A Migrant’s Harrowing Tale about Life in Libya

  • Senegalese migrants departing to Senegal from Libya on 6 January.

Libya - Over the past five years, IOM has facilitated the voluntary return of thousands of migrants from Libya back to their countries of origin. Following the outbreak of the Libyan conflict in February 2011, IOM repatriated over 200,000 migrants fleeing the violence to countries around the world, in what was one of the largest and most complex evacuation and repatriation operations on record. Repatriations continue to this day. Most are of Sub-Saharan Africans trying to reach Europe, but ending up in Libyan detention centres. Lamine* is a migrant from Senegal who tried to make it to Europe. This is his harrowing story as told to IOM’s Cecilia Mann.

Europe. Ever since I can remember I’ve seen films about it, listened to songs glorifying it and heard tales from friends and family members who had made it to this proverbial Promised Land. I have dreamt of building a life there, providing for my family, building a home, and living a life of comfort and success everyone I know aspires to.

My name is Lamine, I am 24 years old and come from Tambacounda, the largest town in eastern Senegal in the largest region of the country that goes by the same name.  ‘Tambacounda’ means ‘Tamba’s home’.

Sitting here now, in Dakar’s Leopold-Sédar-Senghor airport, after a 14 month journey to reach adiana (paradise in Wolof), this notion of home is all that I have on my mind.

Upon finishing school, I completed an apprenticeship in masonry and quickly found work. By February 2015, I had managed to save nearly 800,000 CFA (approximately 1,400 USD) and was finally ready to pursue my goal: Europe.

Full of hope, I slung my small bag over my shoulder, kissed my mother good bye, promising to continue sending financial support and to keep in touch, and, together with five childhood friends, headed off into the unknown – to Mali.

Getting to Mali was easy and the trip went smoothly, which filled us with optimism. The rules were simple: there are 20 police check points to cross on the way to Burkina Faso, each one costs 5,000 CFA (approximately 9 USD). If you refuse to pay, you’re searched, all of your belongings and money are confiscated, and if you’re lucky you’re sent back, if you’re not, you’re jailed or worse. We followed the rules and crossed into Burkina Faso after only a few days’ travel.

In Burkina Faso, the authorities caught us. We were thrown into a ramshackle detention center with hundreds of other migrants. There was no food, no water, and the heat and odours were excruciating. On my second day of detention, a Gambian man I got acquainted with was beaten to death.

I knew I had to escape, fearing that otherwise the same fate awaited me. That night, the stars were on my side. Strong winds and heavy rain pounded the center and at four o’clock in the morning, along with 10 others, I crawled through a window and ran. Running turned to walking, and walking to hobbling as the sun rose and the grueling heat set in. Having long lost our shoes, we walked the 130 kilometers through Burkina Faso to cross into Niger barefoot, on our way to Niamey. Two of the younger and weaker members of our group became delirious from foot infections and dehydration and we had to carry them. Crossing the border cost 130,000 CFA (approximately 225 USD) but was rendered complicated by the language barrier we faced, not only amongst our group, but with the Nigerien authorities.

By the time I arrived in Niger, I had nearly run out of money, and had been separated from the friends I had initially set out with. I contacted my mother to let her know I was safe and that I would send money shortly. Her anecdotes of an uncle’s success in Italy encouraged me and I set about finding work.

During my three-month stay in Niamey, I worked grueling hours as a mason for 4,000-5,000 CFA a day, if I was paid. I found a somewhat covered garage that I took refuge in at night, if someone else hadn’t gotten there first. Finally I managed to save 150,000 CFA (approximately 260 USD) and I set off to Algeria, where I knew I’d have to work for some time as well before making my way to Libya.

Crossing into Algeria is no easy feat. The desert is extremely well secured, so at two o’clock in the morning we got into a crowded bus that carried us to 5 kilometers from the border and from there we had to cross by foot. We were divided into two groups. Mine crossed first, successfully. The second group was not so lucky. They were caught by the border police, robbed, beaten and left in the middle of the desert to fend for themselves.

One of my fellow travelers had been suffering from a severe foot infection for some time, and upon our arrival in Algeria it became clear that he could not go on. Here, I encountered a first act of kindness in months, a Nigerien man of Tuareg ethnicity agreed to take him back to Niger.

It was here that I first heard of the possibility of contacting the embassy in Niger and of returning home through IOM. This however, was not my plan. I had come so far.  Just one more step lay between me and utopia. Little did I know Algeria would be the worst part of my journey. The extreme racism made even buying water at the local shop a challenge. Armed children of 10 or 11 years of age would rob me and other ‘babays’ (black blood) like me daily.

Work was hardly ever paid, and even when were paid, it would be stolen from us within minutes. I managed to find a construction site to work at, and the boss, a kind man I thought at the time, said he’d hold my pay, with the exception of an occasional small meal allowance, until the end of my stay to protect it. After two months I was ready to cross into Libya. However, when I went to collect my earnings, my boss said he didn’t pay blacks and threatened to call the authorities if I didn’t leave immediately.

I managed to find another site to work on for a weekly pay and in a month’s time I had enough to leave this country in which blacks have no shelter, are denied food and live in the absence of any semblance of human decency. 

To get from the Algerian town of Debdeb to Gadamis in Libya, we had to hire a guide for the seven hour mid-night trek. Again we were separated into two groups of 50. My group arrived at eight o’clock in the morning and left almost immediately for Tripoli. The group behind us arrived at ten, but was apprehended and several were killed by border police.

Thinking back now, Algeria wasn’t actually the worst. Tripoli was.

The insecurity was overwhelming. People would deliberately hit us with their cars because we were black. We would be searched anytime we were in public. Not having anything of value on oneself was worse than being robbed as it ensured a hefty beating at best. A few days in, I was captured and locked in a toilet stall for fifteen days by Nigerien, Ghanaian and Libyan traffickers. Sometimes I’d receive some water and a biscuit.

After two weeks I was moved to a 6 story detention center with hundreds of others like me. One evening, as we were attempting to get some semblance of sleep, Libyan police officers attacked us. Seven of my friends were killed before my eyes, and that was only on my floor. A man who had become a companion during our imprisonment was badly wounded and the authorities refused to provide medical attention. Some friends and I precariously sewed the oozing wound shut and put together what meager funds we had remaining to buy him passage back to Nigeria where he could be returned to his home-town in Guinea-Bissau. 

It was in this moment that I decided, I had lost too much. I had seen too much. I called home for news of my friends who I had set out with. Three had been killed in Libya and the remaining two had drowned on the way to Italy.

I was going home.

All in all, I spent 25 days in Tripoli without work. But we blacks help each other. I was able to scrape enough together to cross back into Algeria. I heard that the Malian embassy in Algiers facilitated cash transfers, so I went back to work to send some money home to my family. 

One evening, when I was close to having saved enough to continue my return trip, the police found me in the makeshift shelter I was sleeping in. They searched me and asked me where I had gotten the cash I was hiding. I gave them the name of my boss, who denied my employment and called me a thief. The police took everything and locked me up.

Soon after, I was released and I went back to work. A month later, I took the 60,000 CFA I had managed to save and headed back to Niger. My luck had clearly shifted through the course of the journey. Here again the border police took everything. I was left, alone, with nothing. I felt I had no other options left.

By God’s grace, I witnessed my second act of kindness, here on this desolate border. A Nigerien police officer took pity on me and he told me again what I had heard months before, that IOM in Niger could help me get home. He called a motor taxi to take me to the office and paid the fare.

Now, 22 days later, I am sitting in the waiting room at Léopold-Sédar-Senghor airport, back in Dakar. I’m home but I don’t know exactly what I am going to do. I don’t have much choice. Perhaps I will go back to being a mason.

I don’t know if Europe is really a paradise or not. But I know that if reaching that paradise means losing what I lost, suffering what I suffered, seeing what I saw, enduring what I endured, then I would much rather be home in “Tamba’s home.”

* Name changed to protect his identity.