Tired of migrants arriving from Africa, the E.U. has created a shadow immigration system that captures them before they reach its shores and sends them to brutal Libyan detention centers run by militias
At 2 a.m. on April 8, Aliou Candé was awoken by a noise coming from the front of Cell No. 4 at the Al Mabani migrant jail in Tripoli, Libya. Cande, a farmer who fled Guinea Biassau to chase the dream of work in Europe, had been held in one of Libya’s most notorious detention centers for more than two months. He’d witnessed beatings, slept in a cell teeming with men and disease, had one hope of freedom after another shattered. Just days earlier, he’d secretly used his cell phone to call his family and ask if they could pay a ransom to his captors, one of the country’s violent and powerful militias.
Now, several Sudanese detainees were trying to pry open the front door of Cell No. 4 at Al Mabani and escape. Candé, worried that they would earn punishment for all the inmates, woke up Soumahoro, who rushed to confront the Sudanese, with a dozen other migrants. “Don't do that,” Soumahoro told them. “We’ve tried to break out several times before. It never worked. We were just beaten.” When the Sudanese would not listen, Soumahoro instructed Candé to alert the guards. One of the guards backed a flatbed truck used to haul sand up against the cell door, blocking it entirely.
The Sudanese migrants, feeling betrayed, turned violent. They yanked iron pipes from the bathroom wall and began swinging them at those who had intervened. One migrant was hit squarely in the eye; another fell to the ground, blood gushing from his head. The groups began to pelt each other with objects in the cell: bars of soap, plastic buckets, bottles of shampoo, shoes, and pieces of broken plasterboard from the bathroom doors. Candé tried to stay out of the melee, leaving to find cover. “I’m not going to fight,” he told Soumahoro. “I’m the hope of my entire family. I don’t want anything to happen to me.” The brawl lasted for three and a half hours. At one point, some of the migrants began pleading for assistance. “Open the door!” they yelled to the guards. “Help us, please.” Instead, the guards laughed, and cheered, and filmed the fight with their cell phones as if it were a cage match. “Keep fighting,” one said, feeding water bottles through the grille to keep the brawlers hydrated. “If you can kill them, do it.”
Al Mabani was one of the dozen or more migrant jails Libya has created as part of its effort to halt African migrants before they reach Europe. It is an effort paid for by the European Union and its member nations, and that has for years involved the work of the Libyan Coast Guard. The coast guard, with boats, equipment and enhanced legal authority granted it by Europe, swept up Cande and 100 or so other migrants on the Mediterranean in early February.
That night at Al Mabani, and for reasons that no one knows, the guards’ mood soon shifted, and at 5:30 A.M, they came back to Cell No. 4 with semi-automatic rifles. Without warning, they fired into the cell through the bathroom window for ten minutes straight. “It sounded like a battlefield,” Soumahoro told me. Ismail Doumbouya, an eighteen-year-old boy from Guinea Conakry, was hit in his right thigh. Ayouba Fofana, a seventeen-year-old also from Guinea Conakry, was hit three inches above his left knee. During the fight, Candé had been hiding in the shower. A bullet struck him in the neck. He staggered along the wall, streaking blood, then fell to the ground. "He got hit!" a Cameroonian migrant standing near Candé began screaming. “Retreat!” Soumahoro laid Candé on the floor and tried to slow the bleeding with a piece of cloth. Ten minutes later, Candé died. “The Sudanese finally calmed down. We also calmed down. Everyone was shocked,” Soumahoro told me.
When the jail’s man in charge, Noureddine al-Ghreetly, arrived at the prison, several hours after the shooting, he peered through the grille at the battered migrants, and said, “Show me the body.” The detainees laid Candé in front of the door, and al-Ghreetly slammed his fist and screamed at the guards, “What have you done! You can do anything to them. You just can’t kill them.” The detainees refused to hand over Candé’s body unless they were freed, and the guards, panicked that they could not convince the migrants to cooperate, summoned Soumah to negotiate an end to the standoff.
Eventually, the militia agreed to the terms. “I, Soumah, will open this door and you guys will get out,” he said. “But there is one condition. When you get out, don't cause trouble. Don't cause chaos. I will be in front of you, running with you until the exit.” Just before 9 a.m., Soumah opened the door. Guards took up positions near the gate of the compound with guns raised, and Soumah told the three hundred migrants in the cell to follow him slowly, single file, without talking. Several morning commuters slowed to gawk at the stream of migrants as they exited the compound and melted into the streets of Tripoli.
In the weeks after Candé’s death, word spread quickly through the city, travelling with the migrants who had been released. It eventually reached Ousmane Sane, the forty-four-year-old unofficial consular representative from Guinea Bissau. Sane contacted Demba Balde, an uncle of Candé’s who had lived in Tripoli for years. The two then went to the police station near Al Mabani, where they were given a copy of the police’s autopsy report. The authorities didn’t even know Candé’s name, and he was anonymous on the forms. The report suggested that he had died in a fight, which angered Sane. “It wasn’t a fight,” he said. “It was a bullet.” Later, they went to the local hospital to identify Candé’s body. He was wheeled out on a metal gurney, wrapped in a gauzy white cloth, partially undone to reveal his face. Over the next several days, Sane and Balde traveled around Tripoli paying off Candé’s debts, all of them incurred as a consequence of his death: 850 dinars ($188) for the hospital stay, 85 dinars ($19) for the white shroud and for burial clothes, 1,064 dinars ($236) for the coming burial.
Cande’s killing had ended one migrant’s bid for a new life in Europe, where he might have made money to support his family back home. But it was hardly singular. The United Nations, and a variety of humanitarian organizations have for years documented the ghastly human toll of Libya's work on Europe’s behalf. Rape, torture, forced labor, extortion, death -- the investigators and researchers have recorded it all, and seen little change.
Candé’s family learned of his death two days later. Samba, his father, said that he could barely sleep or eat. “Sadness weighs heavily on me,” he said. Hava had since given birth to their third child, a daughter named Cadjato who is now two. Hava told me that she would not remarry until she finished mourning. “My heart is broken,” she said. Djacari, Candé’s brother, still hoped that the police would arrest his brother’s killers. “I don't think they will,” he said. “So he is gone. Gone in every way.” Conditions on the farm have worsened, with greater flooding and one fewer person to till the land. As a result, Bobo, Candé’s youngest brother, said that he will likely try to make the journey to Europe soon himself. “What else can I do?” he said.
After Candé’s death, Jose Sabadell, the European Union’s ambassador to Libya, called for a formal investigation, but it never took place. A spokesperson for Sabadell eventually issued a statement again calling for Libya to punish those responsible. Al-Ghreetly was suspended in the aftermath of Candé’s death, but, a few weeks later, he was back in his post.
In October, Libyan authorities, including the militia that runs Mabani, carried out a series of sweeping raids in Gargaresh, Tripoli's migrant ghetto. Some 4,000 men, women and children were arrested, a handful of them shot or beaten as they were captured in their homes. Hundreds of the arrested migrants were sent to Al Mabani, including more than 350 women and nearly 150 children. Within a week, the jail was the scene of one of the bloodiest days in the history of the migrant detention program. Six migrants were shot to death and 24 others injured as guards opened fire during an attempted escape.
The latest killings happened just as the United Nation issued a report formally declaring there were “reasonable grounds to believe that acts of murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, persecution and other inhumane acts committed against migrants form part of a systematic and widespread attack directed at this population, in furtherance of a state policy. As such, these acts may amount to crimes against humanity.”
“Further investigations are required to establish the role of all those involved, directly or indirectly, in these crimes.”
Through it all, Europe’s commitment to its anti-migrant programs in Libya remains unshaken. Last year, Italy renewed a 2017 Memorandum of Understanding with Libya, and since March, Italy has pumped another $4 million into the Libyan Coast Guard, including, in early October, another handful of speed boats. In May, The European Commission, meanwhile, committed to developing a “new and improved” maritime command center for Libya.
Cande was buried four days after his killing. On April 12th, shortly after 5 p.m. prayers, Balde, Sane, and some twenty others gathered at the Bir al-Osta Milad cemetery. Most of Libya’s dead migrants are buried at the cemetery, an eight-acre site located between an electrical substation and two large warehouses. There are now some ten thousand graves at the site, most of them unmarked.
The men prayed aloud as Candé’s body was lowered into a shallow hole, no more than a foot and a half deep, dug in yellowish sand. The men topped the grave with six rectangular stones and poured a layer of cement. Someone asked if anyone had money of Candé’s to give to his family. No one answered. After a silent pause, the men spoke up in unison: “God is great.” Then, using a stick, one of them scrawled Candé’s name into the wet cement.
Ian Urbina is the Director of The Outlaw Ocean Project, a non-profit journalism organization based in Washington DC that focuses on environment and human rights concerns at sea globally
This story is in four parts. Read Part One here >>