Gambian returnee Buba Fabareh was one of 169 migrants to be repatriated from Libya on April 4th this year.
He was caught by police in Tripoli and returned to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) who helped him go back home.
But before Tripoli he was stuck like thousands of other West Africans in Libya’s Sabha city where migrants hoping for a better future in Europe are sold, tortured and turned into slaves in a lawless and place held by Libyan militia they call ‘guntown’.
It begins on the journey itself. After paying smuggling agents to organise their trip to Tripoli in Libya to take a boat to Europe, the migrants travel through several countries to Agadez, for a long time the migrant launch pad in Niger.
Some pay the agents in Agadez others in their home country but either way, the journey is paid to agents before they cross into Libya.
Along the way, they are stopped at checkpoints where officials and some less official men take more cash from them in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Libya.
At the final checkpoint, the entrance to Sabha, all the money they have left is usually stripped away.
Agents pay the drivers once they arrive. If they don’t get paid, the migrants said, the drivers will sometimes sell the migrants to local gangsters called ‘asma boys’ who jail them and demand repayment with interest.
Fabareh says that some of the prisons were managed by Nigerians working for the Libyans.
“If your agent does not pay the driver the driver will take you to these Nigerians and sell you to them, so if you sell one person to them, like thousand dinar, one thousand dinar, then after that the man, the owner of the prison will charge you 2,500 dinar ($ 1760) or 2,700 dinar,” said Fabareh.
The 27-year-old said Libyans in Sabha, who are all armed, have found other ways of exploiting the migrants who seek day work to pay the money they owe from being sold as well as to save up for the journey to Tripoli.
Many of those who employ them for day work refuse to pay for their labour.
“He told me to clean his place, I clean the place. From there he takes me outside the compound he said to me: “I want you to cut this grass,” because by then there was no ‘cut-grass’ (tools). The ‘cut-grass’ I have it was not sharp. Then I said to him “this cut-grass is not sharp, I cannot use it to cut this way, I will get wounded.”
He said: “If you don’t cut this I will not pay you” then he shouts at me “barra” in Libyan language it means — go, go away, move from here, then I go,” Fabareh said.
The IOM says about half of the migrants it helped move back last year were held in Libya’s detention centers, where many suffer ill health and have no access proper treatment.
Humanitarian groups and the United Nations have criticized the camps, saying migrants suffer arbitrary detention, forced labor, rape and torture.
Last year alone about 4,500 people who attempted the perilous journey, died.
The European Union has dedicated 90 million Euros to the “appalling situation” for migrants in Libya, where civil war has lingered since the death of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
But experts say it is hard to see how grants or repatriation that have helped in neighbouring Algeria and Morocco will work in an inaccessible region long torn apart by conflict.
Another Gambian returnee, 22-year-old Mafu Hydara, says he too would often not get paid for his labour during his time in Sabha where he arrived after a backbreaking 6-day crossing of the desert from Agadez.
One morning in September last year, Hydara went to Chat Place, a roundabout in central Sabha where migrants wait for odd jobs to make enough for a 500 dinar ($350) ride to Tripoli.
A day’s work making cement bricks could fetch about 10 dinar, if the employer is willing to pay, which they often were not.
Going to Chat Place at all took courage. Migrants are often robbed walking there.
Frequently, random sniper fire from nearby buildings forced everyone to scatter.
Hydara got into a large black pick-up truck with three others for what the driver said would be a day of moving furniture.
“He told me that I have a refrigerator in my house so you are going to move that refrigerator from another room to another said I need 4 people — then four of us joined that pick up. They lock all the doors. They pull a gun threatening us that everyone who is trying to escape here we will shoot you,” said Hydara.
Hydara said many of his friends at the Sabha compound where he was sleeping experienced the same thing, so he was expecting it and remained calm.
His captors called his uncle in Senegal demanding he pay money to their agent there for his nephew’s release.
He was handcuffed and beaten with pipes and cables in the meantime. A few days later, his uncle paid the money in cash to an agent in Dakar, and Hydara was released.
When Hydara arrived in Sabha he had paid his last $300 to get there. The city was meant to be a place to recuperate and earn money to continue his 3,000-mile journey north to Italy, where he hoped to attend school.
Bubacar Samba, a 27-year-old carpenter who flew back on the same flight as Hydara, says he felt deep shame in his premature return.
His stepmother cried tears of disappointment when he walked back into her kitchen. She was certain he would reach Europe, get a job and send money home. His return broke her dreams, too.
Samba had spent months in Sabha working for little or no pay and was jailed in Tripoli where his captors tried to get his relatives to send money. They had none, and he eventually escaped.
“So I even came, my step mum cried because she didn’t expect me I would come back in Gambia because when I am living here I have the intention to go to Europe and live a good life and help the family. That is my mission to leave my country so when I come home with empty pocket,” Samba said, fighting back tears.
“You are treated like a slave. Because Libyans, if they see a black man, they cover their nose. Some will not shake hands with you. Even in the mosque, some will not stand beside you. Some will not even allow you to enter into the mosque,” said Fubareh.
In April this year the IOM said that migrants are bought and sold in modern day “slave markets” in Sabha run by large smuggling rings looking to profit from migrants.
Local Sabha officials deny that charge. Libya is the main gateway for migrants attempting to reach Europe by sea, with more than 150,000 people making the crossing in each of the past three years.