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The human catcher
Hundreds of thousands of refugees want to come to Europe from Libya – a billion-dollar deal for gangs of traffickers. A local warlord has declared war on the smugglers: with a boat, 37 men and opaque motifs.
The boat is only a few meters away, the mouth of a machine gun flashes at night, shots crash, we throw ourselves on the floor of the wheelhouse and press the faces on the ship’s mats. Bullets are hitting our heads.
From our cover aboard the Tileel, a patrol ship of the Libyan coast guard, we see a dinghy with African refugees in the waves of the Mediterranean Sea. Right next to it, less than thirty metres from us, men in camouflage suits and face masks with automatic weapons fire at us from a speedboat.
Thursday, April 6,2017, shortly after midnight. The attack comes as a surprise. Commander Al Bija of the Libyan Coast Guard rushed with the Tileel to the refugees to rescue them from the heavy seas on their way from Libya in North Africa to Italy. We had almost reached them when the speedboat emerged from the night and raced towards us like a shadow – smugglers, determined to assert control over their human commodity.
For ten days, we have been travelling along the Libyan coast, on the southern shore of the Mediterranean, the world’s most dangerous border. According to the German government, up to one million refugees and migrants are currently in Libya, by far the most important transit country by sea from Africa to Europe.
300 000 people could cross Europe’s coasts this year.
The EU already wants to stop them in Libya. At their summit in Malta in February 2017, the Heads of State and Government of the member countries reached an agreement with Libya: the Libyan coastguard is to seal off the Mediterranean Sea, intercept refugees and bring them to Libya’s reception camps. This coast guard consists of a single boat and 37 men west of the capital Tripoli, where many of the strongholds of the gangs of smugglers are located. Their leader: Commander Al Bija, a dreaded warlord. Al Bija, thirty, has a mutilated hand he uses like a claw – “I had to kill a lot of people,” he says. And he loves horses. He lived in Berlin for three years. For some he is a hero, for others a criminal or even a murderer. And for Europe’s political leadership led by Angela Merkel, it is the only chance in Libya, this desolate country without central government, army and police, to put a stop to the traffickers of West Libya. While we are crouching on the ground while attacking the Tileel, the commander runs over the deck in hail of bullets, fires at the attackers, gives cover to his people, calls them orders. Around him the bullets of the tugboats crackle against the ship’s side. Slice splinters. Explosions. Screaming. Men fall down, remain motionless. Gunshots are booming for minutes. Then it is suddenly quiet; only the nocturnal Mediterranean Sea claps at the fuselage of the Tileel.
“There is no way around us,” says Commander Al Bija four days before the attack of the smugglers in his command centre, a small room with a glass front above the Zawiya basin, about fifty kilometres west of Tripoli. Beyond the quay walls, the Mediterranean Sea crashes against ochre-coloured cliffs. Al Bija – combed hair, full beard, piercing gaze, gun under the black leather belt of the jeans – puts a cigarette between the ring finger and the little finger of his mutilated hand, lets his lighter crack and pulls the smoke into his lungs. His men are sitting on the sofas with Kalashnikovs. “We’re the only functioning coast guard in West Lybyen.” For almost two years now, Commander Al Bija has been controlling the coastal waters from the Tunisian border to Dschansur just before Tripoli – a territory almost thirty times the size of Lake Constance – with the 16-metre-long Tileel, a few dinghies and his tiny crew. “Our mission,” says Al Bija:”To rescue refugees from distress at sea, track down smugglers, kill them if necessary.”
Since August 2015, Al Bija and his people have brought more than 37,000 people back to Libya from the Mediterranean Sea. On March 18,2016 alone, on a single day, they would have rescued a total of 2,700 people from twelve dinghies and a large wooden boat. The Libyan Ministry of Defence confirms these figures.
On his cell phone, Al Bija shows us a video: African men, women and children rescued from sea distress dance happily in front of the command centre in the harbour with his people. “To the heroes of Zawiya, without you I’d be dead.” Or, “May God reward you a thousand times over.” Or, “You saved my baby from the sea, my life is yours.”
So, is Commander Al Bija the ally that Europe is urgently looking for? Merkel’s husband in Libya? At the summit of heads of government in Malta, the Chancellor agreed to train Libyan coastguards on European warships and on land in armed border control and in dealing with refugees. In order to put an end to the traffickers’ business, Italy is providing 200 million euros and the EU Commission is making another 200 million euros available in a first phase.
“We don’t need training,” says Al Bija at the command centre in Zawiya harbour. “We know how to navigate, how to fight and kill.” Then what does he want? “If we are to do the dirty work for Europe, Europe is to pay us for it.” The price for his services: “A rescue ship for up to a thousand people, speedboats, spare parts, fuel, pay.”
Does the Commander really belong to the “good guys”, as he himself claims? Or is he playing double-cross?
There are currently no alternatives to Al Bija for Europe. Six years after the overthrow and death of Libyan ruler Muammar al-Gaddafi in the course of the International Military Mission in 2011, the euphoria of the Arab Spring has long since vanished. Hardly anyone in Libya hopes for a transition to democracy. The people’s brigades, who had risen against the dictatorship during the revolution under the rejoicing of the Western world, did not lay down their weapons after Gaddafi’s fall. They plundered military arsenals, occupied empty ministries and set up militias.
The “Government of National Unity”, on which the EU’s plans are based, has little control over Libya. Prime Minister Fayiz as-Sarradsch, empowered by the United Nations and in office since 15 March 2016, is to establish a new state. But the parliament, which meets in Tobruk, a thousand kilometres east of Tripoli, has not recognised Sarradsch’s unity government. In the east of the country, the powerful General Haftar refuses to cooperate with him. And the terrorist organisation Islamic State has conquered several cities.
1700 militant groups, experts estimate, are fighting in Libya in an opaque civil war along clan, tribal and religious borders and in the territories of local warlords. Rival militias control cities, highways, refineries and oil fields. And the multi-million-dollar deal with people who want to travel to Europe via the Mediterranean.
The people of the EU are sitting in their fancy offices and making things up,” says Commander Al Bija as he shows us his base, a rocky bay with tightly guarded entrances and port walls. On board the Tileel, several men oil a heavy machine gun. The West Libyan coast is the “mother of all tribes and clans”, explains Al Bija: a world sealed off from outsiders – even against foreign Libyans. “Whoever hasn’t been born and raised here won’t survive.”
Al Bija says that hundreds of well-trained people are needed to rid the coast of smugglers. But who will choose these men? The weak unity government in Tripoli? The EU? “Me,” says the commander. “I know the right people.”
He tells his story like this: In 2011, he finished his studies at the Naval Academy in Tripoli. He joined the rebels against Gaddafi, was severely wounded nine times and lost two fingers of his right hand in a grenade attack. He slightly retracts his left leg; his hip is crooked. If he feels unobserved, he takes painkillers.
In the summer of 2015, the son of a former army officer, whose real name was Abdurahman Salem Ibrahim Milad, and whose nickname was Al Bija, sat in a café in bombed Zawiya with his revolutionary comrades. Gaddafi had been dead for four years, Libya a failed state. There was no work. Neither do prospects. Then an idea came to them: “Why don’t we do something big and take over the port?”
His friend Mohamed Ramadan, thirty, is inseparably fraternized with his machine gun. Ramzi Ibrahim, boy’s face with dazzling white teeth, 26, can compete with any sniper on the Kalashnikov. Mohamed Erhouma, son of a fisherman, thirty, knows the Libyan waters since early childhood and is regarded as a gifted navigator. And Mohamed Shkoundali’s magic hands get every machine back on track. At the age of 35, he is the oldest in the group.
Together they grabbed their weapons on that mild early summer day in 2015, drove an enemy militia out of the port in a bloody battle, set up the command centre and made the battered Tileel, a 16-metre long patrol ship with an infantry gun in the bow, ready to sail. Then they created their own coat of arms, gave themselves military rank, called themselves “Libyan Coast Guard of Zawiya” and went out to the Mediterranean Sea.
Their self-declared enemy: smugglers. The United Nations assumes that there are dozens of gangs organised in a network on the Libyan coast. They often detain refugees and migrants who cannot afford the money to travel to Europe for months on end, in private prisons where they are beaten, raped, tortured and murdered. A recent internal report by the German embassy in Niger speaks of “concentration camp-like conditions”.
One of the most powerful smugglers in West Libya is said to be a man from Sabratha who is barely thirty years old. “Ahmed Dabbashi – VIP trips to Europe,” says Al Bija. “Good boats with powerful engines, escorted by their own militia – guaranteed arrival in Italy.” Dabbashi’s largest boat was launched on July 5,2016, around four o’ clock in the morning. “A dozen of them incapacitated, escort sunk, 600 Africans returned.” Since then, everyone in Libya knows, the Commander says: “We don’t fuck around!”
Why is Al Bija risking his life? “I have a good heart,” he says and lays his hand on his chest. “Shall I let my brothers drown in the sea?”
And how does he make his living? He’s a horse dealer, says Al Bija. His comrades: Shopkeepers, builders, locksmiths. “Much of our income flows into our operations.” Later on, he’ll say they’re at sea 300 days a year.
So how does he really feed his family? “We seize illegal fishing boats from Egypt and Tunisia, sell their catch and keep them until the owners pay the fine.”
Their clans earn millions, buy modern weapons, bulletproof vehicles, tanks – if we don’t disturb their business, they will control, drive us out, kill us in the end “. Here, in the shadowy realm of the warlords, militias and organised smuggling of human beings, Europe wants to do “border management” in order to stop immigration from Africa. But is a warlord like Al Bija the right partner? As a refugee hunter on the Mediterranean, in the EU’s pay? The Commander has taken control of a vast territory that has escaped the state by force of arms. His power is not politically legitimized, but by the power of his troops.
In his bulletproof all-terrain vehicle, parked in the footwell of Kalashnikov, Al Bija takes us to the contested hinterland of Zawiya, where he wants to show us something. We leave behind us the deserted outskirts of the city with the destroyed facades and garnet impacts. At checkpoints, young men patrol in flight jackets and army trousers, with mirrored sunglasses and assault rifles, on their pickups they have mounted anti-aircraft cannons and rocket launchers.
After half an hour, we reach a remote farmstead. Behind a steel gate, another world opens up: magnificent horses are standing in well-kept stables. Two paddocks with accurate sand, willows, a riding hall is under construction. In a small villa with stucco ceiling and wall paintings it still smells of colour. More and more armoured SUVs with loopholes in the blackened discs are rolling in. Men with devious faces, gold jewellery and bodyguards get out. “If there are problems between clans and tribes,” says Al Bija, “we’ll sort them out here.” It is now clear to us that we are at the centre of power.
Al Bija takes off his shoes, walks barefoot through the sand and pulls one of his horses out of the stable: Jodran, the “brave one”, is a grey stallion with well-formed muscles, his fur is groomed several times a day. With shining eyes Al Bija puts a red belly belt and red socks on him.
What does a stallion like Jodran cost? “$50,000!” Everything from sequestrated fishing boats? Al Bija pulls the gun out of the leather belt, hands it to one of his men, swings himself into the saddle and rides away.
Between eucalyptus and fig trees, on an abandoned street, somewhere between the confused fronts of the civil war, the princes of the clans ride side by side a little later in step. It is a demonstration of external unity, a choreography of opaque alliances in the war for Libya. Then they suddenly tear their horses around, give them the spurs and hunt – each one for themselves – towards the horizon. Right in front: Commander Al Bija.
Why is he showing us all this? In the late afternoon we sit together in the sand. Al Bija cooks mint tea over an open fire. We drink from a glass that is passed around among the men and is constantly refilled. So why? “To give something back to the Germans.” Severely wounded in the revolution, he was flown out to Berlin in 2012, where surgeons at St. Marien Hospital patched up his gunshot wounds, amputated the two finger stumps, left Gaddafi’s grenades from his right hand, and provided the wounds with skin transplants. Al Bija spent three years in Berlin. He was treated with respect everywhere in Germany. “And the German women,” he says,”Beautiful!” He speaks Arabic with our translator and has forgotten his German. But he still remembers one word. “Brother,” he calls us and pat us on the shoulder.
Why didn’t he stay in his small apartment at Ernst-Reuter-Platz in Berlin-Charlottenburg? Why did he return in the summer of 2015 to a country that has since sunk into civil war? “Father, mother,” says Al Bija. “Family, clan, tribe.” In Libya you can’t just say goodbye to the war, it’s about more than your own life: “responsibility, honour”.
However, heavy charges are being made against Al Bija. Back at the Command Centre, we read TRT World, one of the leading Turkish news portals based in Istanbul, February 22,2017:”Al Bija is the largest player in the mafia of the Coast Guard, which has a firm grip on the lucrative business of human smuggling in Zawiya and the surrounding coastal region.”.
Al Bija’s gaze darkens. His men are leaving their cell phones. “All smugglers west of Tripoli pay Al Bija their share,” the article says. If you refuse, the Commander will attack you with the Tileel.
Experts such as the Italian journalist Nancy Porsia, who has been reporting from Libya for years, are certain:”The coastguard of the Libyan navy is involved in human trafficking”. Colonel Tarek Shanboor, who is subordinate to the Interior Ministry of the unity government in Tripoli, admits:”We have smugglers in our ranks, that’s a real problem.”
If Europe strengthens the Libyan coastguard under these circumstances, it is doing exactly the wrong thing, warns Frank Dörner of the German aid organisation Sea Watch. Instead of combating smugglers, the EU action plan risks the opposite:”It makes a violent escalation on the water more likely. This makes the situation more dangerous for the refugees.” Commander Al Bija puts his mutilated hand on the table. “Lies,” he says menacingly calmly. “Sent into the world by traffickers.” When his coast guard gets out of the way, they’ll have a free rein for their dirty business.
Al Bija and his men take the Africans, who they intercept in the boats of the tugboats on the Mediterranean, to special camps of the UN-backed unity government – as the EU is planning to do throughout Libya in the future under the Malta Agreement. In Surman Camp, half an hour’s drive west of Zawiya, more than 200 women cower on the ground in a hall with rusty window frames, many with babies. Her knees were pulled against her chest, her headscarves were pulled in front of her face, her eyes fixed on her feet. Nobody dare to move. Not the slightest whispering can be heard.
Only when the guard, a man in camouflage uniform with a neglected beard, reddened eyes and a red flag of alcohol, briefly leaves, does a young woman take her courage to talk to us. She is from Nigeria and has been trapped in Surman Camp for more than ten months, without contact with the outside world. No-one knows where she is, her family must think she’s dead.
She kneels before us, folds her shaking hands. “They rape us!” she whispers and shows us her arms. They are covered with bruises, the impressions of individual fingers are recognizable. “Help us! Please!” She’s lifting her shawl. Her tracksuit is smeared with blood between her legs and knees. “Who did this?” “All of them. One after the other.”
The guard’s coming back. She stops and looks at us, begging. We feel faint. There’s nothing we can do for the women. On the contrary: a false word from us, we suspect, and they would have to pay for it. Maybe with their life.
Outside, Colonel Ibrahim Ali Abdusalam, director of the women’s camp, is waiting. Officially he reports to the Ministry of the Interior, but in reality local militias control the camp. “Look how quiet they are,” he says and smiles. “That means they’re comfortable with us.”
Why would he keep a record of the women for months under these pathetic circumstances? Europe does not want to have these women,”he says calmly and without thinking for a long time. “Good, we’ll keep her here.” But it is high time Europe finally paid for them:”Mobile toilets and showers, swings and slides, tampons, nappies, baby milk.”
We are beginning to understand: The more Africans they put together and the worse off these people are, the better the bargaining position of the militias vis-à-vis the European states. The fact that Europe has long since arrived in Surman that it wants to relocate its border guards to Libya and invest on a large scale has long since arrived. According to Malta’s action plan, the Libyan coastguard will in future deliver intercepted refugees and migrants in “adequate reception capacities”. Libya is then to supply the people and build up a bureaucracy to carry out asylum procedures in accordance with international law. Recognized ones could be distributed to European countries in “contingents”. Rejected, the EU wants to support the “voluntary return” to its home countries.
Aid organizations are storming against this plan. As long as refugees and migrants in Libya are being detained, mistreated, abducted or raped, travelling across the Mediterranean Sea is for many people the only hope of escaping this hell,”explains Markus Beeko of Amnesty International Deutschland. Serious human rights violations against refugees and migrants in Libya must be brought to an end when the EU considers possible cooperation. The organisation Pro Asyl writes in an open letter to Angela Merkel about a “low point of European refugee policy”. Libya has already become a refugee prison once before, financed by Europe. In 2010, the EU took part in a deal between Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Muammar al-Gaddafi, and pledged EUR 50 million to Gaddafi, who had been banned since the 1970s because of his support for international terrorism, to detain refugees and migrants.
Gaddafi didn’t make any misunderstandings: Without him, Europe would turn black through illegal migration. On behalf of Europe, he sent people taken up in the Mediterranean Sea back to Libya and detained them indefinitely in detention camps without checking their right to asylum. Even then, human rights organisations denounced beatings, sexual abuse and torture.
According to the United Nations, the unity government operates 24 internment camps for migrants in Libya, many of them dating back to Gaddafi’s times. Europe wants to use the existing infrastructure and develop it into a humane reception centre. Non-portable camps are to be closed. It remains unclear how the EU intends to get the militias to give up their camps. They let us rot here,”whispers a man from his cell in the Annasser Camp, which is housed in a former tire factory in Zawiya. Through the tiny window in the steel door, only the white of his eyes can be seen. A pungent smell strikes us. Then matches are lit inside, more and more frightened faces shine in the darkness, naked upper bodies, covered with skin diseases and wounds.
The men are cowering close together on the ground. Because it’s too narrow to stretch out, they sleep in a sitting position. There’s no shower, no toilet. Under their blankets they urinate in small water bottles, which they have drunk before. They carry out their bowel movements in plastic bags.
The man at the window of the cell is Mohamed Moseray, 25 years old, a student of computer science from Sierra Leone. He still wears the salt-crusted tracksuit that he wore when he was half-drowned from the Mediterranean sea weeks ago. Underneath his skin is burned by the petrol that had leaked out in a leaking dinghy. In Sierra Leone, he says, he had to quit his studies because he didn’t find a job and his family couldn’t support him. He just couldn’t see any perspective. My big goal is a university degree,”says Moseray, begins to tremble, cries, recovers. “That’s why I want to go to Italy and Canada.” There his studies are financed by the state.
After a five-year odyssey across West Africa and the Sahara, Moseray says, Libyan smugglers pushed the dinghy into the Mediterranean Sea, which Moseray was to bring to Italy on 19 March 2017, shortly after midnight. More than 150 people forced the smugglers into it. “If you don’t get in, they’ll shoot you.” Not even two hours they were at sea, and the boat capsized. “Screams, prayers, people, all over the water, pregnant women, children, babies – they can’t swim!” He enumerates his friends:”Mohamed Focus Diallo – drowns. Amadou Melodiba – drowning. Mohamed Bah – drowns “One by one, he saw him drowning beside himself in the water.
Mohamed Moseray doesn’t remember what came after that. He only remembers the ship that came to them shortly after sunrise. And to the hand his savior held against him. “Like a claw,” says Mohamed Moseray. “A few fingers were missing.”
Around 10 p. m. we board the Tileel, carrying a dozen heavily armed men in camouflage uniforms, put the Velcro fasteners under their chins. Commander Al Bija has been tipped off by his informers: On the beach of the neighbouring town Sabratha, tugboats brought a rubber dinghy full of people to Europe in the stormy night.
The men push cartridges into the magazines of their Kalashnikovs, place grenade launchers on the seats and an ammunition belt into the heavy machine gun in the bow. For them, saving means fighting more and more often. By crossing with the Tileel off the coast, they are heating up the spiral of violence – as more and more gangs of traffickers are moving to escort their human cargo armed.
The cost of the trip to Italy for each individual is currently up to $2500. Put this amount on the 181,000 people who crossed the Mediterranean in 2016 to Italy, and the more than 5,000 people who drowned in the attempt, Libyan smugglers took some 450 million dollars last year.
The fare is due in advance, but losing the freight to Tileel is bad for the hard-fought business. Those who are intercepted at sea and brought back to Libya are advised against their traffickers in the widely ramified networks along the African migration routes. From their point of view, less tragic: when their customers drown and disappear into the Mediterranean. Or drifting no longer identifiable to the beaches.
Without lights, like a phantom, the Tileel walks out of the port of Zawiya and later crashes out into the Mediterranean Sea through high waves. Sprays on both sides of the bug. Gusts of wind shake the wheelhouse. “If we don’t find them, they’ll die,” says Commander Al Bija at the helm.
In Libya, where survival is at stake, nobody plays with their hands wide open. Whatever Al Bija’s agenda may be – at the latest on board the Tileel we suspect: We are part of it. Does he want to show himself as a worthy partner of Europe in the story we will tell about him? And now provide proof that he can deliver?
Al Bija says his EU deal is in full swing. Shortly before our arrival he met British diplomats in Tunis. The Spanish government had invited him to Madrid. What are these conversations about? “Secret!” He reveals some of his demands to us:”Life and health insurance for me and my men. And free visas – for two-week holidays in Europe.”
Course north-northwest, 18 knots. The lights of the coast are retarded, above the pitch-black water the crescent moon stands almost in the zenith, when something flashes on the radar screen. Tense, the men are crowding around Commander Al Bija. The windows of the wheelhouse mist up from their breath, their fingers brushing over the radar as if they could feel on the glass what awaits us out there. We’re heading for the signal in half an hour. Then the infrared camera in the bow, about 400 meters away, detects a boat. Commander Al Bija studies the silhouettes on the monitor. “Rubber Dinghy,” he finally says,”Triumph swings in his voice.
Al Bija looks at us in a meaningful way. Until the end we don’t know who the commander really is – the man who was in Berlin-Charlottenburg to return to Libya and to conquer the coastal waters with a captured ship and a few men. One thing is certain: In war-torn Libya, Al Bija has found a loophole to capitalize on the rescue of refugees.
The main pillars of the EU’s deal with Libya are shaking. The Coast Guard: interspersed with dubious players. Safe reception camps: currently nothing more than militia-managed warehouses for defenceless people, a resource in the war for Libya – and around millions from Europe.
There are no quick solutions,”says Martin Kobler, the German UN special envoy to Libya. “We must do everything we can to stabilise Libya.” Then, instead of boarding the boats, many would stay in this oil-rich country to work under Gaddafi, as in the past. And the people smugglers are running out of merchandise.
The 150 people who are now sitting in the overloaded dinghy within sight of the Tileel and fighting against waves several metres high will not be helped by long-term solutions. We almost reached them, the speedboat races out of the night, the tugs open the fire, we throw ourselves on the ground.
Commander Al Bija runs through the hail of bullets, fires back, pulls a wounded man out of the line of fire, robs over to us. His mutilated hand touches our shoulders. Are we still alive? It seems as if the success of his mission depended on it.
Then it’s suddenly quiet. Carefully we raise our heads. With a hook, Al Bija and his men pull in the speedboat. Three tugboats are shot dead on the ground, two are seriously wounded. it.
“Do you believe us now?” screams the commander. “Do you believe us now that we’re not among them?” We are sure that in order to show ourselves as a partner of Europe, Al Bija has not only risked his life and that of his men, but also ours. And that of the people in the dinghy.
As if petrified, they sit in the light of our flashlights. None of them seem to be hurt. Women folded their hands for prayer. Crying children bury their faces in their mothers’ jackets. Moving her back into port would take hours. The tugboats had still communicated their base with a satellite telephone. The Tileel would have no chance against her fleet of heavily armed speedboats.
Too risky,”says Commander Al Bija, knocking off the dinghy with his foot. The water’s up to their calves. Why doesn’t he take some of them on board? At least the kids? Instead of replying, Commander Al Bija gives you a full drive back to Zawiya. People in the dinghy drift away and disappear into the darkness.
Micheal Obert & Moises Saman have come under fire earlier in crisis areas. But not on a boat, at night on the Mediterranean Sea. On land, it is usually possible to retreat in a controlled manner – on the Tileel, they could only stay on the ground and hope. Translators Salah Almorjini and Moises Saman remained unharmed, Michael Obert broke several ribs in a fall during the attack.