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Geopolitics

For These Three Teens, All Roads Led To Lampedusa

Young men who left Eritrea, by way of Libya, may have all ended up in Lampedusa, but they took many different paths getting there.

Kalab, Jon and Simon, young Eritrean migrants
Kalab, Jon and Simon, young Eritrean migrants
Luis Lema

LAMPEDUSA — In the Via Roma, Lampedusa’s main street, Kalab, Jon and Simon look merry. They even brag about the few euros they have in their pockets, with which they could buy themselves a soda in a café. The three Eritreans are all just 17 years old. And their escapes are similar: Had they not fled, they would have been called up for military service to "prepare for war against Ethiopia."

The young men didn't know each other at the time, but they followed the same itinerary, crossing Sudan on packed trucks, carefully avoiding the road through Egypt and the deadly trap of Sinai and winding up in Libya before eventually making the journey to Lampedusa.

They are a bit angry because Italian customs officials haven't asked for their fingerprints. This makes them fear they could get sent back to Libya. They don't know this, but in reality, Italy is in no hurry to keep them on its territory and often facilitates the departures of migrants like them to other European countries. On their phones, Jon and Simon both have the names of relatives set up in Germany. Not Kalab. But he decided that, no matter what, he'll follow his new friends.

The accounts of survivors who have arrived in Lampedusa illustrate just how diverse the paths really are to this destination. But most of them have one thing in common: having experienced the brutality of Libya's ruling militias.

Nosal, a Nigerian, stayed four months in Libya. He characterizes it as four months of "prison," during which he didn't know whether his jailers wanted to protect him from the Islamists or participate in the human trafficking that is so endemic there. He was beaten, stripped of his money and deprived of food, before being forced onto a boat.

"People spoke to me in "Muslim"" he says, meaning Arabic. Six months earlier, Nosal had fled the Boko Haram extremists, who burned down his village and killed both of his parents. "In Libya, they were the same," he says.

Inathi, just 18 years old, is an experienced plumber. He had been repairing piping for the past four years in a neighborhood of Tripoli, where he was born. Now in Lampedusa and supervised by the Italian police, he is about to board the ferry that will take him to Sicily. "Libya was my country," he says. "But I was left no choice: I paid, or I was dead."

To get to Lampedusa, he paid 500 Libyan dinars, or $365. He was led like cattle onto a small boat that left Zawiya, next to Tripoli, last April, with more than 300 people onboard.

In truth, the young Inathi had another theoretical option, which was to go to Ghana, where his family originally comes from but where he has never set foot. "I thought for a moment about leaving for Accra," he says of the capital. "I was too scared to cross the Mediterranean. But Accra is at the other end of Africa. I would have never made it. I would have been killed on the road."

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