Charlotte McDonald-Gibson | Cast Away: True Stories of Survival from Europe’s Refugee Crisis | The New Press | September 2016 | 20 minutes (5,452 words)
* * *
This war is none of my business.
Majid Hussain didn’t know who would turn up on his doorstep first: Colonel Gaddafi’s foot soldiers following orders to purge Libya of its migrant workforce, or vengeful rebels wielding Kalashnikovs and the conviction that everyone with black skin deserved to be lynched.
For months the Nigerian teenager had watched on television in Tripoli as rebels not much older than himself stormed through the desert in their cheap sunglasses and mismatching camouflage, and it had seemed inconceivable that this shabby army of the disaffected could pose a threat to Muammar Gaddafi’s calm and ordered capital. He had heard rumours that all Africans from south of the Sahara were at risk of attack from rebels seeking mass punishment for the few who had colluded with the regime – but surely these were just rumours? Every day Majid still went to work and returned home every evening to his reliable air-conditioning and his satellite TV. The rebellion had remained remote from his life, and he wanted it to stay that way.
This war is none of my business, he thought. I have already seen my own country torn apart by old hatreds – I don’t need to see that again.
Majid and his housemate Ali had laughed off reports on CNN and the BBC about fighting on the outskirts of Tripoli, and they didn’t want to believe the news that Gaddafi was bombing civilians in Benghazi. It was all Western propaganda, the two Nigerians convinced each other. Even when a spokesman for Gaddafi warned on public radio that they would flood Europe with migrants if there was any Western military action, the young men remained unconcerned.
‘Come on,’ Majid had said to his friend, ‘of course they don’t want Europe to be full of immigrants, so NATO will leave us in peace.’
Finally, on the morning of 12 August, 2011 Majid could ignore the reality no longer. The air-conditioning unit was still spluttering along and Libyan state TV continued its delusional broadcasts, but outside the ground was shaking. The French Mirages and British Typhoons were cutting through the clouds above his head as NATO bombing raids thundered closer to Gaddafi’s compound, and closer to the two frightened Nigerians.
This is what an earthquake must feel like, Majid thought, as pure terror coupled with a sense of utter powerlessness overwhelmed him.
He was no longer safe in Libya. Clouds of dust and smoke rose above the minarets and cranes of the Tripoli skyline. Before the air had cleared, the order came from the top. The rebel army, supported by NATO, was closing in and Colonel Gaddafi finally made good on his threat. All migrant workers still living in Libya were to be rounded up, taken to the coast, and forced on board whatever vessels were available. There they would be sent out into the waves in the direction of Malta and Italy, a flotilla of human despair heading directly to Europe’s shores.
As the Arab Spring began its eastward creep from Tunisia and protests broke out in Libya in February 2011, a voluntary exodus of the country’s large migrant workforce had begun. During the first few months of fighting, the Egyptians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Filipinos, Vietnamese and sub-Saharan Africans beat a relatively calm path overland to neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia, patiently queueing under the fierce desert sun to submit their papers at the crowded border posts. But soon people were fleeing with nothing more than the clothes they were wearing. Gaddafi had bolstered his military with mercenaries from nearby states, relying on Tuareg tribesmen from Mali to put down any rebellions that threatened to erupt in the Libyan hinterlands. These men became targets for vengeful rebel groups looking to vent their anger at the regime. They didn’t wait to gather any evidence: anyone with black skin came under suspicion. Sub-Saharan migrants found on the street were beaten, robbed and locked up. Hundreds died in the wave of retribution. As the rebels advanced on Tripoli, thousands of foreign workers found themselves trapped and terrified in the city centre, awaiting their fate.
* * *
If I stay in Nigeria, having seen what I saw, will I be a good person?
This wasn’t the first time Majid had felt so helpless: he was only eighteen but already weary from what seemed like an eternity on the run from events beyond his control. And he was so tired of running. Life was not meant to be this way. Majid’s father had prepared him for business dinners and charitable endeavours, not for a flight across continents in search of peace and security.
Majid had been one of Nigeria’s luckier sons, born to an industrious family which had managed to navigate its way out of the poverty and corruption which infected so many lives there. His grandfather was one of the first police officers in independent Nigeria, and his father practised medicine before turning his hand to business and ascending the corporate ranks to become a management executive at the Nigerian National Petroleum Company.
During Majid’s childhood, there was not much family around – his mother fell ill and died when he was four years old. An old passport photograph was all he had to remember her by, and other relatives had drifted away. But he felt no great emptiness in his life. He had his father, a kind and generous man who paid the school fees for the poorer children in their neighbourhood and insisted on supporting the underdog teams whenever he and Majid watched football. Majid preferred the relatively sure bet of being a Manchester United fan and used to tease his father for his soft heart. But he was stricter when it came to his son’s education: first it was home schooling, then a private academy with extra English classes, before enrollment in a management studies course.
As an only child, Majid had the run of their mansion set in generous grounds in the city of Jos in Northern Nigeria. There was a housekeeper, a driver and a cook, and he had plenty of friends from the local football team. Although occasionally teased for his height – he bore the nickname ‘Smallie’ with equal measures of affection and annoyance – he played with a determination and agility that belied his short stature. And he was growing into a good-looking young man with a smile that quickly spread to his eyes and lit up his face, with just a glint of good-natured mischief. Most of all it exuded kindness, and only time would tell whether he was cut out for the ruthless world of Nigerian business towards which his father was steering him.
In the end Majid’s wiles and athleticism proved more useful than any education.
In 2009, his steady path towards a comfortable life and lucrative career came to an abrupt halt. Near the end of the previous year, sectarian violence had erupted in Plateau State. Since Nigeria had achieved independence, religious clashes had come and gone with the inevitability of the seasons, with Jos sitting uncomfortably on the divide between the Christian south and the Muslim north. But this conflict was particularly brutal, with hundreds of people killed in Jos as gangs went from house to house, Christians attacking Muslims and Muslims attacking Christians with equal ferocity. Mosques, churches and homes were razed, as politicians from both sides fanned the flames.
At first Majid felt no fear. When you lived with your hero, what was there to be frightened of? He was fifteen and his father still towered over his life, although he was no longer the agile man who could match his son’s prowess on the football field. Majid’s father was 65 and had retired from the National Petroleum Company, deciding it was time to start a more low-key wholesale business and devote his dwindling energies to philanthropy.
When a Christian mob turned up at the family compound on 9 January 2009, there was little he could do to defend his son.
It was early morning when Majid’s father heard a noise in front of the house and went out just in time to see a man scale the fence and open the gate to a gang of young men high on hatred and violence. The spacious grounds gave him a little time to grab Majid and race him towards the rear of the house where he kept his chickens. He only had a few minutes to think, and hoisted Majid onto the chicken coop, from where he could climb up into the coil of razor wire that topped their perimeter fence.
When the men burst in behind him he realized he had no time to escape himself, but he had done everything he could to save his child.
‘Go!’ was his last word for his son.
But Majid couldn’t: he was frozen with fear on the top of the fence, his legs tangled and bleeding in the wire and his gaze fixated on his father as the axe hit the point where his arm met his shoulder. At first Majid was surprised by the lack of blood. Even as a second blow fell and his father crumpled, it all seemed so clean. Then the axe came down again and split his skull, finally opening up a torrent of red. Still Majid sat on the fence and watched, as if he were seeing it all through the filter of a dream. He watched silently as the life flowed out of the only family he had ever really known.
Finally the mob finished its frenzy and turned to the boy on the fence. One man picked up an iron weight and flung it high to try and dislodge him. Majid kicked his legs free and jumped down on the other side.
At that moment he started running, his life now suddenly set on a different course. First he ran away from the mob’s screams. Then he ran through the forests, finding himself alongside other men, women and children who had watched similar evils befall their homes and their family. He continued running through the region, seeing houses aflame and bodies in the road. He stayed on foot, eventually running out of the state entirely. He avoided large urban areas and trekked and hitched rides through the jungle, sleeping rough and eating whatever he could scavenge.
Nowhere felt safe any more, so he kept running.
Not once did he stop to ask himself where he was going or what he was doing. The only motive propelling him on was a deep survival instinct, a drive to make it alive from one day to the next, dimly aware that a hardness was forming within him as he ran from his country.
I am scared of no one. I have no fears, nothing, because of what I have seen.
An anger was also welling inside him. A cycle of revenge and old hatreds had robbed him of his father, and he was afraid that if he stayed in Nigeria he too would end up sucked into a life that would leech any remaining humanity out of him. So he ran to escape the desire to avenge his father and perpetuate the sectarian bloodshed.
If I stay in Nigeria, having seen what I saw, will I be a good person? he asked himself. I don’t think so. I will have this anger. I will just be waiting for the slightest opportunity to kill.
Finally he crossed the border north into Niger, a vast desert nation and smugglers’ paradise at the heart of the African continent. There, hanging out penniless in markets and bus stations among other itinerant souls, he heard about the life of plenty that could be his in oil-rich Libya. The streets may not exactly be paved with gold, but they said you could fill the tank of your car with petrol for less than ten dollars, and that was enough for Majid.
* * *
Twice he had trusted in people’s kindness, and twice he had been betrayed.
In the lawless border towns of southern Niger, you could get anything you wanted for the right price: guns, drugs, women. The thriving smuggling trades were run by nomadic Saharan tribes with a history of moving to wherever they could find the best resources. In the past those resources were water and arable land, but as nations in Europe and North Africa introduced more visa restrictions in the 1980s and 1990s, the most lucrative resource was the constant stream of human beings driven towards richer, safer nations. With their knowledge of the punishing desert climate and a history of navigating its farthest reaches, smuggling people across the Sahara was a natural vocation for the nomads.
When fifteen-year-old Majid turned up in sand-blasted Agadez – a caravan city carved from the desert by the ancient salt traders and now epicentre of the new business of hopes and dreams – he felt utterly lost and alone. He was grateful for the kindness when a local man approached and offered him food and assistance, not questioning his motives even when the man told him how to sneak aboard a smuggling truck which was heading to Libya.
‘Don’t worry – when other people are getting on the truck, just do it,’ the man said.
Majid followed his advice, and mingled in with those who had paid for their clandestine passage north. They clambered on board the light goods vehicle with their bundles of belongings, the men hanging over the sides as the women and children settled down on top for the long drive.
It was just one cold and cramped night on the desert tracks before the fugitive passenger was discovered. When the smugglers did their morning headcount, they headed straight for the skinny boy shivering in a T-shirt and filthy jeans. They didn’t even bother beating Majid or trying to extort money out of him. He clearly had nothing to give them. However, after threatening to leave him to die in the desert, they became oddly accommodating.
‘OK,’ the Chadian driver said with a sudden change of heart, ‘come on, get in – whenever we stop, if you need food, just let me know’.
For the rest of the winding two-week journey north, Majid happily took him up on his offer and thought how lucky he was for this small act of compassion. He failed to realize that he had become nothing more than a commodity to be traded and battered for the best deal. The smugglers had seen it all before, and had their own plans for the poorest of the poor who turned up in Agadez desperate to head north but unable to pay their way. Their agents prowled the bus stations for the most vulnerable, encouraging them to smuggle on board vessels and tipping off the driver about their illicit cargo. Everyone got a cut until they arrived at their final, dismal destination.
For Majid, that was a desert border post manned by a ragtag bunch of Libyan security forces and tribal militia. The mask of friendship fell from the Chadian driver’s face as he shoved the boy out and into the hands of a kidnapping gang, who bundled him onto the floor in the back of a pick-up.
The drive seemed short compared with his journey over the desert. Majid spent a couple of hours crouched beneath the seats trying to make sense of his situation. Had the kind man in Agadez really been working with the smugglers? What fresh indignity lay in store for him when the truck stopped? As he climbed down from the pick-up, he looked around in despair. His new home was an old farmhouse crumbling to dirt, but the locks on the doors were sturdy and the dozens of people cowering on the floor had clearly been there for some time.
Majid was held in the acrid heat for days, visited once in the morning and once in the evening by a man bearing bread and water. Each time he would slap the sides of Majid’s head and demand that he call his relatives for money. Each time Majid would tell him the truth.
‘I have no family.’
Like the other hostages, he either had to find someone who would pay for his freedom, or work off his debt. It took a week for Majid’s captors to realize there was no one to extort, so they found a job for him: tending camels at a sprawling desert farm, where the landowner had few kind words for his new charge. Majid’s delicate hands and slight frame were unsuited to manual labour, and the exasperated farmer soon gave up.
‘You’re an idiot, you have no idea how to feed a camel!’ he shouted at him one morning before taking him back to the main house.
‘He’s just a child, he is so little,’ the farmer told his wife, asking her to put him to use as a houseboy.
And so Majid found himself trapped in a life of domestic servitude with nothing for his efforts beyond crumbs of bread and water. For a month he was forced to get up at dawn to scrub the floors, wash the dishes, clean the toilets and perform whatever task the mistress of the house dreamt up. She was not cruel exactly, but she treated Majid as worthy of nothing but a few orders barked in broken English.
With each day that passed, a little more of the humanity Majid had been desperately trying to preserve ebbed away. But his ingenuity was undiminished, and he dedicated his energy to forming a new plan to escape. One morning his captor jotted down a list of a few items and sent Majid to the market. He didn’t flee straight away, but formed a mental map of the town. The next time he was sent to the market, he vowed to make his escape. Desperate for help, he ran up to every black face he could see on the street and tried to explain his situation. But the words tumbled out in English, and most of the French- and Arabic-speaking men shrugged their shoulders and turned away.
Then Majid caught sight of an older man watching from the shade of a street café. To Majid’s surprise the stranger started addressing him in the local language of Plateau State.
‘Calm down,’ he told Majid. ‘You can’t be on the streets – the Libyans know each other and it will be easy for them to locate you.’
The man told him he would be safer at his house. Majid wanted to resist, wary of the older man’s intentions. Twice he had trusted in people’s kindness, and twice he had been betrayed. Perhaps the apparent Good Samaritan knew of Majid’s father and was aware that the family once had money. But Majid had little choice: all he had in his pocket was a handful of notes for the weekly shop.
His trust in the stranger paid off: for six months the man kept him hidden at home, providing him with clothes and food and trying to engineer a way to get his new young charge to Tripoli, where he had a brother who could help him settle and find work. Eventually he heard that a friend was stopping by en route to the capital and asked him to take Majid with him. That final leg of his journey to Tripoli was a comfortable one. Majid didn’t have to hide among a crowd or crouch on the floor of a car: the friend was a Libyan police officer who didn’t think twice about ferrying an illegal migrant across the country to fill one of the many jobs going in the capital.
* * *
As the revolution gathered pace, Majid was working as a stock-taker in a supermarket.
Since the 1970s Libya had been something of a promised land for people from the poorer African nations. In many countries south of the Sahara, a young man might expect to earn around a hundred dollars a month during his lifetime before dying in his fifties with nothing to hand down to his children except unrealized dreams of a better life. Libya, by contrast, was booming. The oil finds and Gaddafi’s ambitious social development projects meant there was more work than the nation’s six million citizens could handle, and cheap labour flooded in.
Exactly how Gaddafi dealt with this labour deficit over the years depended on which geographical pole he was gravitating towards.
At first the workers came from North Africa and the Middle East, as Gaddafi tried to position himself as a strongman of Arab nationalism. But when fellow Arab leaders refused to back him in the face of a UN arms embargo in 1992, a wounded Gaddafi had to look elsewhere to realize his geopolitical ambitions. That marked the start of his pan-Africanism policy, with the Libyan ruler touting himself as a saviour for an entire continent. While his visions of a single African currency, one army for the continent and a pan-Africa passport failed to make any headway, he did open up his borders to sub-Saharan Africans who wanted to live and work in Libya. Hundreds of thousands took up this opportunity, and even when he tilted back towards Europe in the 2000s and agreed to requests for more border controls, the workers kept coming – they just were not all there legally. By 2011, there were estimated to be 600,000 legal migrants in the country and between 750,000 and 1.2 million people working there without official paperwork.
At first, Majid was one of the latter. But now, finally settled in Tripoli, he was beginning to feel at home. By mid-2011, as the revolution gathered pace in the east of Libya, Majid was working as a stock-taker in a supermarket, earning decent money and living almost rent free. His landlord was an army major, and often they would share a meal, and maybe a joint, and talk politics into the small hours of the morning.
The major had a very one-sided view of Libyan history, but Majid listened intently.
Libya used to be an impoverished desert backwater where people lived in mud huts, his landlord told him, and then Colonel Gaddafi staged a coup in 1969 and built a nation which shared the oil wealth and brought prosperity to all. The major and Majid did not talk about the purges of hundreds of students, academics, journalists and other ‘enemies of the revolution’ that happened as Gaddafi had set about building his paradise in the desert in the 1970s. Nor about the dozens who were hanged and mutilated on public television, a lesson to anyone unconvinced by his power grab. These disappearances and deaths carried on well into the 1980s and 1990s, with the Libyan regime also sponsoring terror abroad as Gaddafi fashioned himself as an anti-colonial pariah of the Western world. Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister, may eventually have been able to bring Gaddafi in from the cold during their rapprochement in a Bedouin tent in 2003, but new business and trade ties did not mean that Gaddafi was a reformed man. Old habits die hard, and when unrest started simmering again in the eastern provinces during the Arab Spring, the Libyan strongman didn’t think too long before ordering his troops to open fire on unarmed protesters.
He was also quick to remind his former Western partners that the proximity of Libya to Europe may not bode well for the future.
‘If you threaten [Libya], if you seek to destabilize us, there will be chaos, Bin Laden, armed factions,’ he warned as the support grew for a military campaign against him. ‘You will have immigration, thousands of people will invade Europe from Libya. And there will no longer be anyone to stop them.’
With a thousand miles of Mediterranean coastline and around two million migrants living in Libya at the start of the war, Gaddafi had plenty of human capital to bargain with.
* * *
He made the EU an offer that sounded more like a threat: give him $5 billion a year or he would flood the continent with foreigners
For decades, Gaddafi’s regime had been profiting from people’s desire to reach Europe. With the Italian island of Lampedusa less than 200 miles away, a steady trickle of people had launched off Libya’s beaches on dilapidated vessels, willing to risk their lives on the gamble of reaching richer, safer lands. Most were young men heading to Europe to work; others were seeking sanctuary from conflicts, droughts and famines. Gaddafi saw only opportunity in their desperation. No criminal enterprise could operate in Libya without the dictator sharing in the loot, and people smuggling was no different. The boats left for Europe with the security forces either turning a blind eye in exchange for bribes, or actively facilitating the voyages.
Migration was just another political tool for the dictator, and the extent to which Gaddafi could exploit this bargaining chip became clear when the economic crisis took hold in Europe. Rising unemployment and stretched government budgets meant that the few thousand people arriving on EU shores in boats from North Africa became easy targets for politicians looking for someone else to blame. In 2009, Italy’s President Silvio Berlusconi came up with a solution: they would intercept boats in Italian territorial waters and force them back to Libya, where his old friend Gaddafi could take care of them.
Italy had retained strong economic ties with its former colony. Libya was its largest supplier of oil, while the Libyan government also held stakes in everything from Unicredit, Italy’s largest bank, to the Juventus football club. Berlusconi and Gaddafi had a close personal friendship. A persistent rumour in Italy credits Gaddafi with coming up with the phrase ‘bunga bunga’ to describe a harem of women – a phrase now universal shorthand for the sex parties which led to Berlusconi’s downfall. So when Italy offered to invest another €5 billion in Libya, Gaddafi was happy to take the boat people off Berlusconi’s hands. People had spent days at sea with no food and water making the crossing from Libya to Lampedusa, only to be beaten with clubs and cattle prods as Italian sailors forced them back onto Libyan vessels and turned them round. The Italians sent at least 1,000 people back to Libya – an effective police state with little regard for human rights – with no effort made to assess who was on board the boats or whether anyone was a legitimate asylum seeker in need of protection from war or persecution. No one really knew what happened when the men, women and children returned. Libya is not party to the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention which guarantees the rights of people needing international protection, and conditions in Libyan detention centres were appalling. Many people never even ended up in detention, but were transported to Libya’s inhospitable southern borders and dumped in the desert.
Whatever the morality of the deal, it proved effective for Rome. Clandestine arrivals by sea fell from 10,236 in 2009 to 1,662 a year later. But while the Italian policy may have stuck a finger in the dam, it did nothing to address the underlying causes or halt the overall flow of people entering Europe illicitly. They just found another route, with an increase in arrivals along the Greek border in that period. The Italian policy was also in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits returning people to a country where they may face degrading and inhuman treatment. Berlusconi was eventually forced to abandon his push-backs policy in 2010 when the European Court of Human Rights started legal proceedings. Gaddafi then came back to the EU with a new plan: for the right sum, he could stop the people ever leaving Libyan soil in the first place. In summer 2010 he made the EU an offer that sounded more like a threat: give him $5 billion a year or he would flood the continent with foreigners.
‘Europe might no longer be European, and even black, as there are millions who want to come in,’ he warned during a visit to Rome, where he did not shy away from playing on old European racial and religious prejudice. ‘We don’t know what will be the reaction of the white and Christian Europeans faced with this influx of starving and ignorant Africans. We don’t know if Europe will remain an advanced and united continent or if it will be destroyed, as happened with the barbarian invasions.’
European leaders were sufficiently spooked to come up with a deal. While publicly there was shock at the audacity of the offer, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmström and the European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy Štefan Füle visited Tripoli in early October 2010. What emerged was a pledge to pay Gaddafi €60 million over three years for ‘economic development’. During the same trip they came up with a deal to ‘develop our co-operation on migration-related issues’. This was despite Libya’s dismal human rights records and evidence compiled by human rights groups that Gaddafi’s preferred method for dealing with unwanted migrants and refugees was to truck them out to the remote Saharan border outposts and leave them to die.
The migration problem was not solved. People would still flee war, famine, poverty and persecution. They were now just dying somewhere else, out of Europe’s sight.
* * *
You just keep running until you find a safe place, but a safe place does not exist.
For Majid, Libya had always been a place to settle and make a life for himself, rather than a staging post on the way to Europe. He had no interest in risking his life packed in a decommissioned fishing vessel like a battery hen simply to reach a continent which didn’t want him anyway. He had inherited an interest in international politics from his father, and read enough news to know that Europe was not the golden land of opportunity many people seemed to think it was.
Life in Libya was not perfect. Majid felt a wall growing around him, isolating him from everyone else. He told the few friends he had that he wasn’t scared of anything, but in reality he was scared of the night. When darkness fell visions of his father’s death would haunt him as he tried to sleep, the anger would return, and he felt like he was losing himself again. How could he ever be happy when he had lost the most important person in his life? But he had a job, some friends, a comfortable home – at least that was something.
Living a good life, peacefully, maybe I can be free.
The Nigerian teenager had clung on to the belief that Libya offered him the best chance of a bright future right up until the morning of 12 August, when six soldiers knocked on his door.
In the end it was Gaddafi’s forces who got to Majid first. He should have known better than to stay at home. While the major who owned their house may have been amiable over a few spliffs during the good times, his allegiances were to his colonel and he didn’t hesitate to act on Gaddafi’s order to round up the foreign workers. The soldiers knew exactly where to find Majid and Ali. When the knock on the door came, the two young Nigerians didn’t even have time to exchange words of surprise, let alone gather their belongings or their savings before they were marched at gunpoint into a waiting truck. When Majid tried to resist, he was told he had one other choice.
‘You can stay and fight for Gaddafi.’
So he reluctantly climbed aboard the truck bound for the coast.
Gaddafi’s spiteful expulsion of thousands of foreign workers marked the start of the mass exodus from the Libyan coastline which would over the coming years test the very principles at the heart of the European Union. Within a few months, Colonel Gaddafi would be dead. Rival rebel groups would start battling for power as Libya sank into a prolonged and chaotic civil war. The people smugglers would thrive like never before, with no functioning law enforcement to stop them. The countries which had helped oust Gaddafi would shrink from view. Scarred by military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, they would decide that the messy task of nation-building was best left to the victors, no matter that it wasn’t even clear yet who they were.
Majid was not thinking about any of that yet. As the truck rumbled towards the Mediterranean, a sad sense of resignation washed over him as he considered his short, troubled life.
From the day of my father’s death, I have been running and searching for some kind of peace, but this is so hard to find, he thought. You just keep running until you find a safe place, but a safe place does not exist.
* * *
Copyright © 2016 by Charlotte McDonald-Gibson. This excerpt originally appeared in Cast Away: True Stories of Survival from Europe’s Refugee Crisis, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.