GASR GARABULLI — Migrant #322 slowly lifts his head and opens his eyes. The long shadow of the sun, punctuated by the jail's metal bars, bathes the cement walls as the blue sky seeps through the metal grate ceiling.
It's silent in the cells, except for the faint sound of children crying in the distance and the soft whispers of their mothers to lull them back to sleep. All the imprisoned migrants are in their cells, awaiting the coming distribution of food. Despite being only 24, migrant #322 is among the prison's older residents, and today was tasked with taking away the prison's trash.
He lays on the warm sun baked wall in a brief moment of tranquility, one of his few small victories among the countless episodes of suffering he has endured in his time here, having now been detained for more than a year.
The migrant trafficking in the coastal town of Gasr Garabulli seems to have slept through the Libyan revolution and its subsequent collapse, indifferent to the trials of its detainees and the chaos surrounding it. The country's ongoing civil war has not stopped migrants from across Africa from flocking to this town near the coast, hoping to catch a boat across the Mediterranean to seek asylum in Italy and further afield in Europe.
Gasr Garabulli sits on the coastal highway that links the capital Tripoli to the city of Misrata, and is a temporary home to many African migrants — although many end up in detention for what seems like an eternity, their dreams dashed.
The Libyan countryside of olive and orange groves and the blue horizon of the Mediterranean sea, both lit by the springtime sun, are invisible from the camp's courtyard. They are reminders of the tortuous journey the migrants took to reach here, a beautiful but melancholy stretch of the long path they zigzagged through. I had met other migrants there before, in a land of low-lying sand dunes, bean plantations and eucalyptus trees slowly dying in the desert winter.
Thousands of men, women and children from sub-Saharan Africa languish in Libyan jails, forgotten as nameless victims of conflicts and economic distress. There are a dozen such prison centers in the capital alone. In the camps lining Libya's long coastline, men are only allowed to leave to work in fields in near slave conditions. The women are confined to small cells, where they are subjected to sexual abuse and often wind up pregnant.
The head of the Gasr Garabulli camp is elegantly dressed with a blazer, eager to answer any question. "Africans stay here for a short time, we clothe them and feed them," he says. "We put them in contact with their countries' embassies to organize their repatriation, and everything works well."
He allows me to enter the prison camp, and the guards are unfazed when I ask them about their work. A narrow, fetid cell which could hold at most 10 people hosts at least 50 women and children. A tiny window lets in a sliver of sunlight, as an unbearable stench of rotten food and human waste fills the room. The cell is so cramped that people step over each other to reach mats on the floor.
Pleading for help
A bit of writing scrawled on the wall offers a more hopeful take of the situation: "God is great" and "I love life." A large woman sits in the corner and breast-feeds her child, maintaining extraordinary dignity even in such a terrible place.
Soon a crowd of men, young and old alike, gathers around me when they realize I'm a reporter. "I beg you, please help us, tell the world we've been here for months and years," they plead.
One prisoner adds: "They tortured us at night and stole our documents, phones and everything we had, even though we worked for Libyans for just a few dinars," he says.
Another confirms the abuse: "They mistreat us and then ask us for money, many of us are sick and we can't ask our families for help." I ask them about what the prison head had told me about contacting their respective embassies. "Embassies? What embassies?" they reply. Someone notes that a representative from the Nigerian embassy came once. "But he left without speaking to any of his fellow citizens."
Miles away down the highway in Tripoli, young Africans lie in wait in wheelbarrows in the city's old Ottoman souq, or market. Millions of dollars are exchanged in the local black market, and with just a nod from their boss the youths quickly rise to fill large heavy suitcases flush with wads of cash. Little do they know that when they least expect it, an official will knock at their door to take them to one of the prison camps — perhaps even tonight.