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‘They came for us in the middle of the night’

YAMBIO DAVID OLIVER tells The Civil Fleet how the Libyan cops violently raided his protest camp and sent hundreds to one of the country’s condemned migrant detention centres

“WE ARE living in perpetual fear of what might happen next,” Yambio David Oliver, a 24-year-old South Sudanese refugee stuck in Libya, told The Civil Fleet today.

Libyan police officers rounded up about 600 people during a raid on two protest camps outside UN refugee (UNHCR) buildings in the Sarraj neighbourhood in the capital city, Tripoli, at midnight on Monday, and taken to the Ain Zara detention centre.

“It happened, like I told you it would,” Yambio said, referring to our conversation last week about the crowdfund his protest group Refugees In Libya launched to raise money for food and to continue their demonstrations.

On January 6, he told The Civil Fleet: “A few days ago, the UNHCR started to dismantle its community day care (CDC) centre, where we have been camping, and relocating its assets to different locations, thus increasing our plight.

“We are now exposed to kidnappings, militia attacks and extortion. We are even likely to be forcibly evicted from the neighbourhood we are now in.”

He was right.

A group of around 1,600 people began camping outside the UNHCR’s CDC centre in October, holding daily demonstrations calling on the agency to get them out of Libya following a police raid in which 4,000 people were either made homeless or sent to the country’s condemned migrant detention centres.

The decision to close the CDC at the end of 2021 was “very difficult,” the UNHCR told The Civil Fleet last week, but said it was necessary “after two months of blockade.”

The agency said it would “provide emergency assistance in other locations in Tripoli,” including its main registration office in Serraj.

Refugees In Libya continued to post footage and photographs on social media of their daily demonstrations and struggles outside the CDC after its closure. That was until Monday, the 100th day of their protests.

“At midnight, a convoy of armed vehicles arrived at the CDC,” Yambio said.

“While people were trying to figure out what was happening, the police closed the entrance points to the camp, from both sides. The street was entirely locked.

“The person leading them came over to us and began speaking with the community leaders,” he said.

The Refugees in Libya group, made up of people from Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea, have to deal with a plethora of languages and cultures in their camp. Their community leaders were chosen to make communication easier.

“The police said that everyone had 10 minutes to leave, or they would be taken to Ain Zara,” Yambio said.

“The community leaders tried to figure out if we were going to be taken under the UNHCR’s protection. They told the armed men that if the UNHCR was to take them, then they would go with them.”

After about 10 minutes of this, Yambio said, the leaders told the armed men that they would not go to Ain Zara because no-one from the UNHCR or any other human rights group was with them.

“It was just armed men in masks, with their fingers on the trigger ready to shoot,” he said.

“Most of the protesters had been sleeping. But they woke up and came out of their tents in mass numbers with their banners and started to chant and to protest against the use of violence against refugees and asylum seekers.

“Some even had brought out their asylum-seeker certificates, proving that they’re not illegal migrants, that they are persons of concern to the office of the United Nation’s High Commissioner for Refugees” — which is what UNHCR stands for.

“The soldiers became furious. They went over to the women and children’s tents. They became violently and aggressive, and they started to shoot in the air to frighten us.

“They started to shoot at the people who tried to escape, or tried to resist the attack. They beat people with their electronic sticks. Some of them beat people with the butt of their guns.

“Some people managed to escape. Some did not and were arrested and taken to detention centres.

“The fact that they approached the women and children first,” Yambio said before pausing briefly. “This was a kind of weapon that they used because no parent, no father, will let his wife and his children go to an unknown location without following them.

“These people are refugees. These people approached the CDC, the UNHCR headquarters, seeking protection, seeking safety.

“For 100 days we wasted… I mean, we cannot say we wasted our time, because at least we were brave enough to stand for ourselves. We used every resource we had and our abilities to raise our voices.

“Even if they dismantled our protest, people would continue to speak for themselves. People would continue to denounce the use of violence against asylum seekers and refugees here, against the interception of asylum seekers in the Mediterranean and returning them back to Libya, where the circle of violence repeats itself.”

Yambio was not sure how many people were injured in the raids. But he spoke to me after visiting the hospital in the morning, where six of his companions were being treated.

“I know one person was injured from a gun shot. And another one has broken his legs. Four others were in the hospital because of the severe beatings they received from the police.”

Not all 1,600 people were at the camp outside the old CDC on Monday, Yambio said. Some had moved to the UNHCR’s main registration office. Their camp was attacked that night too.

“It was the same kind of excessive violence. There was a fire, and they [the refugees living there] lost their belongings, their blankets, their documents, everything that they owned.

“Some of the refugees even had their property, their money, their phones if they had them, taken away from them by the police.”

The international medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) announced this morning that its medics had visited the more than 600 people detained on Monday night at Ain Zara.

The detention centre holds hundreds of people already in overcrowded cells in deprived living conditions, it said.

“During the visit to Ain Zara, MSF teams have treated patients with stab wounds, beating marks, and signs of trauma caused by the forced arrests,” MSF head of mission in Libya Gabriele Ganci said.

“Among them, some were beaten and separated from their children during the raids,”

MSF operations manager Ellen van der Velden said: “Not only does this once again prove how migrants are subject to random and arbitrary detention, but these people are additionally detained for speaking up for basic protection, safety and treatment in-line with humanitarian law.”

Yambio does not believe that all the people arrested on Monday night were taken to Ain Zara. The cops, he says, probably split them up and took some to unofficial detention centres.

“The [authorities] say there are about 600 people in Ain Zara, but there were around 950 of us there on Monday. Some of the people were taken to unofficial detention centres.

“This is how the Libyan militias do their business. It is the way they extort people.”

Yambio is not alone in thinking this about Libya’s unofficial (and official) detention centres.

Amnesty International, Oxfam, Anti-Slavery International and other international human rights organisations, the International Organisation for Migration, the United Nations, and of course, the civilian refugee rescue organisations operating in the Mediterranean, have all warned of the rife human rights abuses occurring in Libya’s migrant detention centres.

In March 2020, a Somalian man told The Civil Fleet how his Libyan captors held him and 400 others in slave like conditions, and how the guards raped the young boys.

In November 2021, the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights, the International Federation for Human Rights and Lawyers for Justice in Libya called on the International Criminal Court to investigate possible crimes against humanity (such as arbitrary detention, torture, murder, persecution, sexual violence and enslavement) on migrants and refugees in Libya’s detention centres.

Yambio says he is safe for now. Despite living in the street, he and Refugees In Libya continue to draw attention to their plight.

I asked him if he had received any of the funds Refugees In Libya had raised on GoFundMe yet.

“Not yet. They are still trying to investigate the documents that we provided to them. But after that we can withdraw and make use of the money.”

How are you eating, I asked.

“Well, I can’t explain,” he said. “It’s extremely terrible. Sometimes I eat, sometimes I don’t. This is what I’m used to.

“You eat when you find something. If there is nothing, then you don’t complain. You keep going and you keep fighting.”

The UNHCR told The Civil Fleet it had no prior information about any planned clearance operation by the Libyan authorities.

“UNHCR has always stated that it respects the right to peaceful protest,” it said.

“We remain very concerned about the situation of persons being held in detention. We continue to call on the Libyan authorities to respect the human rights and dignity of asylum seekers and refugees and release those arbitrarily detained.”

Some of Yambio David Oliver’s comments were edited for grammatical purposes with his consent

Top image shows women and children inside Ain Zara migrant detention camps [Pic: Refugees In Libya]

Published by The Civil Fleet

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

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