By Staff Reporter
- Migrants tell of deepening chaos in Libya: ‘Everyone is armed now’
- Migrants attempting to get to Europe are arriving with stories of brutality inside Libya, writes Nick Squires in Lampedusa
Sekou Balde is living testimony to the increasing chaos and brutality that is sweeping Libya, as fears grow that the Islamic State terrorist group is seeking to establish a caliphate on the shores of the Mediterranean.
Lifting up his sweatshirt, he reveals the six stab wounds he received when he was attacked by a gang of four Libyan soldiers who demanded money after they raided the house near Tripoli where he was living rough with other African immigrants.
“They said ‘where is your money?’. I said that I didn’t have any. Then they attacked me. It was four of them against me. They came to where we were living at one in the morning. My brother was shot dead in front of me – boom, boom – as well as two of my friends,” he said.
The 20-year-old recounted his experiences on a bare patch of rocky land outside the refugee reception centre on Lampedusa, the Italian island that represents the promised land for hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing persecution and war in Syria, Iraq, the Horn of Africa and the Sahel.
Libya, a country devoid of a functioning government and awash with weapons from the civil war, is now also the major take-off point for people-smuggling vessels across the Mediterranean, with boats full of hundreds of people departing almost daily.
Nearly 8,000 refugees and asylum seekers who have reached Italy so far this year, in what is normally supposed to be a quiet period for boat crossings because of rough winter weather.
An immigrant shows knife wounds he sustained in Libya before his departure for Lampedusa (Chris Warde-Jones)
Without exception, the dozens of refugees interviewed by The Telegraph on Lampedusa painted an alarming picture of Libya descending into ever-greater chaos.
Four years after rebels overthrew Muammar Gaddafi, the oil-producing North African state is being fought over by two rival governments allied to armed factions.
The more secular of the two is recognised by the West, having won elections in 2013. But it is now in effective exile in the eastern city of Tobruk after being ousted by the Libya Dawn movement, a coalition of moderate and more hardline Islamist factions. Both sides are now in a low-level civil war, while Islamist militants and people smugglers exploit the power vacuum.
All of the migrants spoke of being subjected to random brutality, not only from the Libyan army, police and militias, but also ordinary citizens intent on robbing them of what little money they had managed to earn from casual work or by borrowing from their families to fund their quest to reach Europe.
“Everyone in Libya is armed now,” said Djiby Diop, a 20-year-old from Senegal who spent three months in Libya dodging gunmen.
From left: Djiby Diop, Amodou Diaflo and Thieno Bussao (Chris Warde-Jones)
“Every guy of my age has a gun,” he said, speaking in French. “If you don’t work for them, they shoot you. If you don’t give them all your money, they shoot you. Or they shoot you just for fun. Or they will throw you in prison and you have to pay 400 dinars (£200) to get released.”
He arrived on Lampedusa in the dead of night on Tuesday morning after being rescued by the Italian Coast Guard in the middle of the Mediterranean. “It was hard, really hard. There were 90 people packed into a small boat. We had nothing to eat at all. The engine broke down and we were giving up hope. We are so happy to have reached Italy.”
Small groups of Africans and Syrians wandered up and down the island’s dusty lanes, between the reception centre and the main town of Lampedusa less than a mile away, with nowhere to go and no money to spend.
A view of the port of Lampedusa (Chris Warde-Jones)
They were bundled up against the cold in donated jackets and jumpers – and in the case of one Eritrean, what appeared to be a cream, fur-lined women’s jacket.
“The Libyans beat us with sticks and held guns to our heads,” said Bereket Habte, 23, an Eritrean refugee.
“They especially don’t like Christians,” he said, making the sign of a cross with his fingers. “They all have guns. They are absolutely bad people.”
He spent six months in Libya, three of them in prison after being arrested by soldiers as an illegal immigrant.
Somali immigrants at the centre in Lampedusa (Chris Warde-Jones)
Abdiwali Suudi Abdule, a 17-year-old Somali, is one of hundreds of unaccompanied teenagers and children who have arrived by boat on Lampedusa since the start of the year.
He spoke to The Telegraph through the fence of the refugee reception centre, as Italian officials loaded refugees onto buses which took them to a ferry bound for Sicily and a larger processing facility.
“We slept out in the scrub, wherever we could find a place,” the teenager from Mogadishu said. “Libya is very dangerous.”
None of the refugees said they had encountered Isil in Libya – most had transited through the west of the country, whereas Isil fighters are reported to be in the east, establishing a foothold in the country around the ports of Derna and Sirte.
Immigrants at the centre in Lampedusa (Chris Warde-Jones)
On Friday, Isil militants killed 42 people in suicide car bombings in eastern Libya on Friday, in apparent retaliation for Egyptian air strikes, in another high profile attack by the group after the storming of a Tripoli hotel and the killing of 21 captive Egyptian Copts who were kidnapped in Sirte.
“It’s complete anarchy in Libya and it has become very, very dangerous for migrants,” said Flavio Di Giacomo, a spokesman for the International Organisation for Migration.
“We’ve been working with these arrivals for many years but in the last year, the Libyans have become much more violent, especially towards sub-Saharan Africans. They are not considered human beings – they are treated worse than animals.”
With Libya torn between rival governments in Tripoli and Tobruk and with Isil threatening to use the country as a springboard for attacks on Europe, prospects for peace look increasingly remote.
“There are 17-year-old Libyan boys with guns in the street. Violence breeds violence. It’s a mess,” said Mr Di Giacomo.
“When I asked one refugee what he had been through in Libya, he said he wouldn’t wish it on his worst enemy.”