“It’s heart-breaking,” says Omar from my computer screen. We are meeting via Zoom. He is in Libya’s capital, Tripoli. I’m at my home office in Oslo. For security reasons, we are not using his real name or showing his face. He is in his early 20s. He has a wife and a little daughter.
“I have no words for how horrible it is,” he continues.
I’ve been telling him about the story of the Kurdish-Iranian boy named Artin. The little boy was only 15 months old. His body, dressed in overalls, had been in the sea for a long time before he washed ashore on the island of Karmøy in Norway on New Year’s Day 2021.
Together with his parents and two siblings, Artin was attempting to cross the English Channel on 21 October, in order to reach the port city of Dunkirk in northern France. The weather was bad. The small boat began to take on water before it capsized. Father Rasoul Iran-Nejad, 35, mother Shiva Mohammad Panahi, 35, and siblings Anitam, 9, Armin, 6, and Artin, 1, all perished.
Of course, Omar knows that hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people lose their lives in the Mediterranean every year. It was a journey he was forced to attempt himself.
When he hears the stories of the individuals – especially children like Artin, it is natural for him to think of his own daughter, who is about the same age.
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Dreaming of Africa
Omar never dreamt of Europe.
He dreams of living in freedom in an African country.
Only the United Nations can help him do that. But the hope that they will do anything for him and his small family is beginning to shrink dramatically. The way he sees it, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, doesn’t appear to be taking significant action on his case. They have asked him a few questions, and given him a note with a case number on it.
Italy, on the other hand, is only a short boat ride away.
Growing up with war
This is Omar’s story.
He was born in one of the countries in the Horn of Africa (for his protection, we are not naming which one).
The Horn of Africa is strategically located on the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. It is a geographical area, but is also associated with interrelated conflicts. Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Djibouti, as well as Sudan, South Sudan, Kenya and Uganda are often included when talking about the conflict situation around the Horn of Africa.
“My mother took on whatever work she could get in the neighbourhood – everything from housework to cooking. My father ran a taxi business with a motorcycle. I have an older brother,” says Omar and continues:
“There were civil war-like conditions in the country. When I was three years old, my father was injured in the fighting. There was no medical help. His injuries gradually made him more and more ill. After a year, he died.”
Do you remember him?
Do you have a picture of him?
“No,” Omar answers – and looks down at the table.
Displaced – again and again
In 1999, after her husband’s death, Omar’s mother and her two sons fled.
They lived for a few years in a border area in Kenya. Omar eventually started school. Constant fighting between armed groups again forced them to flee. This time they went over to the Ethiopian side. In 2015 and 2016, the situation became intensely violent, with many clashes and innocent people being killed. Omar, his brother and mother fled to the Sudanese side. Then they went back to the Ethiopian side.
“In 2017, I had the opportunity to start university in Ethiopia. I moved to the city to live on campus and study social sciences. This was paid for by the Ethiopian authorities. But I had to pay for food and various expenses, such as exam fees, myself. We were not permitted to leave campus, so I couldn’t work to make money. When you don’t have parents or others who can support you financially, how can you manage?”
Lost touch with his mother and brother
“Again, fighting broke out where my mother was staying, and innocent civilians were killed. She began to become very tired of a life of displacement. She called me several times. Eventually, she wanted to cross the border into Kenya, to the Kakuma refugee camp where my brother had gone.
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“The phone number she had used in Ethiopia stopped working when she left the country. So, I haven’t talked to her since. Not with my brother either.
“I don’t know where they are or how they feel.
“I don’t even know if they are alive.”
Deciding to go to Sudan
He had been a student for five months. On 22 January 2017, Omar sat bent over his books in the university library. He was hungry. He couldn’t concentrate. All he could think of was the hopeless situation he was in.
“Then I decided to leave. It was the only solution if I was going to survive,” says Omar and continues:
“At first I thought of Kenya, but at that time, the border was more or less closed. But what about Sudan? I had heard that it was possible to get a job there. My goal was to make money so that I could cover the most important things, such as food, a place to sleep and expenses for my studies. I turned to a guy I was friends with on Facebook. I had noticed that he had posted a picture of himself in Khartoum [Sudan’s capital]. I wrote to him for advice.
“He answered: ‘Getting to Sudan is a simple matter.’
“I said: ‘But I don’t have any money.’
“He said: ‘No problem! There is a group in Ethiopia that is going to make the trip now. You can contact them and say you want to join them. Just say hello from me.’
“I got a phone number that I called, and a man answered.
“I said: ‘Hello, I want to go to Sudan and my friend says you can help me. But I don’t have any money.’
“The man replied: ‘No problem. Do you want to leave tomorrow? I can pick you up.’”
In the traffickers’ network
“I was surprised that it was so easy and asked myself: why would they help me for free? But the man assured me that this was perfectly fine and that if I wanted to pay, I could do it later.”
The next day, at ten o’clock, the man drove up in a pickup truck to get Omar. He was a short man, around 35 years old. He said that Omar should not bring any luggage.
They drove for two hours to a place where a man from Eritrea and a man from Ethiopia were waiting. Omar was told that he was going to travel with them.
They were given food. Everything seemed fine.
“I asked the man from Ethiopia if he had paid anything for this trip. He answered: ‘No, but that I have a brother in Sudan who has paid for me,’” says Omar.
In the evening, they were told they would continue the journey by minibus. They drove through the night, towards Sudan. There were no police and no checkpoints on the road. They arrived at a city. There, they went to the driver’s home, where they were served food and drink. They spent the night. The next night they were to travel on with a new driver.
Omar was a little shocked when he saw that it was a Land Cruiser police car that came to pick them up at eight o’clock in the evening.
They drove until ten in the morning and received neither food nor drink.
“We crossed the Sudanese border. A group of children and adults, 20 people, were waiting. Now there were 23 of us going to Khartoum. We got a new driver, a guy from Sudan. He was supposed to drive us to Khartoum.”
“At that time, I knew nothing about human traffickers. I still believed everything was in good faith. We were given food. I talked to people in the group, who told me that they had been waiting there for two, three, four days. They had all arrived in smaller groups, like us.”
Omar says that in addition to the driver, there were five or six other men with guns. He thought that if they were policemen, it was strange that they were not in uniform.
“Then it began to dawn on me that they might have kidnapped us. That they might kill us. But why did they give us food?
“It didn’t make sense.
“We never drove on ‘normal’ roads, only on roads where we would not be seen.
“It was then that I realised the situation was dangerous.”
It was hot. Omar and the others slept on mats on the floor of a warehouse. Men, women and children. They had access to a toilet and water for washing. They were given food and drinking water.
They were told that they would have to wait there a few days before they would be picked up by someone.
Then three Toyotas arrived. Eight people were placed in each car. In Omar’s car there were three women and the rest were men, plus the driver and his colleague. There were guns in the car. They drove for 24 hours.
They arrived in Khartoum at eleven o’clock in the evening. There they were moved into cars with windows that prevented people from seeing in but not from seeing out.
“I saw lively city life. But to my great surprise, we didn’t stop – just drove on. Then I thought maybe we were going to one of the city’s suburbs. But we drove for several hours. Until we came to the Sahara. And there is nothing there. Absolutely nothing.
“In the middle of the night, we were told to get out of the car and wait there. Then they just left us. What were we supposed to do? We were now alone, 23 people, including several children and five or six pregnant women.
“It was so cold!
In the middle of the Sahara
After an hour, six vehicles appeared: Land Cruiser pickups. Several men with guns jumped out.
“They distributed us between the vehicles, six to each vehicle – in the back. We drove for three days. Without food and water. Not a single drop of water. We got nothing. Nothing! I felt sorry for the women and children. People started to get sick. The children cried, we begged and cried. The men didn’t care.
“In the middle of the Sahara was a large warehouse. There were about 60 people there who said they had been locked up for over 50 days. They came from various countries and all had Khartoum as their goal.
“We slept on the floor and received macaroni and water twice a day. After two days, we were picked up by lorries and most of us had to stand upright in the back.
“After a couple of days of driving, we were told that we would be picked up by Arab men.
“And that we were going to Libya.”
Hell on earth
“They came in at least ten Land Cruisers. They were heavily armed. Again, everyone was divided into groups; this time, there were ten people per group. Anyone who dared to ask questions was beaten.”
Omar says that their next destination was Cufra, an area in the Libyan desert (Al Kufrah in Arabic, with borders to Egypt, Sudan and Chad.)
He says it is impossible to escape from Cufra, because of its desert location.
“It is an area where people are sold, just as slaves were sold in the past and put on slave ships. For the slave traders, dark people like me are reduced to a commodity to sell,” says Omar and continues:
“There was a huge building, a hangar with around 350–360 people. Women, men, children. They had been inside the hangar for one year, two years, three years. I could see that many were malnourished. Many were ill. White macaroni was all there was to eat, morning and evening. There are no medicines or medical help. People died from lack of food and disease.
“Both women and men were raped.
“Torture was common. And those who carried out the torture were always our own countrymen. These people work for the Libyans.”
Torture on several levels
“A group of men had the task of getting us to call our families to ask for money. Outside the hangar, there was a small house, two by three metres, which was where we had to make the calls.
“In particular, those who couldn’t obtain any money were subjected to violence and torture. They were to be ‘processed’. This could take place over two to three months.
“Most of them died.
“This is how the traffickers operate when it comes to kidnapped children. The children are forced to call their parents, who of course are out of their minds with desperation and say to the children: ‘Where are you? Where are you? We have been looking for you for over two months.’
“The child cries on the phone. Sometimes they abuse the child while calling the parents on Facetime. Then, the parents see with their own eyes how their children are suffering and naturally do everything in their power to collect the money.
“Even if someone manages to pay, there is no certainty that they will survive. Because they can either die or be kidnapped by someone else. Or like a woman in my group: she paid but was still not released, and she was raped every single night.
“The traffickers said: ‘Call your family and tell them to send USD 5,500 (around NOK 48,000).’ I said: ‘But I have no-one to call.ְ’ They pushed me for days. To show what happens to you if you don’t call, they torture and kill people in front of your eyes.
“Finally, I said they could kill me or let me pay by working.
“The next morning, one of the Libyan men arrived. I told him in Arabic that I had no-one to call. The man from my home country threw a shoe at me and said: ‘Don’t say that – I’ll kill you.’ I answered: ‘No problem, just kill me,’ and said to the Libyan: ‘I can work.’ He said: ‘We don’t need that, we need money.’
“He walked off.
“The man from my home country continued to harass me for a week. Then one day, making sure others were watching, he warmed up a piece of iron, asked me to put my hands behind my head...”
Through my computer screen, I see Omar fold his hands behind his head...
“...like this, and then he pressed the hot iron on my arm, here...”
He points and I see a large scar on his forearm.
“...and he said: ‘If you don’t make a call, we’ll hang you tomorrow.’
“I had long since lost all hope. I answered the man: ‘Just hang me.’ He tied my hands. The arm with the wound swelled up.
“After a week, I was told that I could work for him. I started by washing the toilets. I worked without pay for over seven months.
“But I survived.”
Omar didn’t believe it was true, but they said they would take him and the rest of his group to the sea. They drove for three days.
They were let off in a deserted spot along the coast.
It lasted about eight hours.
Eight hours of freedom.
Then armed men arrived. A militia. Kidnappers.
“The same thing happened again: we were transported to a hangar with around 600 people.
“They said: ‘Call your family and tell them to pay.’
“We said: ‘But we have already paid in Cufra.’
“For over three months we heard: ‘Pay and you will be free.’
On 30 June 2018, Omar was one of 270 people who went to the coast, to Al-Khoums. In wooden boats, they tried to cross the sea. After seven hours at sea, they were stopped by the Libyan Coast Guard and taken back ashore.
They were transported to a detention centre. Omar was there for about ten months.
It was where he met the woman he lives with now.
She became pregnant.
Today, the three of them live in Tripoli.
“Most migrants in Tripoli don’t have a job, and to survive, they depend on their families sending them money. In addition, there is the coronavirus pandemic. Life here is very, very difficult,” says Omar.
He has been a hotel cleaner, worked as a social worker for an organisation and been hired as an interpreter – he speaks seven languages.
“UNCHR is my only hope. I am waiting – and I have been waiting a long time – for UNCHR to help us to a safe country. But time passes.
“The most important thing for me is to ensure a good future for my daughter. The older she gets, the more stressed I become. Life in Tripoli is extremely dangerous. Everyone has guns – even children. You can be robbed or kidnapped in broad daylight. We have had burglaries in the middle of the night three times. When I leave home to work, I’m scared. It’s dangerous to go outside. If I have to take a taxi, it usually costs five dinars, but because I have dark skin, they want 15 or 20. That’s money I don’t have. It is the same with the rent; they increase it all the time.
“My daughter would love to go outside. But I dare not let her. Every time I leave, she cries because she wants to come out with me. Both my wife and my daughter are always inside. It eats away at the psyche.
“I’m always hoping to be called for an interview with UNHCR. But day by day, I lose hope. No-one makes contact. I get the feeling that they are not following up on my case.
“Then the sea is our only hope. There, we either get across or die.
“That is our last resort.”
Sources: Nrk.no, The Great Norwegian Encyclopedia, Vårt Land, issafrica.org, msf.org, Bistandsaktuelt, Aftenposten, Amnesty International, UN News, UNHCR, Doctors Without Borders