Search and rescue: Survivor stories- "No one is safe in Libya"

23 Aug 21

These last weeks, our medical team on board MSF rescue ship the Geo Barents have identified and treated traumatic injuries, fuel burns, seasickness, sunburns. Some rescued people need onward care, some of whom require specialized assistance on land. All survivors are exhausted after many days at sea and sleeping on a wooden deck’s floor. Some of them spent more than two weeks on board the ship since the first rescue on 5th August.   

Most of the rescued persons have undertaken harrowing journeys. Some survivors that were on board the Geo Barents shared their stories of Libya’s detention and abuses with us..

EMENIKE*, 28-year-old Nigerian man

“I left Nigeria because there is a political crisis and because there are killings and bombings and Boko Haram is active. I left Nigeria to save my life. I arrived in Libya on 4 January 2020.

I worked at a carwash in Tripoli for some time, in an area called Zanzoun. I thought Libya would be better than home, but at the end it was so much worse than my own country.

Hands of survivor from Nigeria. 10.08.21.

Libya has no human rights, no equal rights. No one is safe in Libya. The soldiers – there are so many – and the militia… everyone is out for you! You are so insecure, and no one is there to help you.

Most of the money you are paid for work - they just take it away from your hand. They take it and pull a gun on you, and then you must leave.

One man taking my money told me: “I can do anything to you”. He cracked his gun and told me: “Now get out of here”.

There are no human rights in Libya.

Burying bodies picked from the water

There was a location in the city called “Mohata” where you wait around to be picked up (by locals) to do any work, daily work.

In October 2020, three of us got work to collect dead bodies floating in the sea by the shore.

I remember collecting 16 bodies. We were paid 30 dinars in total between the three of us. We were picking up dead bodies floating in the water.

Fourth rescue operation of 34 people in distress. Geo Barents, 16.08.21.

We had to bury them in the desert, by digging 3-feet-deep graves. I had to put them in body bags, while people in police uniforms with guns were supervising us.

They said I must help my black African brothers by burying them.

"We were paid 30 dinars in total between the three of us. We were picking up dead bodies floating in the water."

EMENIKE*, 28-year-old Nigerian man

In July 2021, I did the same work and collected just one floating body, for 20 dinars.

After taking it to the ambulance, I had to bury it close to Abu Kamash public burial ground, during the daytime.

People were panicking for their lives; the waves kept coming in

I paid 5,000 Libyan dinars (approx. $1,000) to a smuggler in Zuwara to cross the sea in that wooden boat, but for rubber boats it is around 3,000 dinars.

We were the only ones with lifejackets because we bought our own, but we do not know how to swim – not in this water!

The others did not have anything at all. No life jackets were provided by the smugglers.

"When you are running for your life, you’ll do anything to survive"

EMENIKE*, 28-year-old Nigerian man

The smugglers do not even always wait for the sea to be calm. They just say ‘go’, like this time for us. If you resist, they bring out their guns.

Libya is a place of no return.

The sea was very bad when we crossed, but we felt it was better even to capsize than to go back to Libya.

They had given someone the engine and said ‘you drive’. That person had no choice, they did not even know how to drive a boat!

But when you are running for your life, you’ll do anything to survive.

The waves were hard and many and very high. We tried to return, but the police would already be waiting for us on land.

Night rescue of 188 people from an overcrowded wooden boat. Geo Barents, 15.08.21.

The engine worked for three days. When MSF came we couldn’t use the engine as the waves were so bad.

We had thrown all the petrol overboard to lighten the boat to regain balance. Water was already entering the boat.

For ten hours we were like that! Up and down, up and down on the waves.

On board the Geo Barents rescue ship

Each morning I wake up and feel like a king! Because I feel safe, because anything is better than Libya.

Here I smile each day, waking up each morning and realizing I am not in Libya. I just keep smiling.

I have been running for my life. I will tell my family all of this only when I am safe. I just want to be in a safe place, and to have peace of mind. To be able to sleep without nightmares and to have peace of mind.

Survivors prepare there personal space. Geo Barents, 16.08.21.

I just want to be good. Not wake up and have a gun pointed at me, not have someone telling me to move or taking my money.

I have a message for people in Europe. That I am just someone who wants to be saved. That someone who wants to be saved does not offer trouble. Give me chance; you will see I am not a troublemaker.

A group of rescued people play cards in the afternoon. They are part of the 22 persons from Pakistan on board the Geo Barents. Geo Barents, 19.08.21.

I just want to be calm and make the world a better place."

ABEBI*, 26-year-old Nigerian woman

“When we arrived in Libya we were sold. Then following some months, the police came to release us but they just put us in a prison in Tripoli."

"I paid 1 million nehra (Nigerian currency) from previous work to be released and then to try to escape by sea last year. But the Libyan Coast Guard intercepted us and put us back in prison.”

“I have an injury from guards shooting at people who tried to escape in May 2021. Some people tried to run away from the detention centre and the guards started shooting everyone."

"Even people that were not on the run. Some died. I was shot on the ankle. They took me to the hospital for it, but then immediately back to the center.”

Anonymous portrait of Nigerian woman. Geo Barents, 11.08.21.

The centres are horrible, Abebi recounts. “No food, no food and only dirty sewage water! Even to the newborns, the children or the pregnant women they were not giving them food and we were held in rooms with thousands of people."

"Sometimes we saw people of the UN coming. We saw them from behind the bars of the rooms they locked us in when they arrived. We were never allowed to talk to them."

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Apart from the overcrowded conditions in the prison, Abebi tells us about a lot of violence that took place on a daily basis while she was there.

“They took all of our belongings and then they beat people. The guards beat people on their heads while they were lying on the floor forced to have their legs upwards. Beating them until they were bleeding and bleeding. It was torture!"

"The Libyans do not like us Africans having money or anything at all. They would beat people and call their families to see the beating and send more money.”

"It was a miracle from God that I made it alive"

Abebi managed to pay again and buy her release from the prison. She then searched for work in Tripoli, but she says that the Libyans do not always pay you.

When she managed to get some money, she found a person who took her to a “safe house” in Zuwara.

A young man from Eritrea decorated his T-shirt. Geo Barents, 18.08.21.

She stayed there for a prolonged period, but she could not remember for how long.

“Then the day came. Last Tuesday night they put us on a boat. I paid my last 400 Libyan dinars for the trip and we were out at sea. The engine stopped the following day and the waves were high… It is a miracle from God that I made it alive. There are so many others that don’t make it at sea.”

Night rescue of 188 people from an overcrowded wooden boat. Geo Barents, 15.08.21.

SAMUEL*, 35-year-old Nigerian man

"I left Nigeria because of a family conflict on the land ownership issues. People have killed my father because he wanted to build a block house in my village.

At the end they also killed my elder brother, then they started chasing me. My mother fell sick, the situation was getting bad.

I spent most of my money to pay for the hospital.

MSF Teams on board providing care to rescued people. Geo Barents, 15.08.21.

I met a guy, we became friends and told me about this place called Libya where I could get work there and that he would help me. I had no money to pay him but he said that everything was settled.

Three days later some guys came at my workplace. We crossed to Niger by car and were transferred into a pick-up, carrying more than 30 people.

That is how we got to Libya, first to Sabha, then to Gargaresh. I was separated from my friend, whom I never saw again.

"No humans would want to live there"

They took us to a very dark place, I didn’t know where it was, it was so dark. No humans would want to live there. There were so many people in that room.

We were beaten and mistreated. Some guards would ask us for money.

Until today I do not know if my friend is dead or alive. During two weeks there I prayed for God’s help. I did not know where I was. Terrible things happened there.

For two weeks, we were tortured and beaten on and on. These people treat you any way they want. I begged this man to let me out and take me to Tripoli.

He dropped me in Tajoura, at a carwash. I saw three other black people working, a Chadian and two Nigerians.

I have been freed out of that place, but so many others were not as lucky as I. People were so badly tortured that they died of the consequences of internal injuries.

Anonymous Portrait of Nigerian man. Geo Barents, 12.08.21.

I saw three people dying there while I was there. Their legs were broken, also their heads were broken.

They tortured me on my legs, holding up my legs in the air, beating them with wooden sticks around 200 times.

After, I had to crawl on the floor like a baby. When they broke the stick they would start again with a new stick. I couldn’t walk because of the pain.

Three Africans bought me food and medicine. I slept in the car wash as I did not have a house.

I did not have the strength to work long hours, but I was working from 7am to 10pm.

"They had a gun and hit me hard on my head"

One day some Libyans with a pistol surrounded me, they said: “Black man! Who gave you the right to say you are tired?”

They had a gun and hit me hard on my head, then on my back and all over the body. They stole my phone, my money, all my belongings.

All my clothes were soaked with blood, I treated my head myself. They hit me on my eye. I cannot anymore see things clearly far away, or when the sun is shining.

The other black people took me aside, they warned me that because I was black we did not mean anything to them.

I had to be extra careful. I buried my money (around 1500 dinars). My friend told me it was dangerous to stay in Libya, that I would be shot and that he knew people who could arrange it. I started working to save money.

"Thank God you found us, thank God for the great work you people do"

SAMUEL*, 35-year-old Nigerian man

In Zuwara the same night I embarked the boat. The Libyans told us to sit in the boat.

I sat next to a boy, and he told me this sea was very dangerous. I said “God help me to survive it”. The sea was rough. For three days we were at sea.

Third rescue operation. Geo Barents, 16.08.21.

Thank God you found us, thank God for the great work you people do. Thank God you were here, then you rescued us on that day.

"Living in Libya is like hell"

In Libya, nobody would take care of you and provide care, you are not even free to circulate freely. They do not want to see you with money, even wearing simple jeans would cause you a big problem.

My ribs, my eye, my head, you see all these things, they are not functioning properly now, but thank God I have my life, I have life.

Nobody can say anything in Libya. Everything is about money! To oppress you! Even when you accomplish your tasks, they say you do not deserve money.

They will threaten you with a gun and chase you away. You are risking every day your life to live in that place.

I was tortured in a big building in the middle of the desert. They torture you only to get a ransom. You know if you do not have money you are not going to survive.

MSF Teams registering rescued people. Geo Barents, 16.08.2021.

They were also torturing the women the same way as men. They are also raping, not only women, also men. Too many horrific things.

For three long years in Libya, I was constantly on the run. I never lived in a proper home, you cannot have any rest. I slept in the streets or wherever I had found a job.

I have been freed, but some people have been in these centers for years. They are still there, for indefinite time. A lot of them are dead since then.

Sometimes the owner of the house of the job would organize boys to come and take all your stuff from you at night.

MSF Teams registering rescued people. Geo Barents, 16.08.2021.

Living in Libya is like hell. I fled. Surviving in that place is impossible.

At sea, on the boat before you rescued us, I saw twice a white plane rotating above us.

We also saw a Tunisian boat as well. I was vomiting a lot in the boat. I cannot swim. Everyone in the boat was praying.

It was a very serious situation, but thank God for my life."

*Name changed.

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