Imprisoned Underground in Libya
Rescued by an Italian coastguard ship, Jonah, Qisanet, Hagos, and Eden—along with 170 others—were kept aboard the military vessel anchored off the coast of Sicily for ten days as Northern-League Interior Minister Matteo Salvini had forbidden the ship to dock. The case gained international attention, and the Ubaldo Diciotti came to symbolize the new migration policies of Italy’s government under Northern League and Five-Star Movement leadership. These four Eritreans’ stories, recorded a few days after they disembarked, show how human trafficking in Libya has evolved following the February 2017 accords with Italy, and the consequences such deterrence policies have on migrants’ lives.
Jonah is quick to speak, and his story spills forth in the names and numbers chronicling the journey from his hometown of Teseney, near Eritrea’s border with Sudan, to the apartment he’s staying in when I meet him on August 31, in the diocese of Frosinone, Italy, where he was sent after disembarking from the Ubaldo Diciotti, an Italian coastguard ship. Jonah, his wife, and their companions were trapped in a veritable game of chutes and ladders spanning 7,000 kilometers, rife with life-threatening risks. At each stage of the way he hoped to die, much like his namesake biblical prophet. But he ultimately survived, and now he wants to denounce the many horrors he witnessed and endured: extortion, torture, rape, human trafficking, and stillborn babies birthed in underground prisons.
He recalls the traffickers’ names, the money his family had to send from all around the globe in order to free him at each step of the way, his companions’ names, the number of people in each prison he was locked up in, and the number of people he saw die. He wants to talk. He feels like a survivor and wants those left behind to be released. “There are at least 3,000 Eritreans locked up in Nesma, where I, too, was imprisoned before my departure. The trafficker holding them prisoner is named Abdesalam, he is Eritrean. Anyone who can do something should intervene. The only way is to evacuate all migrants from these hellish Libyan prisons.”
He lived in Libya for one year and three months, detained the entire time. For several months he was imprisoned underground in Beni Walid alongside hundreds of fellow migrants, almost all Eritrean. No air or light penetrated the depths and just a single plate of food appeared daily, to share. “One plate of pasta fed seven of us,” he says. An Eritrean trafficker sold him to a group of Libyans, who in turn sold him to other Libyans, and then he was returned to the Eritrean in Nesma, a city south of Tripoli, and locked up in an overcrowded detention center where they had to take turns sleeping because there was no room for everyone to lie down on the floor together.
His wife Qisanet looks at him with tenderness and admiration, lowering her gaze whenever he utters painful words and tears well up in his clear eyes. They met in Khartoum, Sudan, where they decided to marry and continue the journey together. On August 31 Caritas welcomed them to Frosinone, where the local diocese is giving them shelter and covering all related costs. They dream of going the Netherlands, where Jonah’s aunt lives, but they can’t currently enroll in any European relocation programs. Qisanet has a fuchsia headscarf covering her hair, delicate facial features, and thick black lashes framing her eyes. She’s young, and has a large, horizontal scar on one arm.
Jonah is 24 years old and left Eritrea in 2016, after attending college. He had been a military cadet, but dropped out when his mother died: “My father was sick, and as the eldest son, my family needed me to work. I went back to Teseney, and got paid under the table working for Sudanese traders. But then I feared the troops supporting Isaias Afwerki’s regime would find me and put me in jail because I was a deserter, so I decided to flee.”
His story is similar to thousands of Eritreans of his generation forced to leave the country to escape conscription, which effectively becomes lifelong mandatory military service. A United Nations report calls Eritrea “a country ruled by terror” due to its repressive regime and lack of freedom of expression. “I said goodbye to my family and left with a group of Sudanese merchants who smuggled me across the border in their car. I paid 10,000 nakfa,” the equivalent of about 500 euros.
The first stop on his journey was a border town in Sudan. From there he continued to Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, where he stayed for seven months thanks to some money his aunt sent from the Netherlands. That’s where he met Qisanet: “She was my neighbor, we fell in love and married,” he says, as she smiles. One day he decided to resume the journey to Europe: “I asked my aunt not to send me any more money to live in Sudan, but to save up enough to cover the trip to Libya, so she sent 1,600 dollars.”
Bought and Sold
The journey is hard for men, but what happens to women is unspeakable: “At every stop, some militiamen feel entitled to harass or rape the women.” Jonah and his wife crossed the Sahara in a truck along with 150 others. The vehicles were overloaded, and some men died of asphyxiation, crushed under the mass of their traveling companions’ bodies. It took three days to go from Khartoum, Sudan, to Kufra, Libya. “We thought having paid such a high price would guarantee us good travel conditions, but the traffickers treated us like animals. Little did we know, that was only the beginning. What awaited us was much worse.”
In Kufra they were imprisoned with 400 others and ended up in the hands of the Eritrean trafficker Abdesalam, who told everyone they’d have to pay 5,500 dollars to be released and embark for Europe. No one had that much money. Thus began a two-month ordeal: traffickers brought in a cell phone and told prisoners to call home, let it ring once, and then hang up. Then they waited for the family to call back, and were told to say, “If you don’t pay up, they’ll kill us.”
Therefore, those left back at home go through a hell not unlike that of their imprisoned family members; the entire time they have no choice but to find money however they can, selling their belongings, borrowing from friends and neighbors in order to free their relatives in the hands of traffickers. “My father sold the house, many people end up begging or trying to collect money in church. Some of our traveling companions’ parents died of stress and heartbreak.” Jonah came to curse the day he was born. As he talks, certain passages are too painful. The story comes to a halt, words can’t even begin to describe the horror. Then he pauses, takes a deep breath, and resumes, relying on names and numbers, as if drawing a mental map of the suffering he has endured.
After the first four months of imprisonment, Jonah and Qisanet paid their ransom and were taken north, where they thought they’d board a ship to cross the Mediterranean. After two days of travel they ended up in an underground prison in Beni Walid, 170 kilometers southwest of Tripoli, where they experienced the worst period of their stay in Libya. They were taken there by men working for the Eritrean trafficker, but once they arrived it became clear they were to change hands, and were taken into the custody of Libyan militiamen.
“It was only after we arrived that we realized we’d been sold,” he says. They met two other Eritreans in the underground prison, Hagos and Eden, a couple with whom they ultimately traveled to Italy: “We were all in a bunker.” The underground prison held 403 people, not a ray of light penetrated from outside, and everyone was packed in tight. The first few days they were just left to wait.
“We didn’t understand what these Libyan captors wanted from us, they didn’t ask for money at first, they just said the sea was too rough,” says Jonah. The underground prison was run by a Libyan called Mohammed “Whisky,” a name notoriuous among Eritreans because it was said he’d been part of the Islamic State and had killed several Eritreans who hadn’t converted to Islam. “When we heard that name, the blood curdled in our veins. But days kept passing, and we had no idea what he wanted from us.”
The Babies who Died in Prison
“We’ve seen hell, but we’ve also witnessed miracles,” Jonah exclaims at one point. In the first bunker, two women gave birth. “In the dark, while the rest of us could do nothing but pray, women gave birth to their children. I don’t know how they did it.” But both infants died after a few weeks, perhaps due to the unhygienic conditions.
“The babies’ skin became inflamed, maybe the lack of hygiene and natural light, and being in such tight proximity to the adults, caused infections,” says Qisanet, mustering up the courage to tell one of the most terrifying things she’s ever seen. Her head falls, and she cradles it between her hands as she speaks.
The Eritreans tried to escape the first prison by digging an underground tunnel with their hands, but their jailers noticed and moved them to yet another underground prison, not far from the first. Even in this second prison a few babies were born, and one woman died after having a miscarriage.
“We didn’t know what they wanted from us, time kept passing and they wouldn’t say what they wanted,” says Jonah. Then they demanded yet another ransom: another 2,500 dollars per person. “That was an impossible amount, for every single one of us. Our families had already given everything they had.”
The torture soon resumed, as the captors woke the migrants up in the middle of the night, or whipped the soles of their feet. “Some were left with broken feet.” It took them six months to raise enough money to leave. From Beni Walid Jonah, his wife, and another 160 Eritreans were taken to Nesma.
“When we finally saw the sun for the first time in months, we were nearly blinded,” he says. The detention center south of Tripoli held over 3,000 people, most of whom were Eritrean citizens. Like a living nightmare set on loop, they were sent back to where they’d started, and again found themselves in the hands of their first trafficker, the one who had sold them to the Libyans. This detention center, too, was owned by Abdesalam.
They were held in this larger center for a few months before leaving for the beach of Al Khums, the coastal town east of Tripoli from which most boats bound for Italy now depart. “We boarded a wooden boat under cover of night, and sailed for two days and two nights without seeing any other vessels. The traffickers gave us a compass, pointed out the direction to head in, and gave us a satellite phone and some numbers to call.”
“After two days a large ship arrived. They gave us life jackets and food but didn’t save us, they just left,” Jonah continues. Then a few Italian patrol boats rescued the migrants, bringing them aboard the Diciotti. “The captain was very kind to us, but we immediately sensed something was wrong, because nobody would let us off the boat.” They knew they were seven hours from the Italian coast, but for days they were left looking at dry land from far off shore.
“We were afraid of being sent back to Libya.” Jonah is grateful to the Italian coastguard, whose crew who did all they could to make them feel at ease: “There were no showers, and we struggled just to brush our teeth, but the captain reassured us. He told us nothing bad would happen. God bless him for everything he’s done for us!”
On the fifth day at anchor in the port of Catania, the migrants were finally allowed to disembark. They were initially transferred to a processing center in Messina, and then sent up to Mondo Migliore—(“Better World”) a refugee center at Rocca di Papa, in Lazio—awaiting assignment to the various Italian dioceses that had meanwhile agreed to take them in. On August 31, the first 34 migrants left Rocca di Papa. Jonah, Qisanet, Hagos, and Eden were brought to Frosinone.
“It was only natural that the bishop of Frosinone, Ambrogio Spreafico, would welcome some migrants from the Diciotti,” explains Marco Toti, director of the local Caritas. Frosinone has hosted refugees ever since North Africa fell into a state of emergency, both SPRAR [Italy’s Protection System for Asylum Seekers and Refugees] and CAS [refugee centers] are active there, and the Community of Sant’Egidio had already established a humanitarian-aid network to accommodate Syrian families.
“It struck us as a small gesture—it’s all about focusing on facts and people, not prejudices,” says Toti, who assures me there haven’t been any major displays of intolerance here. “In the past, whenever there was any agitation regarding the arrival of refugees here in Frosinone, we’ve always talked about it. Starting with each and every parish, we listened to the reasons locals felt resistance. But overall, newcomers have always received a warm welcome . . . The negative attitudes pop up more on social media than in real life.” For Toti it’s a matter of almost symbolic “gestures,” since the Catholic Church would never be able to cover the requests nor related costs of all asylum seekers currently in Italy. “A hundred people is a small gesture,” he concludes.
Now Jonah just wants to get to Northern Europe and start a new life with Qisanet. His dream is to join his aunt in the Netherlands and celebrate their wedding again with a part of the family that missed it the first time. “I want to work to help my family in Eritrea buy back the house they had to sell in order to me get to Europe,” he says.
“I’d like to thank the pope, who I know played a role in all this,” says Qisanet before bidding me goodbye. Eden, on the other hand, would just like to find peace: “I’d like for my thoughts to stop spinning, I’d like to realize I’ve finally arrived in a country where I’m not constantly at risk of dying, I’d like to find some serenity. I still haven’t fully realized I’m here, safe and sound.” Helen, mediator of the local Caritas welcome center, along with her husband Mussie and her son Yared, have brought some ingera, a traditional Eritrean bread, to the refugees who’ve just arrived from Rocca di Papa. “It’s been years since we’ve eaten ingera—for us, tonight will feel like we’re at home,” Eden says as she affectionately greets her new neighbors.