Kemo Kebbeh, a refugee who crossed the desert to Libya before being rescued in the Mediterranean from a sinking dingy, tells The Civil Fleet about his journey
“OUR boat was taking on water. Everybody was screaming. We were desperate. We didn’t know what to do,” Kemo Kebbeh tells me about the time he escaped Libya.
Originally from Gambia, Kebbeh is just 26 years old. He spoke to me over the phone last week from Germany, where he has been for the past nine months after a rescue ship saved his life last September.
“The reason I left my home country was because it was dangerous for me,” he tells me. “I’m a Muslim and my wife is a Christian. I grew up in a Muslim community. Some people there say it is forbidden and is taboo to marry a non-Muslim. So that’s where all the problems started.
“I experienced a lot of discrimination and violence. I was beaten several times in my community. I went to the police and they couldn’t stop the harassment. So I decided to leave the town and go to the capital area.”
In 2015, Kebbeh escaped with his pregnant wife to Serekunda, Gambia’s largest city. The anonymity of city life didn’t protect him from his zealous attackers who spent two years looking for him.
“One day they tracked me down and I was beaten seriously. They tried to smash my head but instead they broke my hands. I was sent to hospital. And while I was there, they were still looking for me.”
Gambia is tiny, the smallest country in Africa. East to west, it would stretch from Norwich to just over the border in Wales. It’s widest north-to-south point would just spill over the M25 loop.
With a population of just over 2.2 million people, tracking people down would not be very difficult for those who believe they are on a mission from god.
Before finishing his treatment, Kebbeh knew he would have to flee to Senegal and over the borders drawn up by the British and the French in 19th century.
“I spent two months in a hospital in Kaolack. When they discharged me, I wanted to go back to Gambia but a friend of mine told me that the situation was still dangerous. That they were still looking for me.
“I wanted to bring my wife with me, but we had a new-born baby.
“So,” he says taking a deep breath, “I decided to move and leave my wife behind. And then I went to Libya.”
The matter-of-fact way in which Kebbeh tells the rest of his story takes me aback. Having grown up in the West, in a country that got rich from exploiting countries like his, it’s hard to imagine having to make the same choices as he did in 2017.
“I’d studied Arabic and I had friends living in Libya. They were earning money there and that encouraged me to go. I thought they’re doing it, so why can’t I? I wanted to make some money and send it back to my wife and child to feed them.”
Getting to Libya was not easy. Kebbeh bussed his way from Senegal, through Mali, Burkina Faso and into Niger. From there he had to cross the Sahara desert into Libya in a pick-up truck with 30 others.
“I wouldn’t try that again in my life,” he says. “A lot of people die there. And a lot of accidents occur. Some drivers just leave people there to die. I wouldn’t have gone if I had known it was like that. I wouldn’t do it again. I wouldn’t wish it on my enemies. Most of my friends flew to Libya.
“So we left on a Monday night and we reached Libya on Thursday or Friday. We spent almost five days in the desert. Thank god we all made it.”
I ask if he trusted the men who drove him across the desert.
“You just have a fifty-fifty trust with them. You give them the money blindly and hope for the best.”
Luckily, Kebbeh’s group had enough water and the drivers kept their end of the deal.
By the time he’d made it into Libya, which despite the civil war was still a popular place for migrants to seek work, it was spring 2017.
“I did many types of manual jobs there. I did daily jobs, hourly jobs, it was hard for us. We worked from morning to sunset.”
The people seeking his labour were mostly civilians. He and several others would wait around town for people looking for workers. On more than one occasion he wasn’t paid and his challenge to this was sometimes met by the barrel of a gun.
“Finally, I got a job in a company making clothes. We started the job in Al-Azizia. But when the war started there we moved to Zhara.
“Most of us were African migrants and refugees. There were just a few Libyans working with us there. One day I went to visit my friend in another town. I left in the morning and later I received a call telling me that my workplace had been bombed. I lost a lot of my friends. Libya was too dangerous for us. Even our boss ran away. That’s when I decided to come to Europe.”
This was now summer 2019 when he and a few friends began asking around for anyone who knew anyone who could get them to Europe.
When they eventually found a trafficker, Kebbeh and his friends had to wait around at the seaside for a month before the traffickers felt the conditions were right.
“Yes, of course, I knew it would be dangerous. The sea is always dangerous. But it wasn’t until we’d been at sea for three or four hours that I knew this was too risky.”
Kebbeh and 60 others were put in a rubber boat and set sail from Libya at night. They spent more than 24 terrifying hours at sea.
“There was no one to rescue us. We didn’t know what to do. But we all would rather have died there than go back to Libya.”
More than 3,390 people died trying to cross the central Mediterranean last year. Since the European Union pulled its ships from the area earlier that year, the only dedicated rescue ships and refugee-support organisations are the ones operated by the civil refugee-rescue fleet.
Kebbeh’s boat was extremely lucky. It was around 1pm when they were found by the Ocean Viking, a rescue ship owned by SOS Mediterranee and at that time operated jointly with Doctors Without Borders (MSF).
“I don’t know the words to express that,” he says when I ask him to describe how he felt the moment he saw the Ocean Viking.
“We were all screaming and shouting. Without them, we would not have made it. The MSF team treated us. They helped us to relax, not to panic. They did their level best to make us feel good on the ship.
“They were there for us all the time, midnight; any time we requested their help, they were available. We spent one week there. They rescued us on the 17th of September. And we disembarked on the 24th in Messina.”
The other survivors were eventually taken in by France, Portugal, Germany, Luxembourg and Ireland. Kebbeh is currently appealing against the German government’s decision to reject his asylum application.
“They told me that I should leave, that if I don’t leave, they’ll force me to go. But I will be dead if I go back. I don’t know what will be next, but I think Germany will probably reject me. I haven’t seen my family for three years. I want to bring them here, to safety.”
Wrapping up the interview, I ask Kebbeh if there’s anything else he’d like to say.
“Let them know that, we just want to integrate,” he replies.
“We are refugees. We are not ‘illegal’. We are not criminals. We are not those kinds of people. We are just normal people. We want to integrate, to live better and to help the country we are living in, to be part of the people who want to build that nation.
“In whichever country I am in, I don’t want to be a criminal. I don’t want to be harming people. I just want to be normal. I want to be a nation builder. That’s my aim anywhere I go. I just want to be a nation builder.”
SOS Mediterranee’s ship, the Ocean Viking, has been detained on the Italy island of Sicily since July. The authorities claim the ship was carrying more “passengers” than it is certified to carry.
Sign SOS Mediterranee’s petition demanding the Ocean Viking’s release by clicking here.