Design a site like this with
Get started

‘They lock our legs together with a chain’: An interview with a slave

Ben Cowles speaks with a Somali refugee being held in a bogus ‘refugee camp’ in Libya, caught while trying to reach Europe

I SPOKE with a slave last week. An African man from Somalia trapped in a detention centre in Libya.

He told me his name but I promised not to mention it. He fears the guards will kill him if they know he has spoken out. So let’s call him Hufan.

Several months ago Hufan contacted Alarm Phone, an activist network which supports people crossing the Mediterranean attempting to reach Europe.

A relative of his was on a dinghy stranded in the middle of the sea with several others. He called Alarm Phone asking them to help her.

Since March last year, when the European Union pulled all of its ships from the Libyan search and rescue zone, the only actors carrying out refugee rescues in the area are those operated by charities.

The Libyan Coastguard (LCG) is also operating in the area, though it’s hard to refer to what it does as “rescuing” refugees. It has returned thousands of people to a brutal warzone.

The European Union continues to fund, train and equip the LCG despite its private concerns, revealed eariler this year, that the country has “continued to arbitrarily detain migrants” in detention centres which “have links to human trafficking” and where “severe human-rights violations have been widely reported.”

Fortunately, Hufan’s relative made it to Europe. But he is now trapped inside a detention centre. Naming it would put him in danger.

I spoke with Hufan online after an Alarm Phone activist put us in touch. Our conversation, which has been edited for grammatical reasons and to keep his identity safe, is below.

Ben Cowles: Hi Hufan. This is Ben. I’m a journalist in London. How are you?

Hufan: Hi. Yes. How are you?

BC: I’m good. Are you safe to message me?

H: Now I am in the prison. But I can give you some information.

BC: Where are you from? Can you tell me about yourself?

H: I am from Somalia. I came to Libya to cross to Italy.

BC: Why did you leave Somalia?

H: I had to run away from al-Shabab. Do you know about the Islamic group al-Shabab?

BC: Yes, a little.

H: They forced us to join them. But I ran away from them with my [relative]. And now I am in a very bad situation.

My [relative] escaped the country and she is now in [Europe].

BC: You’re in prison?

H: I’ve been here for eight months now. I really want to go back to Somalia.

BC: How did you end up in prison?

H: We were in a camp near Al Khums waiting for some people to take us to the sea. And one night the army attacked us and arrested everyone.

BC: Do you know which army? Was it the [rebel] Libyan National Army, the Government of National Accord army or someone else?

H: The people who arrested us are not an official army.

The [UN refugee agency] UNHCR sometimes visits the prison and gives us shampoo and clothes, and registers our names.

Always, they say: ‘We will take you to a safe place’. But I have been here eight months now.

BC: That is a long time. I hope they release you soon. Can you tell me about the conditions inside the prison?

H: My God. If you ever come here one day, you would cry, believe me. In one room we are more than 412. The food is not good.

Many people are sick. Some have TB. They treat us like slaves.

BC: What do you mean; how do they treat you like slaves?

H: Every morning they wake us all. And without food they make us work. After midday they give us a little bit.

If you say to the guards ‘I’m tired’, they will beat you with their machine gun. Everyday people are broken. The guards do whatever they want. They even force young boys to do sex.

I have gone far away from the guards to tell you everything. We are suffering here.

BC: What work do they make you do?

H: Every morning… if a guard has a garden or a farm or some place, he will take five or six of us out and make us work his farm.

They lock our legs together with a chain. After working, they return us to the prison.

After they return us to prison, another man will come. He will say ‘I need five people to work. Come out’. We come outside and he chooses a few of us. ‘You, one, two, three, come with me’.

And then we might have to lift heavy things for him with no payment. They don’t give us food. Maybe one slice of bread.

Can you help us to go back in Somalia. Can you talk to the [International Organisation for Migration] IOM?

BC: I don’t know. I will tell your story in the newspaper. I will also speak with the IOM and UNHCR. Have you told them about the abuse?

H: Yes, one day they came and we told them everything secretly. He said we will do an investigation. That is all.

The militiamen, after they get drunk at night time, they come to the prison and they say: ‘We need two young boys.

‘Come clean my house,’ they say. When they return the boys, they are crying. They tell us they forced them to have sex.

BC: That is so terrible. I’m so sorry. Do you believe the IOM will help you?

H: No.

The problem is, the group that runs this prison is getting money and food from the IOM and UNHCR. If they release us or they take us to our countries, they will not get anything.

The militia is saying to the IOM and UNHCR that they have refugees to look after. But if they release us, they won’t get their money. So the militia wants to keep us.

BC: Do the guards know you have a phone?

H: Yes, they know I have a phone.

I translate for them. I know Arabic. I know my language, I know English and French. So they always take me out to speak with those people.

That’s why they gave me the phone also. But it doesn’t have a sim card. I have to use wifi.

These Libyans don’t really care about us. They once broke my hand.

BC: They don’t worry you will call for help?

H: Who can I call for help? They don’t worry about that.

If I tell you the truth why they gave me this phone, you won’t believe it.

They gave me this phone because there are a lot of Nigerians, Cameroonians. They don’t speak Arabic. They speak English and French. So I translate.

They guards tell them: ‘If you want to get out, you have to pay us 4,000 dinar’, which is like $1,000.

They even say that to us Somalis. But we Somalis don’t have this money.

So sometimes I have to give the phone to the Nigerians and they talk with their family. Their family sends some money by car, by taxi and they get out of the prison.

That’s why they gave me this phone. That’s the truth.

BC: How do you know the UN/IOM is giving money to the prison?

H: We are refugees here. So every month they come and they say we’re going you food, we’re giving you medicine.

They collect us all and hold a meeting with us outside. And one of them will tell us this with a megaphone. But we don’t see anything.

Please, whatever you print, don’t mention my name. I beg you. They will kill me.

BC: I won’t mention your name, I promise.

H: Yesterday they took more than 25 people to join the war between the Libyans.

I am looking for a moment, a time, to skip. If I get the chance I will run away with this phone.

The IOM’s response:

IN response to Hufan’s claims that the IOM was giving money to the prison guards, a spokeswoman told this website:

“We take this claim very seriously as IOM does not provide cash assistance in Libya and does not distribute food to migrants in detention.

“IOM does not pay detention centre guards and management or provide them with any kind of benefits, and to suggest otherwise is incorrect and unfounded. We are guided by transparent and rigorous procurement and financial procedures that are open for routine audits, as is any other agency operating in Libya and across the world.

“Our dealings with guards and management are strictly limited to requests for access to provide assistance to migrants. We are operating in a very challenging environment, and our staff continue to reach thousands of migrants inside and outside detention as well as displaced people.

“This includes health assistance, distribution of core relief items (mattresses, blankets, clothes and hygiene kits) and Voluntary Humanitarian Return assistance to those wishing to return to their countries of origin.”

Published by The Civil Fleet

A news blog and podcast focused on the activist-led refugee rescue and support missions across Fortress Europe

One thought on “‘They lock our legs together with a chain’: An interview with a slave

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: