAY
Noa sends me videos from the toilets in the detention center, where he is. I feel like vomiting. These are not toilets for human beings. There are six of them for 500 people.
-Now we tap our drinking water from a pipe at the toilet. There was another one, but it is broken, and nobody repairs it.
There is only running water three hours a day, and I figure out that the lavatories are only washed during these three hours. According to Noa FN’s migrations organization IOM and other ngo’s pay the Libyans money, so that they can fill the tanks with clean water.
-But those who receive the money, they only give us water three hours a day. There is nothing we can do. It will not be good to say anything to them. That is the way corruption is, he writes abandoned.
One day in December David tells me, how they are freezing. They have no blankets and is still wearing their summer clothes. I ask Noah if they have blankets, where he is.
-We have blankets….. Now……We did not have any, but we knew, UNHCR had been there with some. But the guards took them and locked them up in a depot for the purpose of taking them with home. When the war came in August, our guards disappeared, and we broke into the room and took the blankets. This is what happens, when UNHCR does not give the things to us, but to the Libyans. They steel it, he writes.
Noah produces another video showing, how they cook. I get it on WhatsApp. A young man is making bread on a pan using a gas burner. In some detention centers the detainees are served one or two spartan meals a day, a piece of bread in the morning and spaghetti in the evening. In other detention centers like where Noa is, the prisoners must pay the food themselves with the help from their families at home to send money.
-We have asked, if we can get food, but until now, they say that we have to pay ourselves, he tells me.
The boss of the detention center has a small shop, where they can buy flour – to very high prices, but the shop was closed immediately the day, when UNHCR came on one of their rare visits.
-Before they arrived, our boss told us, we were just to say positive things. But we were not allowed to say anything at all. During the visit he walked closely to them, and he closed his shop immediately, when they arrived, Noah write on Messenger.
According to the report of Human Right Watch EU is paying different NGO organizations in Libya money so that they can improve conditions in the camps. But the organizations are often ineffective and there are a lot of disagreements, even within the UN, the report says.
PLENTY OF EU-MONEY
By paying huge amount of euros to Libya EU and Italy have managed to stop most of the human traffic from Libya towards Europe. People though are still fleeing cruel dictators, wars, torture, hunger and no futures, so the number of refugees and migrants in the Libyan detention centers have increased according to Human Right Watch. In July 2018 there were between 8.000 and 10.000 detainees. In April the same year the amount was 5.200. Added to these numbers are the hundreds of thousands who live illegally in Libya, many in the hands of different militias or smuggler groups.
EU policy is to send everybody back home to their own countries. From January 2017 until November 2018 IOM, the UN organization of migration assisted more than 30,000 in returning back during the program “The volunteering humanitarian program.” But people who fled their countries because of politics can not just return home, where they risk prison and torture. Noa tells me:
-I left Eritrea in 2014. If they send me back to my country, they will put me into prison because of missing. And then they will send me to the military, and I will never get out again.
In 2014 he finished as a veterinary, but the regime forced him to work as a school teacher.
– I could not accept that. The salary of a teacher in Eritrea is very low. You can not live on these money. One months salary is what a pair of trousers costs. I decided to leave the country, first to Ethiopia, then Sudan and Libya.
What do you hope for the future?
-I hope to be evacuated. If I can’t, I will have to return to Ethiopia.
STRESS AND DESPERATION
The messages from Zintan get more and more confused and desperate. I can feel how Davids nerves slowly gets more strained:
-We are not OK, Madam. We are hungry. What are we going to do? We can evacuate to Eritrea, but we cannot go back to Eritrea, he writes.
Meanwhile Hassan succeeds in fleeing from the prison in Zintan.
-When I jumped the wall, the guards discovered me. I ran. They were not able to catch up with me. Then they sent their dogs after me. But even the dogs did not catch me. I am a very fast runner. If the soldiers would catch me…..if you saw, how they beat people. It is better to die. I ran towards a nearby forest. Then I walked for six hours, until I came to a small village, where I found a taxi. And now I am in Tripoli. I am very tired now and will just take a rest.
One night in January, a message arrives on my phone from a young girl from Somalia, too young to be in a place like Libya. I know her a little. We have been chatting before, and she is a bit shy. She wants to go to Europe. Her dream is to go to school, learn more, be educated, perhaps become a journalist one day. She left Somalia with some friends, and some of them are now in Europe. But tonight her message is not about sweet dreams for the future:
-Three young men from Sudan have set themselves on fire. Here in the detention center where I am. Did you see the video, I posted today on Facebook? Nobody helps them. May Jesus help them, sister. They really need help.
On a video posted on her Facebook and recorded after the attempted suicide a man – badly injured and in great pain says:
-I want to commit suicide. There are no human rights in Libya. I just want to go to a free country and work, but the Libyans have taken my phone and my money.
I ask the next day, if the three men got medical help:
-I don’t know. They have disappeared. Police have arrested a lot of people, she replies.
Today early in the morning, at seven o’clock a message on my WhatsApp. From David, written in capital letters: WHERE IS UNHCR? WHERE IS UN? WHERE ARE HUMAN RIGHTS? REFUGEES ARE GOING TO DIE. OPEN YOUR EYES ALL OF YOU. THANKS FOR YOUR SLEEPING.
And another post the same day from an Eritrean humans right activist, who has gained asylum in Italy:
– 800 refugees from Eritrea and Somalia in Zintan are forgotten. They now die of various diseases, most of TB. Right now there are nine dead bodies in the same room as the living people. They ask for an immediate visit from UNHCR and evacuation.
David confirms that the nine dead corpses are still there. Within the last four months thirteen people have died.
Noah tells me, it is the usual thing with the Libyans just leaving the dead people.
-One of my classmates from Eritrea has just died in the prison of Zintan. Of TB. He has been sick for a long time and did not get any medication. I am very angry.
-Here in Tripoli we have ambulances. However if you do not go to a hospital, they just leave you to die. The Libyans do not care.
In 2018, the number of migrants arriving in Europe fell to 113.482 against 172,301 in 2017.