Chapter VII: Africans in Libya


“We don’t see what happens prior to a rescue,” says MSF project coordinator Jean-Phillippe. “We read about it, we interpret it. Or they tell us about it.” People of many ethnicities and religions, who have survived often horrific experiences. Conflict, torture, exploitation. The shipwrecks and rescues in the Mediterranean are just a small part of what they’ve been through. At this moment in history, more people than ever have been forced to leave their homes due to violence.

What happens to people in Libya? On board Dignity I is Ismail Mohamed Baare, from Ghana. His story is similar to that of thousands of others from across Africa trapped in the chaos of post-Gaddafi Libya. They come on board feeling anxious. “I’d rather die than go back to Libya” is one of the phrases heard most often on board Dignity I. The first time that Ismail and his pregnant wife tried to leave Libya, they were sent back. But this time they’re going to make it to Italy.

“I arrived in Libya two years ago,” says Ismail. “I was working for a telephone company, as a cleaner and then as a salesperson. I wanted to stay but I couldn’t take it anymore. They treated us like slaves there. There were weapons everywhere. Anyone can beat you up if you aren't Libyan. That happened to me a few times. They robbed me, threatened me and beat me up in broad daylight.”

Ismail cradles his sleeping wife on the deck of Dignity I. | Anna Surinyach

Ismail and his wife decided to leave. They got in touch with a trafficker, paid him and boarded a boat. But Libya doesn’t end until you get beyond the 12 nautical miles that separate its territorial waters from international waters.

“We left at ten at night, but the satellite telephone that was used to send out a signal to say we needed rescuing was not working,” says Ismail. “We stayed there, floating in the sea, hoping to be rescued. A boat arrived with three people inside. We thought it was a rescue boat, but it wasn’t: they were Libyans. They asked us where we were going and how many of us there were... They boarded our boat, stole the engine and left us there, in the open sea, for hours. Then another Libyan boat appeared, but that belonged to an oil company. They rescued us, gave us food and told us that they would take us to Italy. All of a sudden, we saw two speedboats with Libyan flags. That's when we knew that they were going to hand us over to the authorities. They took us to a detention camp in Zawiya. There were thousands of people there. They take all your money and everything you’re wearing, even down to your sandals. They undress you in public. There were no washrooms. They beat us up and shots were fired. If you have family and you can pay, they let you go. If not, you stay there.”

The couple managed to leave the camp. Although they were scared the same thing might happen again, they tried a second time to leave Libya. They were desperate to leave. There was no going back.

“We’ve succeeded this time,” says Ismail. “We left at three in the morning and we set out to sea. At first we were trying to get away because we thought that the MSF boat, which was coming towards us at high speed, was a Libyan boat. But we soon learned that it was an organisation that was trying to help people, so we stopped.”

Ismail has no idea what will happen after they disembark in Italy. He doesn’t have any plans. He has no family in Europe. His mind is still on what happened to them in Libya and in the Mediterranean.

Ismail looks through a pair of borrowed binoculars at the horizon. | Anna Surinyach

“I just want to be healthy and safe in Italy so I can find inner peace, freedom,” says Ismail. “We’re expecting a son in September. He will be born there and things will be better for him. I hope we’ll get lucky. Libya is in chaos. I don’t know how to explain it – I can’t find the words. Italy is so far from here and these rescue boats have to come as far as this. Humanitarian workers have to come out to sea to save us, and they may experience problems because Libya is right here.”


“I can only give thanks to all the people who are working on this ship.”