GARABULLI — Two unfinished houses on the sand, facing a Mediterranean sea in shades of grey. So this is where they left from.
According to various Libyan sources, the vessel carrying more than 800 people left Libya on what became its fateful crossing between Saturday April 18 and Sunday 19 from this long stretch of weed-spotted beach in Garabulli, about 30 kilometers east of Tripoli.
Together with Zuwara, Sabratha, Zawiya, Al-Khums and Zliten, this is one of the boarding bases for boats out of Tripolitania, the area around the capital, heading towards Italy and its deadly mirages.
To reach Garabulli, you first need to cross a checkpoint and pass a pickup truck spiked with machine guns. The atmosphere is highly-charged just days after fights between local militias, growing more commonplace as Libya sinks into chaos. Past the checkpoint, you need to take bumpy roads eaten by the sand where flocks of sheep sometimes cross. Then suddenly, the desolate coast appears with these wrecked dumps that serve as night-time shelters before the great departure.
Abdoul Malik Mohamed’s trousers are stained with white paint. The young Nigerien works in Garabulli. He arrived in Libya in 2014 after having crossed the desert, guided by smugglers. "There were about 15 of us," he says. "Four-wheel drives transported us from Agadez in Niger to Sabha in Libya, and from Sabha to Tripoli. Our smugglers were Nigeriens and Libyans."
In Garabulli, Abdoul Malik Mohamed found a job working on the construction site of a seaside resort. It is a slightly surreal setting of varnished huts surrounded by high grass, owned by locals who want to turn it into a vacation haven for Tripoli’s wealthy families.
But the young Nigerien sees something else when he looks north. Pointing his finger towards the sea, he remembers the day last summer. "There were bodies everywhere on the beach, we couldn’t even count them anymore."
Sitting next to him, his brother Abdoulaye Mohamed does mention a figure. "There were 250," he says. Garabulli, the gateway to the sea of death.
The two Nigeriens are the other side of African immigration in Libya. They have no intention to attempt the perilous adventure to Europe. They’re here to make a bit of money in a country that used to be a gold mine for day laborers and which, despite the chaos, continues to offer odd jobs.
In all towns and cities around the capital region, migrant workers are everywhere. You can see them working on the roads, paving the sidewalks, washing cars, cleaning shop windows, building houses. They earn up to 600 or 700 dinars per month ($500 dollars).
For many immigrants from Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal, this money is saved to pay for their crossing of the Mediterranean. But for those from Niger, a neighboring country they can return to easily, Libya is an end in itself, a simple source of revenue before they go back. "We’ll return home to Niger in six months, no doubt about that," says Abdoulaye Mohamed. "It’s too dangerous! I’ll never let my brother go to Europe."
His brother Abdoul Malik has no intention of making the crossing either. "I’ll never go, I’m afraid I’ll die," he says, remembering again what he saw last summer.
Thirty kilometers away, dusk falls on Tripoli. The city is surprisingly empty. Cars drive along the seafront road, lined with buildings of Italian-style architecture. But the small number of vehicles is troubling in a capital city that used to be clogged up in traffic. Tripoli has become an unstable and unpredictable city. Nights are chilly with gusts of machine gun fire that tear up the thick silence, a mournful ritual that ended up emptying the city of part of its population.
In a dusty back alley, Yaya Moussa sweeps between the cardboard boxes and plastic bags littering the ground. The fabric shops are closing, vans are loading up bundles of fabric. Moussa cuts a fine figure in his yellow uniform. He is also from Niger. But unlike many of his fellow countrymen, he’s not so sure he’s given up on the idea of going to Europe altogether. "If the opportunity arises, why not?," he says. His friend Al-Hussaini Gumar, dressed in an AC Milan soccer jersey, says instead that it's too dangerous.
While they wait for a European adventure or a return home, how long will the two Nigeriens stay in Tripoli? The atmosphere is growing more inhospitable by the day. Not to mention that they have stopped receiving their wages. "We haven’t been paid in five months," Moussa says.
The lack of wages is a key detail that says much about the relentless exhaustion of the resources of a country that used to benefit a lot from oil revenues. And there’s the surrounding violence they can no longer ignore. "When fights erupt in Tripoli, sometimes migrants die because of stray bullets."
So, what should they do: flee back home in the face of danger or stay to earn a bit more for their family? And there is always the beach, which stares at them with the opportunity of a better life in Europe, or an anonymous death, like so many who left before.