TRIPOLI - The iron door is closed. From the small loophole I can see the faces of two African guys and one Egyptian. I can't stand the acrid smell coming from the holding cells. I ask them to move to let me see. The room is three meters per eight. There are some thirty people inside. Piled one over the other. There are no beds, people sleep on the ground on some dirty foam mattresses. Behind, on the walls, somebody has written Guantanamo. But we are not in the U.S. base. We are in Zlitan, in Libya. And the detainees they are not terrorists, but immigrants arrested south of Lampedusa.
People push behind the door. They have not been receiving any visits since they were arrested. Someone raises the voice: “Help us!" A young man puts the hand out of the loophole and hands me a piece of cardboard. There is written a telephone number, by pen. The prefix is that of Gambia. I put it in my pocket, hiding it from the police. His name is Outhman. He asks me to tell his mother he is still alive. He has been locked in this prison for the last five months. Fabrice instead spent here nine months. Both of them were arrested during police raids in the immigrants’ neighbourhoods in Tripoli. For several years Libya has been committed to patrol the European southern border, with any means. In 2003 Italy signed an agreement with Qaddafi and sent overseas motorboats, cars and body-bags, funding detention centres and deportation flights. Since then, tens of thousands of immigrants and refugees every year are arrested in Libya and held in such inhuman conditions.
"People are suffering here!”
"People are suffering here! The food is bad, and the water is dirty. We are sick and there are pregnant women." Gift is 29 years old. She is from Nigeria. She was arrested three months ago, while she was walking with her husband on the street. They left two children in Tripoli, she said. She is not allowed to call them. Her husband has been repatriated the previous week. She is still here, alone, wearing the same clothes she had when she was taken prisoner. Before, she has been living in Libya for three years, working as a hairdresser, and she didn't have any idea to cross the sea towards Italy, as many of the other immigrants who are here.
It is not the case of Y. He really dreamed of Europe. He is Eritrean and he deserted the army in order to seek for political asylum in Europe. Apprehended at sea by the Libyan police he was locked here in Zlitan. Before entering in the office of director Ahmed Salim, a policeman whispers something to him. When we ask him about the conditions of the prison, he answers with a trembling voice: "Everything is good." He is frightened. He knows that if he says something wrong he will be beaten. The director smiles in front of him and grants us he will not be deported. Within the next week he will be transferred to the detention centre of Misratah, 210 km east of Tripoli, where all the Eritrean refugees are concentrated.
The first time I heard about Misratah it was in the spring of 2007, during a meeting in Rome with the director of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Tripoli, Mohamed al Wash. Few months later, in July 2007, thanks to an Eritrean association, we managed to make telephone contact with a group of the 600 Eritrean prisoners. They complained about the overcrowded conditions, the lack of hygiene, and their precarious state of health, particularly for pregnant women and babies. They also accused some police officers of sexual harassments. At that time, Amnesty International had already expressed its deep concern about the deportation of Eritreans arrested in Libya. And on September 18th 2007, the Eritrean diaspora organized demonstrations in major European capitals to support them.
Eritrean diaspora pass through Lampedusa and Malta. Since 2005 at least 6,000 refugees from the former Italian colony have landed on Sicilian shores, fleeing Isaias Afewerki’s dictatorship. The situation in Asmara continues to be critical. Amnesty International denounces arrests and harassment of opponents and journalists. And the tension with Ethiopia remains high, so that at least 320,000 Eritreans are forced to the military service for an indefinite period, in a country of 4.7 millions inhabitants. Every year many desert the army and run away to rebuild their lives. Most of them stop in Sudan, more than 130,000 people. The others instead cross the Sahara, reach Libya and take a boat to Europe. Menghistu is one of them. During the travel, he ended in the hands of Libyan police.
Deported inside a container
“With us, in the truck, there was a four years old child, with his mother. We were crammed like animals inside the lorry, with no air and no space to move. I wondered how a child could be put in these conditions. Inside the container it was very hot. The travel took 21 hours, from 4 pm to 1 pm the following day. They didn’t give us anything to eat. People urinated one in front of the others. When the drivers stopped to eat, we put the child near to the narrow windows of the container. His name was Adam. Finally we arrived in Kufrah. When I got out I stole some bread which was hung outside the container. We had not eaten since the previous day. We were 110 persons, including four years old Adam and his mother”.
Menghistu is not the only one who has been locked inside a container and deported. In Libya this is quite normal. Containers are used to sort migrants who have been arrested on their way to Europe to the different detention camps. There are three kinds of containers. The smallest is a pick-up car, the medium is the equivalent of a mini van. The biggest, though, is a real container, blue colour, with three small windows on each side, pulled by an articulate lorry.
The first time I heard about migrants deported inside the containers, it was in spring of 2006, during an interview with an Eritrean refugee in Italy. At that time I didn’t want to believe him. The images of hundreds of men, women and children locked inside an iron box in order to be concentrated in a detention camp, without having committed any crime, and then deported, reminded me of the ghosts of the Second World War. It was too harsh to be true. But the image of the containers came again, as prove of authenticity, in all the stories of refugees passing through Libya I met. Until I was able to see with my own eyes those containers, used mainly to deport people arrested in the northern cities towards the detention camps in the desert, in the south, in Sebha and Kufrah.
From Kufrah to hell
Mohamed Tarnish is the president of the Organization for Human Rights, a Libyan NGO funded by the Foundation of Saif al Islam Qaddafi, the firstborn of the Colonel. We meet him at Sarayah Coffee, near the Green Square, in Tripoli. Since several years, this organization has been fighting for the improvement of the conditions of the Libyan prisons and has made the government release more than 1,000 Libyan political prisoners. From 2006, the NGO got access to some of the detention centres for immigrants. They have visited seven of them. Tarnish can’t speak freely because with us is an official from the foreign media office of the Libyan government. Anyway he makes us understand that the centre in Kufrah is actually the worst one: old facilities, very overcrowded, without any health care and with a very bad quality of food.
To understand what Tarnish exactly means, I reread again some interviews I did with Eritrean and Ethiopian refugees in 2007. “We were 78 people in a cell 6 per 8 meters" - "We slept on the floor, the head near the neighbours’’ feet" - “We were so hungry. A plate of rice could be shared by eight people" - “In the night police brought me in the courtyard. They asked me to do push ups. But when I wasn’t able to go on, they started kicking me and cursing me and my Christian religion" - "We shared one bathroom in 60 people, so that in the cell there was a permanent bad smell. It was impossible to wash ourselves"- "There were lice and fleas everywhere in the mattress, in the clothes, in the hair" - "Sometimes police entered the room, took a woman and raped her in front of the group". It is the portrait of hell. But also a place for business: since a couple of years, the police has been selling detainees to the smugglers who will take them to the Mediterranean. The price for a man is around 30 libyan dinars, about 18 euros.
“Just a Health Care Centre”
I've never been allowed to visit the centre in Kufrah and I have not been able to verify personally its conditions. However, the fact that all the refugees I spoke with in the last three years told me about a place of abuses, violence and tortures, gives me reason to believe that the statements are true. In 2004 the European Commission reported that Italy was funding the building of a detention centre in Kufrah. In 2007, the Prodi government denied this, claiming that Italy was financing just a health care centre. Actually it doesn’t make such a big difference. The point is a different one. Since 2003, Italy and the European Union are cooperating with Libya to fight migration. Now, the question is: why does everybody pretend they do not know what African migrants are suffering there?
In 2005, the former director of the Italian secret service (SISDe), Prefect Mario Mori, informed the Italian Parliament: "Undocumented migrants in Libya are caught like dogs” and put in centres so overcrowded that “policemen must wear a dust mask on the mouth because of the nauseating odours". But at the Ministry of Interior they already knew it. Actually since 2004 the Italian police are training their Libyan colleagues in fighting immigration. And some high officials of the Ministry of Interior have visited at different times the detention centres in Libya, including the one in Kufrah. But the silence was imposed over the reality. The same hypocrisy has been shown by the European Union. In a report of 2004, the European Commission defined the conditions of detention camps in Libya as "difficult" but at the end "acceptable in the light of the general context". Three years later, in May 2007, a delegation of Frontex visited the south of Libya, including the prison of Kufrah, to lay the foundations for a future cooperation. Try to guess what they wrote: “We appreciated both the diversity as the vastness of the desert". Not a single word instead about the conditions in which refugees and migrants are being held down there.
On May 15 2009, joint Italian-Libyan patrols started. All people intercepted at sea will now be deported to Libya. An Italian lawyer, Anton Giulio Lana, with the support of the Italian Council for Refugees (Cir) announced he will appeal for his clients to the European Court for Human Rights, 24 Eritreans and Somalis, part of the first group of 527 people deported to Libya between 7th and 10th May 2009. In 2005 the ECHR had stopped the collective deportations from Italy to Libya. Today it's difficult to say what will happen, since the vice president of the European Commission, Jacques Barrot, is backing Italy announcing that the readmission of people in Libya is a “usual” practice. And if 75% of people landed in Lampedusa in 2008 apply for asylum (and 50% of them got it!), it does not seem to be a problem.
Gabriele Del Grande is a freelance journalist based in Rome. He works for the news agency “redattore sociale”. In 2006, he founded Fortress Europe, a media observatory for the victims of irregular migration (http://fortresseurope.blogspot.com/).