Lucy Sexton and Joe Sexton| The Atavist Magazine |July 2023 | 1,233 words (5 minutes)

This is an excerpt from issue no. 141, “Held Together.”

Becoming a single dad ended my sportswriting career; I couldn’t make a West Coast swing during baseball season while responsible for two young girls. So I moved to the Times’ metro desk and became a decent city reporter, doing a mix of hard news and feature stories. Over the years, my girls tagged along on some of my assignments, from the explosion of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island to a Hasidic mother in Brooklyn who was one of the most sought-after nitpickers during a plague of lice in local schools. When the Times asked me to help conduct in-house seminars on street reporting, I made a point of telling younger reporters that success is often determined before you get out the door. If you’re fatalistic about getting what you need, failure awaits. If you force yourself to believe that an improbable reporting coup could happen, often as not it does. Corny maybe, but also true, at least in my experience.

The Atavist Magazine, our sister site, publishes one deeply reported, elegantly designed story each month. Support The Atavist by becoming a member.

I felt naive, then, when two members of our team returned to the Royal Gardens after venturing out to Al Mabani. Their driver had refused to even slow down while passing by the jail, so fearful was he of being stopped at gunpoint.

I followed my own advice with Libya, trying before I arrived to imagine what reporting there would be like. I foresaw secretive conversations with friends and relatives of jailed migrants in dusty streets outside detention facilities. Maybe there would be a way to talk to prisoners through barred windows. Notes might be exchanged.

Needless to say, the landscape of the city was less than ideal for the kind of street reporting I knew. To merely venture out, by foot or by car, was to risk being confronted by the armed men stationed at a convoluted pattern of checkpoints throughout Tripoli. And then there was the matter of our security team. Though they had been assigned to us with the help of the Red Crescent, a little googling showed that the firm they worked for seemed to be run by a former Libyan military official accused of war crimes. Were they actually government minders monitoring our doings? Militia members themselves? Did it matter?

Libya, I was discovering a little late, was an inscrutable place.

In addition to me and Ian Urbina, our team included Dutch documentary filmmaker Mea Dols de Jong and Pierre Kattar, a video journalist who’d spent years at The Washington Post. Against the odds, we soon got some reporting breaks. A variety of aid organizations had done years of work documenting abuses and offering comfort to the tens of thousands of migrants swept up and detained inside Libya. One of those organizations was able to provide us with the names of the young migrant shot dead at Al Mabani and of a witness to the killing. The dead man was Aliou Candé, a farmer and father of three from Guinea-Bissau, captured by the Libyan Coast Guard as he tried to make his way to a new life in Italy. The witness was a man from Ivory Coast named Mohammad David; he had managed to escape Al Mabani in the tumult that followed Candé’s murder. We had a cell phone number for him.

On our first night in Tripoli, three of us made it to Gargaresh, an area that had become a migrant ghetto. Militias liked to make brutalizing sweeps of Gargaresh’s mix of hideouts and encampments. Along the neighborhood’s main drag, a blur of neon lights, furtive figures, internet cafés, and cheap food joints, we met Mohammad David. He spoke French, and Pierre, whose father once served as a translator for the U.S. embassy in Paris, could make out enough of what he said to extract a rough narrative of Candé’s killing.

There had been a fight inside one of Al Mabani’s crowded, fetid cells. Guards fired their automatic rifles indiscriminately. Candé was struck in the neck, and his blood streaked a wall as he dragged against it before falling down dead. Other detainees didn’t allow his body to be removed from the cell until they were granted their freedom, which was how Mohammad David made it to Gargaresh.

The incident was a stark reminder that Al Mabani, like many other jails in Libya, was run by one of the violent militias that had divided Tripoli into wary, sometimes warring fiefs. These forces extort the families of jailed migrants for ransom payments, steal aid money meant to help feed and clothe their captives, and sell men and women into forced servitude. Candé’s killing, for a rare, brief moment, gave some of his fellow prisoners leverage over their captors.

In the days that followed our conversation with David, other unlikely reporting triumphs piled up. We found a man who served as a kind of informal liaison for migrants from Guinea-Bissau eking out a living in Tripoli. He brought us to Candé’s great-uncle, who showed us police documents pertaining to Candé’s death; a “fight” was listed as the cause of his demise. The liaison said that Candé had been buried in a vast walled-off expanse of dirt that served as the graveyard of Tripoli’s unwanted. We hired a local photographer to launch a drone camera over the acres of burial mounds, most of them unmarked. He managed to locate one into which someone had scratched the name “Candé.”

In subsequent days, our team snuck two other men who’d spent time at Al Mabani into our hotel. One of them, a teenager, told us that he’d taken a bullet in his leg the night Candé was killed. We pushed the limits of prudence in pursuit of these reporting coups. Pierre had brought a drone camera with him, which he flew above Al Mabani. The scene he captured looked a lot like a concentration camp: men huddled under threat of violence after being fed in a courtyard, then marched back to their cells single file, beaten in the head for so much as looking up at the sky.

It soon became clear that our security guys were reporting back to their bosses, whoever they were, at least some of what we were up to. At one point, we got a visit from an American expatriate who said she worked for the security outfit. She warned us that what we were doing was dangerous and demanded we apprise her of any further proposed reporting efforts outside the confines of the hotel.

One morning we notified Red Crescent officials that we wanted to visit the morgue where Candé’s body had been taken. Mea and I got in a van and made our way through Tripoli’s streets. The morgue was part of a complex of squat buildings shielded by an imposing set of walls and fences. Inside was a man at a desk. We asked to see Candé’s records, and he rifled through several filing cabinets.

A freshly wrapped body lay on a gurney in the middle of the main room. In a side room, a worker ran water from a hose over another body. Behind a set of curtains was a wall of refrigerated chambers that could hold perhaps two dozen corpses. It was impossibly hot and completely quiet.

Mea recorded what we were seeing from a small camera set discreetly against her stomach, until someone noticed and reported it to the man at the desk. It was time for us to go.