Migrant slaves in Libya (1/2): 'I was kidnapped, sold and then thrown into prison'
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After a video showing a slave auction in Libya was posted online by American media CNN on November 14, 2017, Libya was forced to confront the shameful, violent practices going on in the country. Our Observer, a Guinean man who has now returned to live in Conakry, Guinea, told us about his ordeal in 2016.
After CNN’s report was published, the FRANCE 24 Observers team received a number of messages from people saying that they had been victims of human trafficking. The Observer we spoke to for this article gave us a detailed, coherent, well-documented account of his experience, and we were able to corroborate what he said with the accounts of people he met along the route.
In the first part of this two-part report, our Observer describes his hellish experience in Libya. In the second part, he describes his terrifying and desperate escape.
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimates that there are between 700,000 and 1 million migrants in Libya. Migrant trafficking is the second most lucrative job one can have in the country, after the smuggling of petrol, and represents between 5 and 10 per cent of the country’s GDP.
"My friend was tortured by being electrocuted. He died in front of me"
Our Observer, Ousmane K., a 22-year-old Guinean, was sold into slavery in Libya in the summer of 2016.
You can see the route that Ousmane took on this interactive map. Each red marker represents a different step in Ousmane’s journey. For more information, click on the red markers.
After encountering lots of problems on the route from Conakry to Agadez, I arrived in Bani Walid during Ramadan [in June 2016]. It was there that I was kidnapped, thrown into prison, and then sold by the kidnappers to the prison guards.
Our Observer wasn’t there when the transaction was made. He thinks he was sold to his prison guard along with all the other migrants in his group. People who buy migrants then make money by blackmailing the family of the migrant. The family must buy the freedom of the migrant – and if they don’t have the money, the victim will be tortured.
On our way to the prison, two of my friends tried to escape. One of them succeeded, and he’s now living in Germany. The other one was recaptured. I watched as he was tied to a post in front of me, and then tortured by being electrocuted and beaten [this type of torture seems to be the most common, according to other eyewitnesses. Torturers put live electric cables against the victim’s skin, or wrap them around their legs or arms]. He died in agony in front of me. His corpse wasn’t moved for three days. Then the guards told us to leave his body on the side of the road.
The organisation Al-Salam deals with the bodies of migrants found along roadsides, and buries them near the town. In only two years, the organisation has buried between 500 and 600 bodies.
In Bani Walid, at least two Libyan organisations try to work with and take care of illegal migrants who have suffered torture, slavery and forced prostitution. The organisation Al-Salam deals with the ‘migrant graveyard’ – a piece of land where they bury around 25 to 30 bodies every month: the corpses of migrants that have been left on the roadside.
A local dignitary, Alhusain Khire, manages a refuge for migrants that have escaped from prisons, called the Hotel Ivoire. He makes sure the migrants are safe, and brings in humanitarian and medical teams for check-ups. For a report by French media France 2, he explained that the people who manage these illegal migrant prisons are well established in the town, so the only thing he is able to do is give humanitarian help to these people once they have escaped.
Two migrants given food and drink by the organisation Al-Salam, in one of their centres in the town. Photo published on Facebook in August 2017.
This prison was a kind of hangar on the outskirts of the town. There were armed guards and surveillance cameras. I’d say that there were about 200 people kept inside. We couldn’t see the sun, we never knew what day it was, they would deprive us of food and water, we couldn’t wash ourselves. We did forced labour – they made me carry heavy stones or wash all of the carpets in the prison director’s house for example.
A friend had managed to hide a little mobile phone with him, so I was able to warn my family about where I was. One of the guards found out, started firing into the air, and then made us all stand in a line. He wanted us to tell him who had the phone. We refused to, and he hit us; some of us were electrocuted. Then the person who had the phone owned up. He was beaten.
"They would make us call our parents and then torture us at the same time, so that we would beg them to pay the ransom"
The guards said that we had to wait there before we could leave to go to Sabratah [a coastal town around 200 kilometres north-west of Bani Walid, and the departure point for getting to Italy]. They called us one by one, told us, ‘It’s fine, you’re going to be able to leave’, but then they put us all in one room, made us call our parents and then tortured us at the same time, so that we would beg our families to pay the ransom. I wasn’t tortured, because my parents immediately agreed to pay 1,500 dollars [around 1,200 euros]. I was one of the few that was able to get out of it.
My entire family worked to get together the money. My father borrowed a lot of money from his friends and neighbours.
The FRANCE 24 Observers team received a lot of photos of big, infected wounds, taken over the last few days in refuges in Bani Walid. We decided not to publish them because they are too distressing. According to a doctor we consulted, the more serious wounds could already have contracted yaws disease, a chronic infectious disease.
Those who had paid the ransom were slightly more privileged than other prisoners. We became the kind of assistants to the guards and we had the right to a little bit more food than the others – essentially rice with a bit of salt. I was the assistant to a Chadian guard.
In Libya, migrants’ mobile phones are always taken away from them. Our Observer wasn’t able to document what he experienced. Once he returned to Conakry, he found the Facebook profile of one of the guards, another Guinean man. The guard had posted this photo on his profile (which has since been deleted), showing him posing with the director of the prison, a man known as Abdulkarim.
Thanks to my position within the prison, one time I was able to go into town with the Chadian guard. I was able to call my parents and find contacts to help me to leave. The manager of the prison found out and so asked my parents to pay more in order to let me leave. They had to pay 1,100 more dollars [930 euros]. But of course I wasn’t freed.