ROME—The smell of decomposing human flesh is what Amal, a young Eritrean man, remembers most about the days after the Tajoura migrant detention center was struck by a missile earlier this month in the midst of Libya’s worsening civil war .
Speaking to The Daily Beast by phone with the help of a humanitarian worker on Friday, Amal had just survived the deadliest Mediterranean migrant ship disaster yet this year.
Doctors Without Borders says as many as 250 people could have died in the multiple boat disaster, which occurred overnight Wednesday. But what Amal remembers most intensely is the smell of fetid corpses back at the detention center before he left. He says he fears the stench will stay with him forever.
“The bodies were piled up in the heat and they started to rot,” he says, adding that temperatures were hovering around 110 degrees at the time. “I felt so lucky to get out of there and not end up on the pile. When our ship overturned I thought I might die, but I thought at least I won't end up on the pile. The bottom of the sea would be better.”
What Amal did not know when he gave the brief interview was that he would soon be taken back to the Tajoura center near the front line of a civil war that the U.N. estimates has killed 1,000 and sent 10,000 fleeing the area since fighting began in April.
The Libyan Coast Guard, which was not present when around 134 survivors were plucked from the sea by fishermen after several wooden boats tied together overturned about five miles off the coast of Libya, said there was no other place to take them but the bombed-out center.
The international aid community is outraged that survivors like Amal, who are freshly traumatized from watching people drown around him, are now being sent back to a detention center that is not only badly damaged but within missile strike of the worsening conflict. “There’s insufficient food, water, unsanitary conditions, UNHCR spokesman Charlie Yaxley, said in a statement Friday upon hearing the news that the shipwreck survivors would be taken to a center that will likely be hit again. “There are also widespread reports of human rights violations taking place.”
The damaged center was fully evacuated on July 10, more than a week after the early July strike. At least 53 refugees and migrants were killed in the initial impact and 130 others suffered injuries that would have led to hospitalization in a civilized country. But in Libya, the injured were left to tend to their wounds in captivity, and the dead were stacked up in the piles Amal described. Survivors of the attack told aid workers that many more died in the days after from untreated wounds, exposure and even starvation when supplies ran out and the jailers left either to escape the war or to join the fighting, which pays substantially better than guarding migrants.
Libya has gone from a tinderbox to a full inferno in recent months. Khalifa Haftar, once an American citizen by passport and currently a Libyan warlord by trade, is leading a bitter battle for Tripoli against the UN-backed Government of National Accord. In order to focus on the endgame of taking over the country, he has reportedly just called in reinforcements–4,000 of Sudan’s notorious Rapid Support Forces, many of whom trained as mercenaries in Yemen. Their task is to protect at any cost the oilfields Haftar hopes to one day control so he can focus on seizing Tripoli.
Sudanese Radio Dabanga, picked up by international news outlets, reported that 1,000 of a 4,000-strong contingent arrived in Libya on Thursday. Ironically, many of the Sudanese refugees now suffering in Libya were escaping the violence these militia men wrought on their home country. It is unthinkable to imagine what will happen if any of them get near one of Libya’s many migrant detention centers filled with Sudanese men and women.
This spring, Europe declared the Mediterranean migration crisis over. The pan-European border patrol boats all went back to dock, mostly because of disagreement about what to do with any migrants and refugees they found. Still, crisis or not, the International Organization for Migration says 37,555 people have made it to Europe by sea this year so far, mostly to Greece and Spain. In 2018, more than 144,000 arrived, down from more than 390,000 in 2016 at the height of the crisis.
A scattering of NGO charity boats have forced their way into Italian ports with the handful of migrants that have gotten past the blind eye of Italian-trained Libyan coast guard, which has tended to end in the sequester of the rescue vessels and the attempt to criminalize the captains. German native Carola Rackete was arrested when she docked the Seawatch ship in Lampedusa against orders from Italy’s hardline interior minister and vice premier Matteo Salvini. When she showed up in court to explain why she had no choice given the dire state of the rescued people on board, Salvini and the right-wing press ridiculed her for apparently not wearing a bra, calling it an affront to the Italian judiciary.
Still, while Salvini blows his trumpet on his success at closing Italian ports, the IOM says the Italian and Maltese coast guards and navy have quietly rescued hundreds of people at sea, bringing them into Europe quietly beyond the glare of the media.
Humanitarian aid groups say that very few migrants are still coming from sub-Saharan Africa on the traditional migrant trail that leads to Europe by way of Libya. Now, many are finding routes through Tunisia, and into Spain or even through complicated passages to Greece. But the real crisis is the backlog in Libya, fed in part by Salvini. His total block of Italy’s ports has meant that as many as 6,000 people who had made it into Libya to attempt the crossing to Italy are now stuck there. With no chance of being rescued at sea, very few have attempted to leave until now.
United Nations deputy spokesman Farhan Haq says Libya now has to acknowledge its role in the humanitarian crisis. For one, he says they can no longer keep migrants and refugees in the firing line. He says at least 5,600 refugees and migrants are known to be held in detention centers in Libya. Many others are living as slaves or otherwise kept in appalling situations. Of those in detention centers, he says, “at least 2,500 refugees and migrants are estimated to remain in detention centers exposed to or at risk of armed conflict in and around Tripoli.”
And they all want out, whether it is back to their home countries or, more likely, across the sea to Europe. Now it remains to be seen whether the three boats that made it out on Wednesday night are a fluke or, more likely, according to humanitarian workers on the ground, the beginning of an exodus that will surely only lead to more deaths like the ones this week. “If current trends for this year continue, that will see us pass more than 1,000 deaths in the Mediterranean for the sixth year in a row,” UNHCR spokesman Yaxkley says. “That’s a really bleak milestone.”
But even worse than the risk of death at sea are those that come with staying on land in Libya.