The Backpack: Orphan’s Dreams Dashed By Return to Libya

Over 8,200 migrants making the dangerous journey to Europe have been returned instead to Libya where they languish in detention centres.

“My parents were both killed years ago. My brother can barely provide for his children. I am a man now, and I have to fight for my survival,” said 18-year old Abdessamad.

He left Somalia carrying a backpack, a reminder of home, and the dream of reaching Europe in search of a better future. I met him one May afternoon at a disembarkation point in Tripoli, Libya, one of 112 migrants who’d failed in their journey and were returned to shore by the coast guard.

The coast guard cutter docked, and the air filled with fumes of despair and disappointment as the migrants lined up to disembark.  

Abdessamad arrived in Libya five months earlier and spent his days locked up in a crowded warehouse with hundreds of other people chasing the same dream.

“I came to Libya through the desert. I want to describe the journey, but I have no words for it. For days during the trip, there was nothing but desert. Its immensity was frightening, but I did not regret making this decision. When there is nothing and no one for you to go back to, risking your life does not seem so tragic.”

He was calm, amid a sea of worried mothers and fathers whose hopes evaporated the moment the gun-metal grey cutter approached their rubber dinghy.

For those returned to Libyan shores, only detention awaits.

Detention centres here are a space where time ceases to matter, where each day blurs into the next. Hundreds of people are confined to often overcrowded hangars with barely any access to water, food and sanitation. They remain caged; life is reduced to merely existing.

The months of waiting ended. Abdessamad and dozens of others were told that their boat was waiting. His dreams seemed within reach. He packed what little he had into a backpack and climbed into a waiting smuggler’s pickup truck.

The group arrived at the shores of Zwara at dawn. As he took his last few steps on solid ground, Abdessamad was told to leave his backpack behind.

“My backpack had all my belongings. It did not have much, but it was mine.”

It was the only thing that connected him to Somalia, and it was now lost.

I saw a young man who had nothing but pride and the clothes on his back. Abdessamad looked away for a few minutes and continued.

“My neighbors collected money at the mosque to pay for my journey. How can I go back and face them? The smugglers took our money and put us on an old rubber boat as if setting us up to fail. I failed, and I can’t go back home a failure.”

He reached for my hand, placed it on his chest and said, “There is fire burning inside my heart, and I do not know how to put it out. I do not know what to expect at sea or in Europe, but I know what awaits at home, and I do not want to go back.”

Abdessamad was led off to a detention centre, another anonymous face in a growing list of people traveling to Libya with dreams and hopes and backpacks from home only to crash like waves on the beach.

I saw him a few months later behind the bars of a detention centre, a shell, a broken young man. His eyes sparkled no more. We never spoke; words are meaningless when faced with that much suffering.

We helped in the ways we could and left.

I never saw Abdessamad again.