Jamal Jowhar

The Story of the Sudanese Mazen

Mazen Adam, whose name was mentioned by the human rights activist Zaidani, is a Sudanese child whose story was reported in Libya and cast horrible doubts on the fate of his unaccompanied minor migrant peers.

The motherless Mazen, 14, was living with his father after he was released from the Ain Zara detention center. At the end of August 2022, gunmen kidnapped him in the city of Warshfana, southwest of Tripoli. Having continued to abuse him, they demanded a ransom of 5,000 Libyan dinars. They leaked a video as they took turns torturing him cruelly, and someone shouted at him: ” I’m broke. Where is the money?”

Families search through Detention Centers and among the dead

Whenever news was announced about the drowning of a boat carrying irregular migrants in the Mediterranean, or sending it back to Libyan ports, it reverberates in several countries, including Egypt, Sudan and Syria, as much money was spent on this trip. Mothers sold their clothes, and fathers mortgaged what was left in the barn of cattle.

As the dreams of migrant families of “promised wealth” seemed similar, they now share same fears, and experience the pain of heartbreak for the loss of their children, either by drowning, or detention, and may not know a way to reach them.

Asharq Al-Awsat is investigating the fate of hundreds of missing and detained migrants in Libya, based on the testimonies of their families, lists obtained from inside prisons, detention centers and “secret detention centers”. Asharq Al-Awsat is also documenting the accounts of some of those who were released, and those who failed several times to escape to Europe by sea.

The lists leaked from Libyan prisons and shelter centers include the names of migrants and minors from Egypt and several African countries in official prisons, including “Melita Tawila” prison, and shelter centers supervised by the Migration Agency of the Government of National Unity in Tripoli, such as “Ain Zara” shelter center, “Gut Sha’al”, and “Treek Al-Sekka”, the latter for migrant minors.

In Libya, there are also shelter centers belonging to armed groups, including the “Maya” (27 kilometers west of Tripoli) and managed by the “Stability Support Force” – closed in mid-February 2023 – along with other detention centers, including the “Wadi al-Hay” known as “Bir al-Ghanam” (southwest of the capital), which until recently housed about a thousand migrants, mostly Egyptians.

Six months of torture

Local human traffickers control the fate of detainees in informal shelters, or secret headquarters. They belong to militias and organized crime gangs. The freedom of every prisoner depends on his/her family paying a “ransom,” so that he/she can regain his/her and escape torture that amounts to deprivation of food, burning with fire, and sale to others, according to a report by the National Human Rights Committee in Libya.

A Chadian immigrant, A. S., through mediation from the security commander of Rabiana (150 kilometers from the city of Kufra, southeast Libya) area, recounted that “a gang of human traffickers detained him among 40 migrants, mostly children and minors, for more than six months in a dark warehouse near Rabiana”. He told Asharq Al-Awsat that they were all “starved, sexually assaulted, burned with fire, and videotaped in order to bargain with their families to pay ransom.”

Notably, a Chadian migrant said that “the gang of three (two Libyans, and a third one of an African nationality unknown to him), released more than 20 detainees, after receiving US$5,000 from the family of each. But the rest of the abductees continued to be abused daily, until they managed to escape and inform a police patrol that was nearby. The money was transferred to phone numbers. There are also private money transfer offices in Libya that operate without licenses, and are not subject to state control.”

In June 2022, 20 bodies of Chadians and Libyans were found in the Libyan desert in the town of Kufra, along Chad-Libya border. The Missing Migrants Project has documented the deaths and disappearances of more than 5,600 people across the Sahara Desert since 2014.

Leaked lists

Circumstances within most shelter centers, especially those hidden from international organizations, seem the same. Generally, they are no different from what happened with the migrants in the “Rabiana storehouse,” in terms of physical and sexual violations. According to Tarek Lamloum, director of the “Baladi Foundation for Human Rights”, what is happening to the migrants detained throughout Libya, is a “kind of slavery”.

“The sexual violations committed against migrants, pushing them towards forced labor in exchange for food, drink and access to toilets, is criminal forced labor,” Lamloum said. He added that those who have entered institutions affiliated with the Migration Agency are still better off than others detained in secret premises or supervised by armed groups.

The search trip, according to the lists we received from Egyptian and African families, led us to discover that some of the children were detained by police, such as the Syrian Haroun Abdul Hadi, 17, whose mother told us that he was released after months of imprisonment. There is also the Egyptian Ahmed Fayek, whose mother provided us with his personal photo, and we spotted him days later in an identification parade in Sabratha Security Command before he was sent to Ain Zara prison. His mother was happy to see him again. “We feel alive again,” she cried.

The Illegal Migration Agency in Libya says that due to large number of migrants detained in prisons and shelters across the country, it intensified “voluntary return” trips to home countries, or third host countries; but the numbers infiltrating Libya and held in its prisons remain much more.

However, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in a report published on October 11, believes that migrants are “forced to (voluntarily return) to escape arbitrary conditions of detention and the threat of torture, ill-treatment and sexual violence, as well as enforced disappearance and extortion.”

One of those who escaped dark prisons, thanks to evacuation operations supervised by the International Organization for Migration and the Egyptian embassy in Tripoli, is Amr Atef Mohammed, 15, who we met in the Mashtoul Al-Souq town, Asharqia Governorate, Delta of Egypt, following his return in December 2022, after surviving long imprisonment.

Amr showed us the route of his smuggling trip from Matrouh, with the help of a Libyan broker referred to as F.M. He charged him 60,000 Egyptian pounds (nearly US$2000). The journey started from the Salloum plateau by walking at night in the desert for long periods. Amr added that the “Bedouin” assistant who accompanied them “kept moving them from one store to another along desert roads until they crossed the Libyan border.”

Like others, young Amr went to Libya to flee to Europe. He told us that “the Libyan coastguard forces arrested us, and returned us to the Ain Zara shelter center (Anbar Battalion 1).” he added that they were humiliated, before being transferred to the Tareek Al-Sekka Road.

There is a big difference between the Ain Zara center and Melita Tawila prison. The latter, although it belongs to the Ministry of Justice of the Government of National Unity, is widely known as “notorious”. Several Syrian and Egyptian families have appealed to the embassies of their countries to act quickly to get their children out of these two facilities.

Egyptian Abdel Fattah Khodri, 62, complained that his son, along with a number of his villagers, including Mohammed Gouda Mahdi and Sameh Obeid, are suffering from diseases and scabies in the Melita Al-Tawila prison. Each family paid 150,000 pounds for the trip, and said their children may have been sold.

Magdy Saad Mujahid, 63, originally from the village of Kafr Hilal, Menoufia Governorate (north of Cairo), recounted the story of his son Khaled, who traveled to Libya, due to harsh economic circumstances, by means of smuggling. After a failed journey across the sea, he was detained in Ain Zara prison, after the so-called “Libyan Haj Riad” received 85,000 Egyptian pounds to help him get to Europe.

This case is not much different from the case of Mustafa Attia Al-Halwani, 18, from the village of Shabramals, Ghaarbiya Governorate, whose brother told Asharq Al-Awsat that “one of the brokers lured him to travel to Italy, along with two others. When he arrived in Libya, he was detained, and his family negotiated to pay 95,000 Egyptian pounds for his release.”

Ambassador Tamer Mustafa, the Egyptian charge d’affaires in Tripoli, in a press statement, affirmed that the diplomatic mission there is making great efforts, and is returning hundreds of irregular migrants to the country as soon as it gets travel documents for them.

The tragedy of the missing migrants in Libya is not limited to one country. Although there are no official statistics on the number of the missing, it seems that apart from Egyptians and Syrians, there are quite a few citizens of African countries, including Sudan. Here Ibrahim Haroun Moussa recounts the story of his brother Mubarak, who disappeared in Libya five years ago.

Mubarak came from the city of El Fasher (western Sudan) and his family has been searching for him since late May 2018. “We received news that Mubarak was imprisoned in Tajoura, and shortly after his release he was detained in a prison near the Libyan-Tunisian border,” Ibrahim said.

Escape to the sea six times

Most of the boys and young people, who fled to Libya through its vast desert, are driven by the dream of migrating to the “European paradise” by sea, even if it costs them their lives. Among them was young Sudanese Abdul Mawla Issa who ventured to throw himself into the sea six times in three years.

The absence of Mubarak Haroun Moussa has buried the details of his journey, which even his family does not know. But Abdulmoula Issa told Asharq Al-Awsat the details of his great tragedy since he entered the country as a child through the Libya – Egypt – Chad triangle, until he left, after a journey of torment, at the age of 23.

Issa said he entered Libya before 2018, through the city of Kufra, and there he worked for a few months before moving west, arriving in Tripoli in early March 2020.

“I tried to escape from Tripoli to Europe by sea six times. But coastguards were returning us to Tripoli, but we were able to escape again,” he said. On the sixth attempt, Issa said: “We could not escape, and were locked up in the city of Zuwara for seven months, I paid bail and got out of prison.”

After four months, Issa told us that he had an interview with the UNHCR, and at the end of December 2021 they evacuated a group of migrants, including him, to Rwanda. Having arrived there, Issa informed us that he was heading to Norway to join some of his comrades who had escaped from torment in Libya. By the end of November 2022, Issa told us that he had started completing his education in Norway.


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