18 December 2009

Libya: pushed back migrants speak out: “Beaten and deported to the Sahara”

campo di detenzione di ZlitenROME - Beaten by Italian soldiers and deported to the Sahara. The migrants pushed back to Libya speak out. For the first time. From the cells of a prison situated in the middle of the Libyan desert, a thousand kilometres south of Tripoli, where they have ended up after having been sent back to Libya on Italian military ships. We have reached them by phone. They are 38 Somalis. All men. Part of that ship crew composed of 81 Somalis who left Tripoli on the 27th August 2009 and were rejected by Italian authorities after three days at sea, on the 30th August.

A. is one of them. He is 17 years old. “We sailed off on the night of the 27th August – he says – With us we had 17 women, 7 children and an elderly woman, we were all Somalis”. After two days of navigation northwards, the rubber dinghy encountered a Maltese patrol boat. “They gave us water and life jackets. We asked directions for Malta, we did not want to go to Italy, fearing rejection. They showed us the route and we left again. It was only after five hours of navigation that we realized we were going towards Sicily”. M., a 29 year old cellmate, confirms.

The description of those moments coincides with the events reported on the 30th of August by news agencies. Twenty-four miles away from Capo Passero, province of Syracuse, the watercraft is intercepted by Italian units. Four passengers, among whom a woman and a newborn baby, are transferred to the Valletta hospital. A fifth one is hospitalized in Pozzallo, Sicily. The other passengers are transhipped onto a high sea patrol boat of the Guardia di Finanza which sails off towards Tripoli, where it will arrive the next day. Up to here the official version. But what really happened on board?

“When they took us on board they did not tell us where they were taking us – says A. -, but at a certain point it was clear we were going back to Libya, because we had been at sea for too long, it took us 28 hours to reach Tripoli”. It was then that a strong protest broke out on deck. “They had divided us. The 17 women with the 7 children were on one side. The men on the other. The women were crying, the men were shouting. Luckily there were three men who could speak English and acted as interpreters with the Italians. ‘No life in Libya’ they were saying. We explained to them that we were Somalis, that in Somalia the is a war going on and that we could not go back to Libya. Rather, we said, they could send us back to Sudan, where we would not have incurred in any risk, but not to Libya”.

Initially – says A. – the Italian soldiers seemed to understand their case. A. remembers the eldest on board. “He was a white haired man. He was crying, moved at the sight of the women and children weeping, and the elderly woman, and at the thought of sending us back to prison”. A. claims that that same official contacted his superiors, in order to understand what to do. But the patrol boat never turned back. And half way there it encountered the Libyan patrol ship onto which the passengers had to be transhipped. At that point the protests soared. “Some men threatened to jump into the sea, they were shouting, the Italian soldiers had to use force, and raged with their truncheons on a young man. Finally they decided not to tranship us and we remained on board until we reached the harbour of Tripoli”. Once ashore, on the pier, protests immediately ceased, says A. “Who talked was promptly beaten by the Libyans”.

From there they have been transferred to the prison of Tuaisha, near the airport of Tripoli. After one month they have been sent to different detention centres. Thirty-eight of them – among which no woman – ended up in Gatrun. One thousand kilometres south of Tripoli. Near the border with Chad and Niger, in full desert. The journey from Tripoli lasted three days, locked in a container. Presently in Gatrun there are 245 detainees, all Somalis. Crammed in three dormitories, they sleep on the floor, without blankets nor mattresses, at night it is cold, some of them cached scabies. One of the dormitories is reserved for the women, which are 54 and stay together with the four children, one of which is just a few months old and was born in prison, in Benghazi. Indeed the majority of the Gatrun detainees come from the detention camp of Benghazi, in Ganfuda.

Remember? We talked about it in an investigation in September, when we published the pictures of the wounded Somalis stabbed by the Libyan police during the pitiless repression of a mass jailbreak attempt, on the 9th August, ended with the killing of six Somalis.

They have attempted a mass jailbreak in Gatrun too. It happened last Friday. They smashed the cell door and fled in 91. The Libyan police managed to recapture only 32. “They have been strongly beaten – says M. – and then brought back here. For us and for them there is no solution. We have been here for months, we have not seen the UN yet. But at this point we just ask the UN and Europe to repatriate us. We would rather die at war in Mogadishu than remain locked in this prison”.

translated from the Italian by Francesca Megna