Voices from purgatory: ‘Why are we here?’

Il Manifesto Global – 22 giugno 2017

REPORTAGE. We went behind the bars of Abu Salim detention center in Libya, where thousands of migrants, including women and children, are held illegally. They’re forced to work, they’re raped and they aren’t provided proper medical care. The only way out is a bribe

Abu Salim Detention Centre - Tripoli (Libia)

by Federica Iezzi

Tripoli (Libya) – The same questions are asked over and over like a pounding litany, waiting for an answer that, at best, will arrive months later. The arbitrary detentions in Libya seem legalized.

Silence, darkness and solitude accompany the already arduous journey of thousands of families trying to escape war, persecution, violence and hunger.

Among cages, bars and temperatures approaching 38 degrees Celsius (100 Fahrenheit), the voices of the migrants ask in various dialects: “Why are we here? And when can I get out?”

We are enclosed in the vortex of the Abu Salim Detention Center, in the homonymous Tripoli district, where, according to estimates of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), there are at least 6,000 detained migrants.

The red tape for dozens of permits slows down health-related activities, monitoring and judicial processes in the 44 detention centers set up by the Libyans, including 24 managed directly by the al-Sarraj government. In the hours and hours of waiting, time does not exist. Time is the exact moment lived.

Departures of migrants from Libyan shores never stop. Thousands of people continue to arrive every day to Libya. Many try to hide, waiting to board an old fishing boat, after paying a smuggler the sum required. And then they brave the 470 kilometers of sea that separates Libya from Italy. This stretch has become a graveyard for more than 4,500 people in 2016 and more than 1,500 people already this year.

But most of the people are trapped in the limbo of detention centers. The legal situation in Libya winds its way through unconstitutional laws and transitional rules, the result of the ongoing conflict and the legacy of the Gaddafi era.

The result is that today’s migrants, refugees and asylum seekers are all considered illegal aliens and, therefore, are subject to fines, detention and deportation, based on the old 1987 and 2004 laws.

The fines can go as high as 1,000 Libyan dinars (about $730), and they skyrocket if the immigrant does not have any entry documents. The detentions involve forced labor and, almost always, end with expulsion from Libya. The term of imprisonment for a migrant is arbitrary and unpredictable, it can last from a few months to two years.

One cell, designed to hold four people, is shared by 20 women and 20 children, crammed next to one another. The four corners of the room are occupied by dozens of mattresses, thrown chaotically on the ground.

Mothers comb the hair of disoriented girls who proudly show their bare feet. There are no toys. There is not enough water for everyone. There are five bathrooms for 150 people. Often, the detainees are forced to urinate and defecate in their cells.

“I gave birth to my baby in one of these filthy toilets,” a mother named Naalia tells us. “He was covered in blood and was dying of suffocation.” She tells us about it while standing in front of those nauseatingly smelly latrines, a stench that stings the eyes. A mixture of acid, excrement and urine, washed with buckets of stagnant water.

“That image haunts me,” she says. No doctor assisted Naalia and her son that day. They did not receive any special treatment: The meal was barely 400 calories, and the milk was yellowish and diluted with well water.

Every prison guard carries a Kalashnikov. They swear they take the children out once a day, but in fact the children are let out once every four days. Outside, there is a large open area, where they roam around, doing nothing for a couple of hours, surrounded by barbed wire fences.

We sit with Victor beside the mattress on which he has slept for 10 months and he tells us: “They arrested me in Garabulli.” He wants to tell his family that he is still alive, but he cannot. During arrests, Libyan soldiers systematically confiscate all phones, so their only form of communication is interrupted.
Victor comes from the city of Kano, in northwest Nigeria. “I paid $2,000 to cross Niger, via the Agadez crossing. Then, I arrived in Sabha in Libya, and for another $700 I was led to Garabulli.”

Before risking death in the Mediterranean and before crossing the battlefields of the Libyan civil war, most West African immigrants go through Agadez, which travelers can reach by bus from almost anywhere. It is the northernmost edge of the area known as Ecowas (Economic Community of West African States), similar to Europe’s Schengen area, where people can travel without a visa.

In Agadez, all bus drivers stop and smugglers start moving people across the desert. Only a select few local drivers know which dunes lead to the Sahara and which ones lead to death. The trek to Sabha takes two weeks, without food or water.

Up to 2,000 Migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa go through Libya every week, from the border checkpoint located in the village of Tumo, between Niger and Libya, one of the three main points of entry patrolled by the Libyan army, along with Ghat and Ghadames.

When Victor recounts the details of his journey, his eyes seem unfocused. “No doctor comes to the center,” he says. It is impossible to obtain a detailed list of those held in the Abu Salim cells. No one is informed of the reason for their imprisonment. There is no formal registration, no legal process is performed and no one is allowed to talk to the judicial authorities.

Only once a month, a mobile clinic is admitted to treat skin diseases, diarrhea, and respiratory and urinary infections. The health system in Libya is close to collapse, due to chronic lack of medicines, medical equipment and personnel.

“After 4,000 km,” Victor continues, “I was ready to embark in Garabulli, along with hundreds of other poor bastards. Often, the coast guard, constantly threatened by the traffickers, close their eyes. This time, they captured us and we were taken to Abu Salim.”

There, he was forced to work on their agricultural projects, carry around sand and stones while wearing chains on his wrists, work on paving their roads and participate in the construction of waste collectors. He has been mocked, mistreated, raped and beaten. He was held in prison because he did not have enough money to pay off corrupt police.

How do they leave? The guards provide a phone to detainees and force them to call their relatives and ask them to transfer large sums of money to buy their freedom.

These chilling stories seep into your bones in the silence of the center. Each of these detentions is completely illegitimate.

Il Manifesto Global ‘Voices from purgatory: Why are we here?’ by Federica Iezzi

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“ISIS does not show mercy”

Il Manifesto Global Edition – 26 luglio 2016

REPORTAGE. An Il Manifesto reporter visited al-Hasakah, after its liberation from Islamic State rule. The Syrian city is breathing a tentative relief as the war continues

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di Federica Iezzi

Al-Hasakah (Siria) – “They have reduced houses, palaces and churches to ruins. They have damaged hospitals, barracks, universities and unleashed violence against thousands of unarmed people. They have destroyed lives, they have annihilated our hopes.”

That’s how Amal, just 15 years old, sees the war within which he has lived for more than five years. He lives, with his surviving relatives, in al-Hasakah, a city in the northeastern corner of Syria.

He lives in the basement of his old home, not because of the danger of bombing that now everyone has gotten used to, but because the old house was completely razed to the ground. And now, what was the floor of the original house has become the ceiling of the new one. In the al-Hasakah governorate, especially in the Jazira Canton, it all started with an offensive launched in February two years ago by fighters of the Islamic State, who have conquered at least 200 villages.

And at Tell Brak, one of these villages between al-Hasakah and Qamishli, the fighting between ISIS and a militia of the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) started. Despite the isolation within the southern corridor of the provincial capital, the jihadists have laid down the law.

“At first, we only watched ISIS’s barbaric acts on television. Deaths, torture, violence were our nightmare every night. Then they arrived in our streets, in our bakeries, in our mosques. And suddenly there was no electricity, no medical care, no water and no food supplies, such as rice, sugar, pasta, nor gasoline,” Amal explains with a disarming precision. Through the network of Kurdish aid organizations, services have been provided with great effort. The Kurdish government has responded to the arbitrary suspension of electricity and the chronic shortage of drinking water with widespread distribution of food, medical supplies and water.

We talked to Amal during the Eid al-Fitr, the feast that follows the sacrifices of the fasting Ramadan month, while most of the shops of the central souk opened their doors with lights and colored drinks. People stroll around the souk, and they look almost inexplicably not intimidated. “We must continue to do those things that help us to make life as normal as possible.”

But what is normal in Syria?

But what is normal in Syria? They lost all the things most of us take for granted every day, from carelessly turning on the faucet and getting clean water, to going to a shop to buy milk. “And yes, I miss the most trivial things,” Amal says. “A hot shower, a bottle of Coca-Cola, going to school on my bike.”

The first to flee from al-Hasakah were the Christians, who lived in the area for decades. Nearly 4,000 families left their homes and daily lives. In a few days, the southeastern neighborhood of al-Nachwa was deserted. One hundred twenty thousand people have sought refuge in surrounding towns and villages, according to data reported by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

“I slept in an open field under an unbearable heat. During the day, however we got refuge in churches, monasteries and schools,” recalls Sarah.

“I prayed, but I did not know what I was looking for with my prayers. Part of me was angry, another part was ashamed for the poor conditions I forced my children to go through.”

Today they continue to live in a maze of administrative processes. They live under warring authorities, afraid to cross into a territory governed by a different authority. And where the two authorities overlap, you must stay out of trouble.

“Al-Hasakah is divided between the Kurdish militia and forces loyal to President al-Assad. I live in a neighborhood controlled by the regime forces, and I avoid passing through a block controlled by the Kurdish militia because they would force me into compulsory military service,” says a frightened Abood, 19. He is a taxi driver, and he uses secondary roads and paths not marked on maps to move between al-Hasakah and Qamishli. “I have two drivers licenses: the first one issued by the Syrian government, in case, and the state police stops me, and the second is for the Kurds, in case I get checked by Asayish, the Kurdish police.”

Yana contributes to Abood’s story. Her parents own a small shop in one of the unfortunate areas in which both the regime and the Kurdish authorities have influence. “We paid the monthly government taxes and, surprisingly, a weekly fee to the Kurdish authorities to clean the streets.”

In August 2015, after prolonged fighting, the Kurdish forces have officially declared the liberation of al-Hasakah from ISIS insurgents. The campaign was conducted on three phases. “In the first phase, we surrounded the villages occupied by Daesh,” explains Felat, a commander of the YPG. “The second phase focused on cutting supply routes, denying the fighters freedom of movement. The third phase is the progressive recapture of neighborhoods from the suburbs to the center.”

“When the al-Hasakah-to-Shaddadah road was closed by the Kurdish army, we felt trapped in the middle of a deja vu. The fear of the siege has persecuted and oppressed us, while there were growing shortages of food, water and medicine. We were willing even to escape on foot through the steep mountain paths,” says Tejaw, a 25-year-old father of four children. “Even the Qamishli airport was inaccessible. Who could fly? Only those who had acquaintances who worked for the Syrian regime, in particular those working in the Air Force Intelligence Directorate. If you had these connections, you could get a ticket for a cargo plane flight for $160.”

Although fewer civilians are willing to discuss the current situation in Syria, Tejaw let us into the tent where he lives in the al-Hawl camp, east of al-Hasakah, and he begins by saying, “The regime’s supporters feel free to speak only in areas controlled by the regime and the opponents speak from the refugee camps.” This is his eloquent simplification.

“What were people dying from when the Caliphate stole our homes? Hunger, poverty, murder, rape, arrest, slaughter. ISIS does not show mercy: It doesn’t matter if you are elderly or young, man or woman. Every drop of blood spilled by our people, every wall that carried stories of generations destroyed, every old district swept away from the maps represents a lost history that will never appear in any book,” he continues.

The border with Turkey and Iraq

Al-Hasakah has always been one of the main objectives of the Islamic State. Considering the close links among Arab tribes on the border between Iraq and Syria, al-Hasakah is still the easiest way to further the trans-frontier expansion of the black caliphate’s possessions.

In the neighborhoods of al-Hasakah, the gradual reopening of markets, shopping and local activities, the restoration work in state institutions and in the security sector faces a city that has yet to come to terms with demolished buildings, houses, meeting points and unrecognizable streets.

Humanitarian efforts are underway to support over half a million of internally displaced people from neighboring cities, such as Deir Ezzor, al-Raqqa and Aleppo. The United Nations Program for Development has allowed at least 400 women to return to work and often the materials produced are distributed to residents in need, from clothing to blankets.

“ISIS has always imposed extensive restrictions on personal freedoms. All women, including girls, were required to wear the niqab, the full veil, or risk public stoning. No colorful veils, gloves, bags, shoes and accessories. The city was a giant prison. Internet at home was forbidden and most of the public networks were interrupted. Mobile phones were banned, and no one was allowed to smoke cigarettes in public places,” recalls Tejaw.

“We had to pay taxes to the caliphate officials, and also an extra voluntary gift of 2,000 Syrian pounds (about $10) was scheduled. People could not afford to buy anything. Many shops have closed and the price of fuel and gas increased five times. Some of my friends have collaborated with the militants for more food and fuel rations. Fifteen kilograms of flour and 10 kg of rice were the amounts a family close to ISIS received.”

Police and street cameras were the eyes and ears of ISIS in the conquered city. Propaganda and indoctrination were everywhere. From school programs to military recruitment. In schools, the teaching of history and law was banned. The classes were segregated, boys in one group, and girls in the other. ISIS militants patrolled primary and secondary schools, interrogating students on Islamic law.

Al-Hasakah had 20 hours of electricity a day, which was later reduced to eight, then six, then less than two. Each district of the city had water once a week. There was no food, the hospital had no doctors or nurses, and not even basic medicines could be found, Tejaw says.

Il Manifesto Global “ISIS does not show mercy” di Federica Iezzi

 

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