Libya Refugee Crisis: My Harrowing Escape

As the civil war in Libya rages on, the refugee crisis is worsening too. Tareke Brhane reports from Italy, where weary people arrive by the boatload—and talks about his own incredible getaway.

Thousands of people, many who left North Africa following recent unrest, are stranded on the Italian island of Lampedusa in appalling conditions seen here on March 28, 2011 in Lampedusa, Italy. (Photo by Jo Bard / Sipa via AP Images),JOBARD/SIPA

I have been working nonstop on the Italian island of Lampedusa since the first of three boats carrying more than 600 refugees arrived from Tripoli in February. It is cold, windy, and rainy here, but many people are sleeping out in the open, on the ground, because the detention center is full. We don’t even have enough blankets. There is not enough food. They are moving people to Sicily, Bari, and Brindisi, but not fast enough.

And when I look into the eyes of new arrivals I see that they aren’t much different than mine were five years ago.

One woman first tried to leave Libya last July, but the Italian Navy pushed her boat back, much like the Maltese Navy did to my boat in 2006, after 264 of us had been drifting at sea for five days without food or water.

That same woman spent a year in awful conditions in the Zawiya prison, which triggered nightmare memories of my time in Libya’s prisons.

My story started in Eritrea. The government demanded I serve in the military my entire life so I fled through the Sahara desert in an overcrowded Land Rover. We were in the hands of armed smugglers, who put benzene in the water so we wouldn't drink too much, and left people to die in the desert if they faltered or fell.

When we arrived in Libya, we were sold to traffickers who beat us constantly. They once took a beautiful underage girl outside and we never saw her again. Africans with dark skin like mine were not treated well then, but one of the new arrivals told me that it is even worse now. She said that since the uprising started, African people are all accused of being mercenaries and are afraid that Libyans will shoot them.

We were four days at sea and I was afraid and losing hope again.

While I wasn’t afraid of regular Libyans then, I was terrified of the ruthless traffickers who crammed us onto a boat headed to Europe. Of course, our motor broke and we drifted aimlessly for days, until one day the Maltese coast guard arrived, raising our hopes, only to turn us over to a Libyan vessel.

We were tired, dehydrated and sent straight to prison when we returned and during our three months there, they hit anyone who talked. I was beaten with a black plastic hose. No one came to see us. No Red Cross. No U.N. The police never even talked to us. Every night the guards took women away.

We eventually ended up in the notorious Kufra prison, where they lined us up with our faces against the wall, beat us, and ripped a cross from my neck. They herded 78 of us into a windowless cell with just one toilet that didn't work. There was no soap, no water. We slept on the floor body to body. If you made noise, the police would hit you with a metal baton. They broke some people’s arms.

When I became sick with a high fever, the commander ordered the guards to take me out and throw me in the desert, but a policeman took pity on me and took me to the hospital instead.

After I recovered, they sent me back to the prison. Later, the commander sold me to traffickers.

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Lionel Beehner: Clinton’s Cluster Bomb HypocrisyI almost immediately took another boat heading to Europe. We were four days at sea and I was afraid and losing hope again. A big ship came close enough to make a big wave that almost tipped us over, but didn’t stop to help. But finally an Italian coast guard vessel came, put a net over the side, and took us one by one. The guardsmen didn’t smile, but they did their job. I had no shoes, nothing, but I was saved.

So when Europeans, North Americans, and Australians see images of ragged and thirsty refugees crossing deserts and seas, it must be hard to see us as individuals, each with our unique life histories. My biggest hope is that people will not be left behind in Libya. I am thinking about the people in those prisons. It is too unsafe for them to leave now.

Tareke Brhane is an interpreter working with Save the Children in Lampedusa, Italy.