Moroccan Ahmed al-Ghazali had lived in Tripoli for 20 years, most recently working in a hair salon. But as Libya became increasingly dangerous, he and his family decided to try to get to Europe. He describes the crossing that almost killed him.
Since Muammar Gaddafi was deposed in 2011, Libya has been in a political and security crisis. Armed robberies, kidnappings and assassinations have become almost common place in recent months, especially in the capital, Tripoli.
"I saw dead bodies spread out across the boats"
I lived in Tripoli with my wife and my two daughters, who were 17 and 20 years old. As the violence and kidnappings increased, I decided to leave. There was no choice left for me except to risk everything to get to Europe – even with all the danger that came along with it.
So I sold all my belongings, mostly furniture, to pay for the trip, which cost about 12,000 Libyan dinars [about 8,000 euros].
In mid-March, I took my family to Sabratha [about 70 kilometres west of Tripoli], the departure point for boats with migrants heading for Europe. A group of smugglers housed us in a cramped apartment. There were about a dozen families there, 70 or 80 people altogether.
The conditions were terrible. The toilets and the showers were unsanitary – and there was a lice outbreak.
In Sabratha there are gangs who kidnap migrants that have already hired a smuggler so that the smuggler will have to pay a ransom to get them out. The smugglers usually pay because they want to keep a good reputation with their clients-in-exile. It keeps up their business.
Our departure was scheduled for a week after we arrived in Sabratha. All of us, all twelve families, got into the boat, a wooden skiff. We were escorted by another boat full of armed men who worked for the smugglers. They were supposed to protect us from the gangs that sail along the coast looking for boats to steal.
The sea was agitated that day. Soon after we pulled out, the boat hit a rock and started to take on water. Everyone was scared. People were yelling. The armed men ordered us to keep going. But one of the migrants called the smugglers, who told the armed men to let us go back. We ended up back in the apartment where we had spent three weeks..
We set out again the night of April 15, this time escorted by two boats of armed militiamen. When we got close to Italian territory, the armed men turned around and we kept going.
But the next day was full of problems. Our motor kept breaking down and some of the passengers felt faint. The next day, April 16, we were rescued by a cargo ship.
The migrants were picked up by merchant boat. Images by our Observer.
That said, they were not equipped to take on so many people. There was nowhere to sleep and no blankets. Plus, the number of people on the boat kept increasing. Along the route we passed several other small boats carrying migrants. We threw them our lifejackets and helped them into the ship. These people had traveled from sub-Saharan Africa. They were exhausted. Some of them had died. I saw dead bodies spread out across the boats.
Eventually there were more than 1,200 of us on the cargo ship. There were people vomiting, others who passed out. As a security measure, the boat’s crew had locked themselves in the ship's interior.
When we got close to Malta, Red Cross volunteers came onto the ship to help us. They handed out water and cookies to the migrants.
Finally, we arrived in Calabria, Italy, two days later. It was April 18, 2017. The boat landed in Vibo Marina. That’s when my daughter lost consciousness from dehydration. Luckily there were NGOs on hand who quickly helped her.
Next we were taken to a welcome centre in Briatico, a city a few kilometres away from where we landed.
According to the International Organization for Migration, 5,000 people died or disappeared in the Mediterranean in 2016. Of those, 666 had come from Libya.
Translated from the French by Avi Davis.