Migrant death exposes cruelty of treatment in detention center in Libya

Migrant death exposes cruelty of treatment in detention center in Libya

Aliou Candé, a 28-year-old young man from rural Guinea-Bissau, had the dream of working and making money in Europe. Prolonged droughts and heavy rains, probably caused by climate change, disrupted the crops he planted in his homeland, and his cows, increasingly thin, barely had milk. Even with his wife eight months pregnant, Candé’s family encouraged him to go to Europe, where two of his brothers had successfully immigrated.

In February of this year, Candé was captured by the Libyan Coast Guard as he crossed the Mediterranean Sea before he could reach Europe. He had been held for two months in one of Libya’s most brutal migrant prisons, Al Mabani, and while trying to avoid trouble, he clung to the rumor that prison guards would release the migrants from his cell, number 4, in honor of the period of Ramadan.

While Candé waited for that day, he and Tokam Martin Luther, an older Cameroonian who slept on the mat next door, spent their time playing dominoes. During this time, Luther wrote in his diary of a protest by imprisoned women: “They are only wearing their underwear and sitting on the floor because they too demand to be released.”

He and Candé developed nicknames for the guards, based on the orders they gave. One was known as Khamsa Khamsa, Arabic for “five, five,” who he shouted at meals to remind migrants that five people should share each bowl. Another guard, called Gamis, or “sit down,” made sure no one got up. The guard “Calados” policed ​​the chatter.

At one point Candé and Luther cared for a migrant who appeared to be having a psychotic episode, struggling and screaming. “He was so mad that we had to contain him so we could sleep in peace,” Luther wrote. Eventually the guards took the man to a hospital, but three days later he returned, more distraught than before.

Toward the end of March, guards said no one would be released during Ramadan. In his diary, Luther wrote: “This is life in Libya. We will still have to be patient to enjoy our freedom.” But Candé was devastated.

When he was initially detained, the Coast Guard had somehow failed to confiscate his cell phone. He kept him hidden, worried and fearing that he would be severely punished if caught. At the end of March, however, he sent a voice message to the brothers via WhatsApp, trying to explain the situation: “You can’t stay with the phone for long here. We were trying to get to Italy by water. They picked us up and brought us back. .Now we are locked in prison.”

He begged, “Find a way to call our father.” So he waited, hoping the family would raise money to pay for his release.

A few days later, at 2 am on April 8, Candé awoke to a noise: several Sudanese detainees were trying to open the door of cell 4 and escape. Worried that everyone there would be punished, he woke up Mohamed David Soumahoro, who had tried to cross the Mediterranean with him when their boat was captured, to ask what to do.

Soumahoro went with a dozen others to face the Sudanese. “We’ve tried to escape several times before,” he told them. “It never worked. We just got beaten up.” The Sudanese refused to listen, and Soumahoro told another detainee to alert the guards, who pulled a sand truck against the cell door to block the exit.

The Sudanese, feeling betrayed, ripped iron pipes from the bathroom wall and began brandishing them at those who had intervened. A migrant was hit in the eye; another fell to the ground, blood gushing from its head. The groups began tossing shoes, buckets, shampoo bottles, and pieces of plaster at each other. Candé did not want to participate in the fight and sought to hide.

He told Soumahoro: “I will not fight. I am the hope of my whole family.” The fight lasted three and a half hours. Some migrants screamed for help, shouting, “Open the door!” Instead, the guards laughed and applauded, filming the fight with their phones. “Keep fighting,” said one of them, passing water bottles over the rail to keep them hydrated. “If you can kill someone, do it.”

Al Mabani is one of dozens or more of migrant detention centers that Libya has created as part of its effort to detain African migrants before they reach Europe. An effort financed by the European Union and its member countries that, for years, has involved the work of the Libyan Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard, with boats, equipment and European-strengthened legal authority, had captured Candé, Soumahoro and about 100 other migrants in the Mediterranean in early February.

For reasons no one knows, Al Mabani’s guards changed their minds that dawn. At 5:30 am, they left and returned with semi-automatic rifles. Without warning, they shot into the cell through the bathroom window for ten minutes. “It looked like a battlefield,” Soumahoro said.

Two teenagers from Guinea Conakry, Ismail Doumbouya and Ayouba Fofana, were shot in the leg. Candé, who had been hiding in the shower during the fight, was hit in the neck. He staggered along the wall, smearing blood, and then fell to the ground. Soumahoro tried to stop the bleeding with a piece of cloth. Candé died minutes later.

“The Sudanese finally calmed down. We calmed down too. Everyone was shocked,” Soumahoro said.

When the prisoner, Noureddine al-Ghreetly, arrived hours later, he shouted at the guards, “What have you done? You can do anything to them, you just can’t kill them!” The migrants refused to hand over Candé’s body unless released, and panicked guards summoned Mohamed Soumah, a collaborator, to negotiate.

Finally, the militia agreed to the terms. “I, Soumah, will open this door and you will leave,” he said. “I’ll be ahead, running with you to the exit.” Just before 9:00 am, the guards took up position near the gate with guns pointed. Soumah opened the cell door and told the 300 migrants to follow him out of the prison, in single file, without speaking.

Those on their way to work that morning slowed down to stare in amazement at the stream of migrants leaving the complex and dispersing through the streets of Tripoli.

After the detainees in cell 4 were released, news of Candé’s death spread quickly through Tripoli, reaching a community leader among the migrants. The man (who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation) went with Demba Balde, Candé’s great-uncle, to the police station, where they received a copy of the autopsy report. The report said that Candé’s name was unknown and erroneously stated that he was from Guinea Conakry.

Authorities suggested that he had died in a fight, which angered the community leader. “It wasn’t a fight,” he told me. “It was a bullet.” The two later went to the local hospital to identify Candé’s body; he was brought in on a metal stretcher, wrapped in a translucent white cloth partially undone to reveal his face. In the following days, they toured Tripoli paying Candé’s debts, all incurred after his death: 850 dinars (US$188 or R$1,070) for the hospital, 85 dinars (US$19 or R$110) for the white shroud and funeral clothes, 1,064 dinars (US$236 or R$1,340) for the upcoming burial.

Candé’s family learned of his death two days later. Samba, his father, told me he could barely sleep or eat: “Sadness weighs heavily on me.” Since her husband’s departure, Hava had given birth to a daughter named Cadjato, who is now two years old, and she told me that she would not remarry until the mourning ended: “My heart is broken.”

Jacaria had little hope that the police would arrest his brother’s killers. “He’s gone,” he said. “Gone in every way.” Conditions on the farm got worse, with more floods and one less worker. As a result, Bobo, Candé’s younger brother, will likely try to make the trip to Europe himself. “What else can I do?” he said.

Candé’s murder had ended a migrant’s attempt to find a new life in Europe, where he could have earned money to support his family at home. But his story is not unique. The United Nations and various humanitarian organizations have for years documented the appalling human cost of the work Libya does on Europe’s behalf to stop migrants. Rape, torture, forced labor, extortion, death—investigators and researchers have recorded it all and have seen little change.

Ghreetly was suspended from Al Mabani after Candé’s death, but was reinstated a few weeks later. For nearly three months, Médecins Sans Frontières, who often help migrants in detention centers, refused to enter there. Beatrice Lau, the head of mission in Libya at the time, wrote: “The persistent pattern of violent incidents and serious harm to refugees and migrants, as well as the risk to the safety of our staff, has reached a level we are no longer able to accept “.

MSF resumed its activities after receiving assurances that there would be no more violence. But in October, Libyan authorities, including the militia controlling Al Mabani, arrested 5,000 migrants in Gargaresh and sent thousands to prison. Days later, guards opened fire on prisoners trying to escape, killing six people.

After Candé’s death, Jose Sabadell, the EU ambassador to Libya, called for a formal investigation, which seems never to have taken place. A Sabadell spokesman said: “The assurances by the Libyan authorities that these events will be investigated and that the appropriate legal actions will be carried out need to be translated into practice. The perpetrators must be held responsible. There can be no impunity for such crimes.”

Even so, Europe’s commitment to its anti-migrant programs in Libya remains unshakeable. In 2020, Italy renewed its Memorandum of Understanding with Libya and, since March, has spent an additional US$4 million (R$22.8 million) with the country’s Coast Guard. The European Commission has recently pledged to build a “new and improved” maritime command center and to buy three more ships.

Demba Balde, a 40-year-old tailor who had long lived undocumented in Libya, had tried to convince his great-nephew Candé to abandon his plan to cross the Mediterranean. “This is the route of death,” Bucket told him.

On April 12, shortly after the 5 pm prayers, Bucket and about 20 men gathered at Bir al-Osta Milad cemetery for Candé’s funeral. The cemetery occupies eight acres of land between an electrical substation and two large warehouses. Most of the dead migrants in Libya are buried there, and there are now around 10,000 graves, many of them unmarked.

The men prayed aloud as Candé’s body was lowered into a hole dug in the sand no more than a foot deep. They covered it with six rectangular stones and laid a layer of concrete. Someone asked if anyone had Candé’s money to give to the family, but no one answered. After a pause, the men said, in unison, “God is great.” Then one of them, using a stick, scrawled Candé’s name on the wet concrete.

This is the last text in a series produced by The Outlaw Ocean Project in partnership with leaf which examines the European Union’s partnership with Libya in capturing and detaining migrants trying to reach Europe.


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