7:00 P.M. Libya time. Kidana’s cellphone rings. He’s in a huge prison hall where 744 men, women and children sleep crowded together. They guard their cellphones zealously, he says, waiting for a call from a journalist interested in their situation, and so they hide their phones “in all kinds of unusual places,” as Kidana puts it. A month ago they filmed themselves calling for help. In the video, which went viral, hundreds of skeletal people are seen raising their hands and shouting in protest. In response, the prison warden said he would find their phones and confiscate them. He shut off their water and locked them in the hall. They haven’t seen the light of day for a month now. According to Kidana, “friends in Tripoli refill the [cellphone] package so we can continue to update whoever we can about what’s happening to us here.”
Kidana and hundreds of other prisoners were caught trying to flee Africa for Europe and found themselves in the notorious Zintan Prison. Since then they’ve taken a few more videos. One of them shows a rotting pile of garbage a meter high at one end of the room, with mounds of worms, which have already taken over the floor. People are dying alongside the worms, mostly of tuberculosis. The warden limits the entry of assistance groups and the inmates don’t receive a regular supply of medications. Over the past six months alone 22 people have died of starvation and sickness. Their water supply isn’t regular either because the warden controls it, on one occasion turning it off for four days in a row. Prisoners were so desperate for water, they resorted to drinking toilet water.
Not far from Kidana is Maberto, who is also hiding a cellphone. He sends pictures of a hall packed with people. Some find a corner in the bathroom, with their head against the toilet. “We have no room to move. We don’t do anything all day long and we talk less too. People simply pray, sleep and stare into space. That’s it. Some people have gone insane from doing nothing. They can’t sleep and start talking to themselves and going berserk. We need to tie their hands and feet,” he says. Some of the inmates at Zintan are as young as 16.
They don’t see the light of day
For years Libya has been a waystation for refugees from Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan and other African countries who are fleeing to Europe. The rickety, overcrowded ships, captained by smugglers that are sometimes stranded or sink, have become a symbol of the refugee crisis. Across the Mediterranean in European countries, more extreme calls are being heard to keep the stream of refugees at bay, which has led to the passage of laws impeding immigration. In Italy for example, it has become illegal to rescue refugees and bring them ashore; some who have done so have been tried and convicted of human trafficking. Since 2017, the European Union has provided the Libyan Coast Guard with sophisticated means of capturing refugee ships at sea and bringing them to Libya, where they are sent to prisons.
Since 2014, Libya has been in the throes of its second civil war between the “Tobruk government” that controls the eastern part of the country and the General National Congress, based in Tripoli in the west. The Tobruk government Is backed by the national army, headed by General Khalifa Haftar. Since early 2019, his forces have conquered areas in the west and have launched an offensive to take Tripoli. The security situation has had no impact on agreements between Libya and the EU, as African refugees continue to be sent back to Libya. There are now some 6,000 refugees languishing in Libyan prisons.
As reports of their severe straits mount, some efforts have been made to rescue them, but these operations have only reached a tiny fraction of those incarcerated. Some of the refugees have been moved to Niger, where they wait permanent resettlement, but evacuations were stopped due to a lack of locations for resettlement in European countries. In April, the national army attacked Tripoli, which led the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to renew efforts to rescue prisoners. At that time, 163 prisoners were sent to Niger, and a week ago 149 more were sent to Italy from Zintan and Zawiya prisons.
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Jamal, who is imprisoned at Zawiya, corresponds with me, but our conversation got cut short by the prospect of food. The only meal of the day had arrived and he couldn’t miss it. When he comes back, he sends a photo of seven people falling on a single bowl of pasta, with their bare hands, that is, every prisoner gets a handful of pasta a day. Even this little bit doesn’t come from the prison, which has not given them even a crumb of bread since they arrived. Rather, from a local charity. “The water’s not clean either. It always comes in brown, it’s muddy water,” Jamal says.
Jamal lives with 500 prisoners in a cell, 25 of whom have tuberculosis. Conditions are not much different from those in Zintan, except for the fact that the warden allows them to go into the yard. But his compassion ends there. “He’s a drug addict, and he has no problem taking them in front of us," Jamal says. “He gets them from his friends, drug traffickers and human traffickers. A few days ago one of his friends, a human trafficker, came here, looked us over and left.”
The prisoners are afraid the warden is going to sell them. Many migrants have been tricked by men who presented themselves as smugglers, taking their money and promising to get them to Europe, but after setting sail, or even before, the smugglers called their accomplices from the Coast Guard who returned them to Libya and locked them up. Some of the migrants at Zawiya had this happen to them. “They raped my wife,” Jamal says. “Like many women here. I’m sending you a picture of a woman here. Her whole body is full of burns they made,” he says.
Jamal and his friends are immeasurably better off than refugees in the adjacent cell. “They’re locked up, they don’t see the light of day and they are beaten every day,” Jamal says. “They demanded 2,000 dinars [$1,400] from each one for their release. They didn’t have it so they keep torturing them. We hear the screams from there.” Some of the prisoners from the cell were also taken as forced labor for the militias. The day after our conversation, the warden cut off the electricity and sent all the prisoners to the yard, where they slept in the cold with no blankets. They had to rely on the little battery power they had left in their phones as communication with them was cut off for a time.
Aisiace fills in some information. He was imprisoned at Zawiya until he was sent to a UN reception facility in Tripoli a month ago. A few days ago he managed to make it to Europe after being transferred to Italy with 149 refugees.
The UNHCR has called for the dismantling of the Zintan Prison and the evacuation of all prisoners, but for now nothing has been done.
“It’s nice here,” Aisiace says. “We’re in a clean building, the director is nice to us, he lets us walk around free.” Aisiace arrived in Libya two years ago, where he worked to pay the smugglers in the hopes that they would someday help him cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. But he didn’t even make it to the beach before the smugglers locked him up in a basement and sold him to another smuggler and then to a third. Each time Aisiace paid for his freedom, the smuggler would take his money, “release” him and then report him to another smuggler, who would ambush and apprehend him.
After Aisiace was sold from one hand to another, and used up most of his money –$12,000 – he fled and gave himself up to the police. From there he was taken to a prison, not before the police stole what was left of his money. Like many other refugees, Aisiace was moved from one prion to another. In the Qasr Ben Ghashir Prison, where he was transferred before reaching Zawiya, he found himself caught in the crossfire when the militias of General Haftar mounted a major assault throughout Libya on their way to Tripoli.
Forces broke into the compound while the Christian prisoners were praying. The fighters demanded that they stop praying and give up their cellphones. When they refused, the soldiers opened fire. In a video clip posted online the shooting can be seen, as well as wounded prisoners, who were left without medical aid. Two of them died. At the Ain Zara Prison, which was also in the line of fire, the guards fled and left inmates without food or water. These incidents caught the attention of the media, after the prisoners were incarcerated for months.
“At this point, the UNHCR wanted to move us to another prison, in a safer place, and we didn’t want to go because of the terrible conditions in the facilities,” Aisiace says. “Finally we agreed to move to Zawiya on condition that they let us keep our phones and that they wouldn’t beat us.”
The warden at Zawiya did let them keep their phones and doesn’t beat them, he says. “When he didn’t get his drugs he cursed, threatened and aimed his gun at the prisoners, but that’s all,” he adds. Aisiace says that delegations from the United Nations, who rarely came to the prison, haven’t helped. “They were made up mostly of Libyans who are relatives, neighbors or friends of the warden, who has connections with the mafia. The town of Zawiya is Libya’s center for human trafficking, so there’s not much that can be done. Other delegations, for example Doctors Without Borders, would come from time to time, but in many cases they turn them back even before they get through the gate.”
One visit from the outside raised their hopes, Aisiace recalls. “One time a delegation came with a foreign woman, apparently a European. I got the courage and risked my life to approach her. I told her there’s a new group, locked up, who’s being abused. She said she would take care of it, but since then nothing’s happened.”
A few days later, Jamal was able to reconnect with me. “Something terrible happened today,” he wrote on messenger. “A few people from the locked cell managed to break the door and tried to flee. The police shot them; one died and four were wounded. They put the wounded in a closed compound and it’s not clear what their situation is. Because the closed cell was broken, all those prisoners were put in our cell, and now the cell is even more crowded. Now instead of lying on their back, people lie on their side.”
According to Giulia Tranchina, an immigration lawyer who deals with asylum requests and human rights of refugees incarcerated in Libya, time is running out. “
Italy has pledged to accept 300 refugees from Libya and in the entire EU there are only 2,000 places in Europe for resettlement in all of 2019. The UNHCR has already evacuated a few hundred refugees and used some of the quota, but apparently most of the refugees in prisons in Libya now will not be included in the evacuation plan. The EU must stop funding the Libyan Coast Guard that returns the refugee ships to Libya. If the European governments don’t evacuate them quickly, they will die a slow death in the prisons,” she said.