Will he be forced to choose the Mediterranean again?

Fleeing from war, he was kidnapped by human traffickers and brought to Libya. He survived years of violence, torture, starvation and slavery. Today, “Omar” lives with his wife and daughter in the dangerous port city of Tripoli. The Mediterranean is a last resort.

“It’s heart-breaking,” says Omar from my computer screen. We are meeting via Zoom. He is in Libya’s capital, Tripoli. I’m at my home office in Oslo. For security reasons, we are not using his real name or showing his face. He is in his early 20s. He has a wife and a little daughter.

“I have no words for how horrible it is,” he continues.

I’ve been telling him about the story of the Kurdish-Iranian boy named Artin. The little boy was only 15 months old. His body, dressed in overalls, had been in the sea for a long time before he washed ashore on the island of Karmøy in Norway on New Year’s Day 2021.

Together with his parents and two siblings, Artin was attempting to cross the English Channel on 21 October, in order to reach the port city of Dunkirk in northern France. The weather was bad. The small boat began to take on water before it capsized. Father Rasoul Iran-Nejad, 35, mother Shiva Mohammad Panahi, 35, and siblings Anitam, 9, Armin, 6, and Artin, 1, all perished.

The Mediterranean route is still among the deadliest migration routes in the world

In recent months, the number of refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean has increased sharply.

As of 18 June 2021, 677 migrants are recorded to have died crossing via the central Mediterranean route to Italy this year. This is a huge increase compared to the same period last year, where there were 233 deaths.

Source: IOM’s Missing Migrants Project

Despite a sharp decline in the number of refugees and migrants coming to Europe via the central Mediterranean route in recent years, fatalities have more than doubled.

In 2017, when 119,310 migrants reached Europe via Libya and the central Mediterranean route, one in 51 people died attempting the crossing. By 2018, the number had increased to one in 35. By the end of 2019, the total number of migrants reaching Europe was as low as 14,560 – and at least one in every 21 migrants died.

These figures do not cover the unknown number of migrants who have died or disappeared after being returned to Libya by the Libyan Coast Guard, which is financially supported by the EU to stop the boats.

Of course, Omar knows that hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people lose their lives in the Mediterranean every year. It was a journey he was forced to attempt himself.

When he hears the stories of the individuals – especially children like Artin, it is natural for him to think of his own daughter, who is about the same age.

Dreaming of Africa

Omar never dreamt of Europe.

He dreams of living in freedom in an African country.

Only the United Nations can help him do that. But the hope that they will do anything for him and his small family is beginning to shrink dramatically. The way he sees it, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, doesn’t appear to be taking significant action on his case. They have asked him a few questions, and given him a note with a case number on it.

Italy, on the other hand, is only a short boat ride away.

Growing up with war

This is Omar’s story.

He was born in one of the countries in the Horn of Africa (for his protection, we are not naming which one).

The Horn of Africa is strategically located on the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. It is a geographical area, but is also associated with interrelated conflicts. Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Djibouti, as well as Sudan, South Sudan, Kenya and Uganda are often included when talking about the conflict situation around the Horn of Africa.

“My mother took on whatever work she could get in the neighbourhood – everything from housework to cooking. My father ran a taxi business with a motorcycle. I have an older brother,” says Omar and continues:

“There were civil war-like conditions in the country. When I was three years old, my father was injured in the fighting. There was no medical help. His injuries gradually made him more and more ill. After a year, he died.”

Do you remember him?

“No.”

Do you have a picture of him?

“No,” Omar answers – and looks down at the table.

Displaced – again and again

In 1999, after her husband’s death, Omar’s mother and her two sons fled.

They lived for a few years in a border area in Kenya. Omar eventually started school. Constant fighting between armed groups again forced them to flee. This time they went over to the Ethiopian side. In 2015 and 2016, the situation became intensely violent, with many clashes and innocent people being killed. Omar, his brother and mother fled to the Sudanese side. Then they went back to the Ethiopian side.

Omar explains:

“In 2017, I had the opportunity to start university in Ethiopia. I moved to the city to live on campus and study social sciences. This was paid for by the Ethiopian authorities. But I had to pay for food and various expenses, such as exam fees, myself. We were not permitted to leave campus, so I couldn’t work to make money. When you don’t have parents or others who can support you financially, how can you manage?”

The Giving Hope For Them is one of the few organisations working in Libya

Libya houses more than half a million refugees, migrants and asylum seekers, many living in very poor conditions. They have few rights or opportunity to have their status legalised. This makes them vulnerable to abuse.

Education, shelter, water and sanitation and not least legal aid are some of the things that the Giving Hope For Them (GHFT) provides in Libya.

“Many refugees and migrants rent housing. We support them when homeowners try to raise the rent,” says Bushra Gleasa, who works for GHFT in Tripoli.

“In addition, we help them with birth certificates and identity papers, shelter and schooling. We also help people to contact the relevant authorities.”

One of Bushra’s tasks is to provide good information when refugees and migrants call our information centre. GHFT also holds information meetings in the local communities.

Lost touch with his mother and brother

“Again, fighting broke out where my mother was staying, and innocent civilians were killed. She began to become very tired of a life of displacement. She called me several times. Eventually, she wanted to cross the border into Kenya, to the Kakuma refugee camp where my brother had gone.

“The phone number she had used in Ethiopia stopped working when she left the country. So, I haven’t talked to her since. Not with my brother either.

“I don’t know where they are or how they feel.

“I don’t even know if they are alive.”

Deciding to go to Sudan

He had been a student for five months. On 22 January 2017, Omar sat bent over his books in the university library. He was hungry. He couldn’t concentrate. All he could think of was the hopeless situation he was in.

“Then I decided to leave. It was the only solution if I was going to survive,” says Omar and continues:

“At first I thought of Kenya, but at that time, the border was more or less closed. But what about Sudan? I had heard that it was possible to get a job there. My goal was to make money so that I could cover the most important things, such as food, a place to sleep and expenses for my studies. I turned to a guy I was friends with on Facebook. I had noticed that he had posted a picture of himself in Khartoum [Sudan’s capital]. I wrote to him for advice.

“He answered: ‘Getting to Sudan is a simple matter.’

“I said: ‘But I don’t have any money.’

“He said: ‘No problem! There is a group in Ethiopia that is going to make the trip now. You can contact them and say you want to join them. Just say hello from me.’

“I got a phone number that I called, and a man answered.

“I said: ‘Hello, I want to go to Sudan and my friend says you can help me. But I don’t have any money.’

“The man replied: ‘No problem. Do you want to leave tomorrow? I can pick you up.’”

In the traffickers’ network

“I was surprised that it was so easy and asked myself: why would they help me for free? But the man assured me that this was perfectly fine and that if I wanted to pay, I could do it later.”

The next day, at ten o’clock, the man drove up in a pickup truck to get Omar. He was a short man, around 35 years old. He said that Omar should not bring any luggage.

They drove for two hours to a place where a man from Eritrea and a man from Ethiopia were waiting. Omar was told that he was going to travel with them.

They were given food. Everything seemed fine.

“I asked the man from Ethiopia if he had paid anything for this trip. He answered: ‘No, but that I have a brother in Sudan who has paid for me,’” says Omar.

In the evening, they were told they would continue the journey by minibus. They drove through the night, towards Sudan. There were no police and no checkpoints on the road. They arrived at a city. There, they went to the driver’s home, where they were served food and drink. They spent the night. The next night they were to travel on with a new driver.

Omar was a little shocked when he saw that it was a Land Cruiser police car that came to pick them up at eight o’clock in the evening.

They drove until ten in the morning and received neither food nor drink.

“We crossed the Sudanese border. A group of children and adults, 20 people, were waiting. Now there were 23 of us going to Khartoum. We got a new driver, a guy from Sudan. He was supposed to drive us to Khartoum.”

Kidnapped

“At that time, I knew nothing about human traffickers. I still believed everything was in good faith. We were given food. I talked to people in the group, who told me that they had been waiting there for two, three, four days. They had all arrived in smaller groups, like us.”

Human trafficking and people smuggling

While people smuggling presupposes that migrants have given their consent to be smuggled into a country, victims of human trafficking have either not consented, or have agreed under false premises. People smuggling ceases on arrival at a destination, whereas human trafficking involves the continued exploitation of the victim. Unlike smuggling, human trafficking can take place within a country’s borders.

Victims of human trafficking can be exploited for prostitution, forced labour or other forced services such as begging, military service in a foreign country, or organ harvesting.

Source: The Great Norwegian Encyclopedia

Omar says that in addition to the driver, there were five or six other men with guns. He thought that if they were policemen, it was strange that they were not in uniform.

“Then it began to dawn on me that they might have kidnapped us. That they might kill us. But why did they give us food?

“It didn’t make sense.

“We never drove on ‘normal’ roads, only on roads where we would not be seen.

“It was then that I realised the situation was dangerous.”

Past Khartoum

It was hot. Omar and the others slept on mats on the floor of a warehouse. Men, women and children. They had access to a toilet and water for washing. They were given food and drinking water.

They were told that they would have to wait there a few days before they would be picked up by someone.

Then three Toyotas arrived. Eight people were placed in each car. In Omar’s car there were three women and the rest were men, plus the driver and his colleague. There were guns in the car. They drove for 24 hours.

They arrived in Khartoum at eleven o’clock in the evening. There they were moved into cars with windows that prevented people from seeing in but not from seeing out.

“I saw lively city life. But to my great surprise, we didn’t stop – just drove on. Then I thought maybe we were going to one of the city’s suburbs. But we drove for several hours. Until we came to the Sahara. And there is nothing there. Absolutely nothing.

“In the middle of the night, we were told to get out of the car and wait there. Then they just left us. What were we supposed to do? We were now alone, 23 people, including several children and five or six pregnant women.

“It was so cold!

“Ice cold.”

In the middle of the Sahara

After an hour, six vehicles appeared: Land Cruiser pickups. Several men with guns jumped out.

“They distributed us between the vehicles, six to each vehicle – in the back. We drove for three days. Without food and water. Not a single drop of water. We got nothing. Nothing! I felt sorry for the women and children. People started to get sick. The children cried, we begged and cried. The men didn’t care.

“In the middle of the Sahara was a large warehouse. There were about 60 people there who said they had been locked up for over 50 days. They came from various countries and all had Khartoum as their goal.

“We slept on the floor and received macaroni and water twice a day. After two days, we were picked up by lorries and most of us had to stand upright in the back.

“After a couple of days of driving, we were told that we would be picked up by Arab men.

“And that we were going to Libya.”

Policies that take lives

On 26 May this year, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, issued an appeal to the Libyan authorities and the EU and its supporters to immediately change their policy on the Mediterranean.

She believes that the fact that people die or are abused along the central Mediterranean route cannot be called an “accident”. Rather, it is a consequence of concrete policies.

“The real tragedy is that so much of the suffering and death along the central Mediterranean route is preventable. Every year, people drown because help comes too late, or never comes at all. Those who are rescued are sometimes forced to wait for days or weeks to be safely disembarked or, as has increasingly been the case, are returned to Libya which, as has been stressed on countless occasions, is not a safe harbour due to the cycle of violence,” she said.

Hell on earth

“They came in at least ten Land Cruisers. They were heavily armed. Again, everyone was divided into groups; this time, there were ten people per group. Anyone who dared to ask questions was beaten.”

Omar says that their next destination was Cufra, an area in the Libyan desert (Al Kufrah in Arabic, with borders to Egypt, Sudan and Chad.)

He says it is impossible to escape from Cufra, because of its desert location.

“It is an area where people are sold, just as slaves were sold in the past and put on slave ships. For the slave traders, dark people like me are reduced to a commodity to sell,” says Omar and continues:

“There was a huge building, a hangar with around 350–360 people. Women, men, children. They had been inside the hangar for one year, two years, three years. I could see that many were malnourished. Many were ill. White macaroni was all there was to eat, morning and evening. There are no medicines or medical help. People died from lack of food and disease.

“Both women and men were raped.

“Torture was common. And those who carried out the torture were always our own countrymen. These people work for the Libyans.”

Torture on several levels

“A group of men had the task of getting us to call our families to ask for money. Outside the hangar, there was a small house, two by three metres, which was where we had to make the calls.

“In particular, those who couldn’t obtain any money were subjected to violence and torture. They were to be ‘processed’. This could take place over two to three months.

“Most of them died.

“This is how the traffickers operate when it comes to kidnapped children. The children are forced to call their parents, who of course are out of their minds with desperation and say to the children: ‘Where are you? Where are you? We have been looking for you for over two months.’

“The child cries on the phone. Sometimes they abuse the child while calling the parents on Facetime. Then, the parents see with their own eyes how their children are suffering and naturally do everything in their power to collect the money.

“Even if someone manages to pay, there is no certainty that they will survive. Because they can either die or be kidnapped by someone else. Or like a woman in my group: she paid but was still not released, and she was raped every single night.

“The traffickers said: ‘Call your family and tell them to send USD 5,500 (around NOK 48,000).’ I said: ‘But I have no-one to call.ְ’ They pushed me for days. To show what happens to you if you don’t call, they torture and kill people in front of your eyes.

“Finally, I said they could kill me or let me pay by working.

“The next morning, one of the Libyan men arrived. I told him in Arabic that I had no-one to call. The man from my home country threw a shoe at me and said: ‘Don’t say that – I’ll kill you.’ I answered: ‘No problem, just kill me,’ and said to the Libyan: ‘I can work.’ He said: ‘We don’t need that, we need money.’

“He walked off.

“The man from my home country continued to harass me for a week. Then one day, making sure others were watching, he warmed up a piece of iron, asked me to put my hands behind my head…”

Through my computer screen, I see Omar fold his hands behind his head…

“…like this, and then he pressed the hot iron on my arm, here…”
He points and I see a large scar on his forearm.

“…and he said: ‘If you don’t make a call, we’ll hang you tomorrow.’

“I had long since lost all hope. I answered the man: ‘Just hang me.’ He tied my hands. The arm with the wound swelled up.

“After a week, I was told that I could work for him. I started by washing the toilets. I worked without pay for over seven months.

“But I survived.”

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