By Pinaki Roy
A survivor of the Mediterranean tragedy in May narrates how manpower brokers treated fortune seekers in Libya, and the horrific experiences of his trip to Europe.
It is called “body contract” under which you do not need to pay a dime before reaching your destination. But as soon as you are there, your family members have to make the payment.
Billal Ahmed was assured by his travel agent that he would safely make it to Italy. “There would be no risk at all,” the agent had said.
Billal along with 15 others were rescued in the Mediterranean in May after a boat carrying 86 people to Italy from Libya capsized off the Tunisian coast. As many as 71 people, including Billal’s three nephews, died on that perilous journey.
A resident of Mohidpur village in Sylhet’s Fenchuganj upazila, Billal, 31, is the youngest among nine siblings and has not married yet. He dropped out of school after class five.
He was doing well with fish farming and paddy cultivation until a devastating flash flood hit him hard in 2017.
“I could not earn anything that year. So, I thought, I should try my luck aboard. I was looking for an opportunity,” he told this correspondent at his village home recently.
In September 2018, he met Enamul Haque at a wedding party of one of his relatives at a nearby village.
Enamul told him that he had a travel agency in Sylhet and sent many people to Europe. And Billal would have to pay him Tk 9 lakh once he reached Italy.
Hearing about this, Billal’s three nephews — Ahmed Ali, Liton Ahmed and Azizul Islam — wanted to join him. They were doing their bachelor’s at Osmani Nagar Degree College.
“Initially, their parents did not like it. But they finally gave consent knowing that four of us would be going together and there was no risk of losing money,” said Billal.
TRIP TO INDIA, SRI LANKA, LIBYA
Enam said their flight tickets to Italy will come from India.
After getting Indian tourist visas for them, Enam bought them Dhaka-Sylhet bus tickets and gave them a contact number of another travel agent named Razzaque, who would do the rest.
On December 4 last year, Billal and his three nephews started for Dhaka.
In Fakirapool, they met Razzaque at a bus counter. He gave them bus tickets to Kolkata and plane tickets for Kolkata-Delhi, Delhi-Mumbai and Mumbai-Colombo routes.
They were received at Benapole border by an on-duty policeman, who helped them complete immigration procedures and cross the border.
“We stayed in Kolkata, Delhi and Mumbai for a few days and then flew to Colombo where Mehedi, a member of the Enam-Razzaque gang, received us at the airport,” Billal said.
After three days, Mehedi arranged their plane tickets to Libya’s Misrata via Qatar and Tunisia, saying they will get plane tickets to Italy in Libya.
As they arrived at Misrata airport, they met another gang member named Rubel, along with some Libyans, who bribed the immigration officer and arranged their on-arrival visas.
They reached Libya 12 days after they had left home.All was well so far as Enam and Razzaque were in touch with them via video calling app Imo.
They left Misrata airport on a van that took them to a well-protected house with high walls in a desert after a three-hour drive.
Besides Rubel, three Libyan men carrying heavy arms were in that house. They put all of them in a small room.
Rubel gave them each a piece of Khbeiza (a local bread), and water. After a while, he provided them with Wifi password and said they had to spend a huge amount of money to buy their plane tickets.
He asked for Tk 20 lakh for four of them and said the money had to be sent through Enam.
“But I said it was a body contract. We were supposed to pay the money only after reaching Italy,” Billal told this correspondent.
“For talking back, they beat me up with a steel pipe. Actually, they held us hostage … We contacted our family members and asked them to pay Enam Tk 20 lakh.”
The next day, Rubel came and inquired about the money.
“We already agreed to pay them. But they were not ready to wait. The next day they came and beat all of us with steel pipes. He made us call our home and ask for the money. He [Rubel] also warned that we would be killed if police are informed.”
It took three days to arrange the money. Billal’s nephew Mofiz Hossain gave it to Enam by cheque and in cash in Sylhet. In the meantime, the four were beaten up three to four times.
Once Enam received the money, Rubel put four of them in the boot of the car and took them to somewhere in Tripoli.
“It was too hot inside the boot. The road was bad and it was very painful to travel in that. They did not give us anything to eat or drink,” said Billal.
They took us to the basement of a five-storey building. It had two small rooms where 16 Bangladeshis had already been held captive.
After three days, Rubel and some Libyans came and took away their cell phones, other valuables and the US dollars they had.
They were locked in those two tiny rooms all the time.
The number of captives rose to 41 within a few days. Most of those people were from Sylhet region; some were from Habiganj and some from Bianibazar.
One day, came Mehedi, who received them in Colombo. Billal said this time the gang asked for Tk 2 lakh more from each of them and gave them a phone to call home.
They already lost track of date. But when they called home with Mehedi’s phone, they learnt that nearly a month had gone by.
“Whenever our family members inquired about us, Enam said we were doing fine and soon we would reach Italy,” Billal added.
DAYS IN ZUWARAH
After getting the money, the gang took them to a place in Zuwarah, a port city in northwestern Libya.
It took them three days to reach the place. They were put in the boot of the car and they had to travel all the way lying inside it.
After the whole day’s drive through desert, they would stop in the evening by sheds made for shepherds. Only Khbeiza and some water were their meal.
After three days, they reached a two-storey building. Some other Bangladeshis were already there.
The gang brought many others from Tripoli to Zuwarah, four to five at a time. Within days, the number of people reached 82, all of them Bangladeshis.
“They kept all of us in three rooms — 12 feet by 12 feet each. There were only one stove and one washroom for us,” said Billal.
“They used to give us 25kg rice, two to three kg lentil and onion for two days. We used to cook khichuri with those. We had only six bowls and two pots.
“We did not get enough water to drink. We rationed water by measuring it with a tea cup,” he said.
“It was not possible for all of us to sleep at the same time. Some of us used to sleep in two rooms while the others stayed awake in another room.
“We were starving and becoming weak. We wanted more food. But they never gave it; rather they beat us with steel pipes.”
They were locked in and some Libyans used to guard the house.
Rubel used to come every two or three days. One day he told them if they wanted extra food, they would have to buy it from him.
But they had no money. They again called home and asked for more money.
Billal said his family members in Sylhet gave Enam Tk 2.5 lakh through bKash for providing him with food.
One day Rubel wanted to sell a few packs of milk to them. But none of them had any money. But he did not believe that and became furious.
“They poured petrol in our water tank. We were forced to drink from it as there was no other source of water,” he said.
Almost half of them became sick after drinking that water. But they were not given any medicine.
“Even I saw one person licking sweats, as there was no drinking water,” Billal said.
“It was horrible … It was almost impossible to survive there. We had to spend three days like this.”
He said they begged the gang members to send them back home.
“But they would not listen to us. Our family members also requested Enam to make arrangements for our return. When they put pressure on Enam, he informed Rubel about it. And we would be beaten up again.”
Some of them were keeping the count of days with scratches on the wall. It was three and a half months in that house.
Finally, on the night of the first Ramadan, the gang members told them that they would be sent to Italy. The gang then started moving them to another house near the coast.
86 ON ONE BOAT
The gang brought some other people from different places. The number of captives rose to 156. Most of them were Bangladeshis. At least 16 were from Morocco and Egypt.
There were three small fiberglass boats on the seashore.
“Seeing such small boats, many of us did not want to get on those. They again beat us up… They then put all of us in three small boats. After sailing for a couple of hours, we saw a fishing trawler anchored in the sea,” said Billal.
“All of us boarded the trawler.”
Two of those fibreglass boats were tied to the fishing trawler. And Rubel and some of the Libyan guards took the other boat and went back to the shore.
The fishing trawler started around 7:00am the next day. Around 9:00pm, the armed Libyans forced them to get on the two fibreglass boats and left by the trawler.
Now they were on their own.
“The boat ahead of us carried around 70 people and moved to the coast. We were in the second boat and there were 86 people in it. The boat started sinking as soon as the trawler left,” said Billal.
The men in the fishing trawler did not stop or try to rescue them. “We were begging, crying and screaming. But they just left us there.”
The boat turned upside down and was floating in the sea. They were trying to float themselves holding the rope and the edges of the boat. The water was very cold.
“We were trying to survive, holding each other’s hand. When big waves came, it was hard for us to hold onto the boat.”
Billal said his three nephews were with him.
“My nephews were asking me whether they were going to die. I kept telling them to cling to the boat anyhow and not to lose hope.”
Billal first saw his nephew Ahmed drown. Then Aziz, his another nephew, went down. “I tried to help them. But they fainted and drowned. I could not do anything.”
His third nephew, Liton, managed to stay afloat.
“Liton was asking again and again whether they would survive or not as he saw two of his cousins drown. I was giving him hope but could not save him,” said Billal with tears rolling down his cheeks.
Liton drowned just an hour before a Tunisian boat came to rescue them in the morning. Only 16 people out of 86 survived.
It was May 10, 2019.
The next day Billal called home from Tunisia and informed his family about the incident.
Now Billal and the parents of his three nephews want exemplary punishment to Enam, who was arrested in two cases filed under the Human Trafficking Act and the Money Laundering Prevention Act.
Police are yet to submit charge sheets in the cases.
According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), Bangladesh is one of the biggest sources of illegal migrants to Europe.
Between January and August 2017, more than 8,700 Bangladeshis arrived in Italy by sea — roughly 9 percent of all maritime arrivals in the European country, show IOM data.
There is no specific data on how many Bangladeshis drowned in the Mediterranean on their perilous journeys to Europe.
The IOM said around 500 migrants, including Bangladeshis, either died or went missing in the Mediterranean as of October this year while trying to reach Europe by boats. The figure was 2,299 in 2018 and 3,139 in 2017.
Data of Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union, show that 93,435 Bangladeshis were staying illegally in European countries till 2015.
[Dwoha Chowdhury contributed to this report.]
The Daily Star