Wed, May 10, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Refugees who survive the Sahara face torture in Libyan town

By Edward McAllister  /  Reuters, BRIKAMA, The Gambia

In his quest to reach Europe, 22-year old Gambian Mafu Hydara spent six days with little food or water crossing the Sahara before he reached the Libyan oasis town of Sabha.

There, he says he was kidnapped and beaten by a smuggling gang to elicit a ransom from his family and frequently forced to work for no pay during his seven months in the town.

Now, Hydara is back in his Gambian home town of Brikama, where he has no job and sleeps on a mattress on the floor of a sparse shack.

Of the more than 300,000 refugees and migrants who crossed the desert and sea to Europe last year, thousands did not survive the treacherous journey and thousands more end up stranded in Libya or back in their countries, often without the small amounts of money they gathered to make their initial trip.

For most of these returnees, the journey is thwarted in Libya, a country that — six years after the fall of late Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi — is still a lawless state, despite ongoing attempts by Western countries to stabilize and unify it under a single government.

Numerous armed groups compete for land and resources, Muslim militants have a presence in parts of the country, while large networks of weapons and people-smugglers operate with impunity.

Few places are worse than Sabha, a stop-off on the Saharan trade route for centuries and for most refugees and migrants the first town they see after emerging from the desert.

Fighting late last year in the town between rival tribes involved tanks and mortars. Its streets are lined with burnt-out cars. Bullet holes fleck the buildings and residents routinely carry guns. Electricity and medical care are sporadic and there is no functioning police force, according to refugees and regional security experts who have recently visited the town.

Interviews with half a dozen Gambian refugees who each spent months in the town last year and this year paint a picture of Sabha, one of the last unpoliced parts of the journey where refugees are forced into hard labor, abducted, abused and sold in private deals from one smuggling group to another.

Hydara had hoped Sabha — a rundown provincial capital of 200,000 people, surrounded by date palms and overlooked by a large colonial Italian fort — would offer a place to recuperate and earn money to continue his 6,640km journey north to Italy, where he planned to attend school.

One morning in September last year, he went to Chat Place, a roundabout in central Sabha where migrants wait for odd jobs to make enough for the 500 dinar (US$362) ride to Tripoli on the coast.

One day’s work making cement bricks could fetch about 10 dinar, if the employer actually pays up, which they often do not, according to the refugees interviewed.

People are often robbed walking there, or forced to take shelter when they hear sniper fire from nearby buildings, they said.

Hydara got into a large black truck with three migrants for what the driver said would be one day moving furniture.

“They lock all the doors. They pull a gun threatening us that everyone who is trying to escape will be shot,” he said.

Two local gangsters drove Hydara to a fenced-off house in town. They roped his hands to the ceiling of a tiny room and called his uncle to demand 30,000 Gambian dalasi (US$650) for his release.

They had agents all over western Africa to receive cash payments, they said.

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