A Libyan militia confronts the world’s migrant crisis

A Libyan militia confronts
the world’s migrant crisis

In a chaotic country, a militia tries to halt the ships bound for Europe.
But is it possible to stop the migrants?

Published on October 16, 2015

ZUWARAH, Libya

The dead were laid in rows on the beach so they could be counted. A dozen bodies soon became a hundred. Somewhere off the coast, the dilapidated fishing boat was still bobbing, half-submerged. There would be more victims.

Even in one of the world’s most notorious smuggling capitals, the Aug. 27 migrant disaster was a shock. The people of Zuwarah borrowed shovels to dig a mass grave. They found the tiny drenched clothes of infants strewn on the shore.

For years, Zuwarah had looked the other way while local smugglers got rich. Migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Syria flooded into Libya’s northernmost city, boarding boats to flee their countries’ extreme poverty and war. But now, the city had enabled a major humanitarian disaster, one its residents could see close up.

“We need to do something,” Sadiq Nanees, the top security official here, said to a group of local leaders.

And so Zuwarah’s citizens decided to do the unthinkable: close down a major North African smuggling route to Italy.

Above: A disintegrating boat on the shore of Zuwarah, a Libyan city that has been a major launch pad for migrants and refugees sailing from Africa to Europe.

EXODUS | Desperate migrants, a broken system

This is part of an occasional series examining the causes and impact of a global wave of migration driven by war, oppression and poverty.

Other stories in the series

A smugglers’ haven in the Sahara
A global surge in refugees leaves Europe struggling to cope
Tiny Gambia has a big export: Migrants desperate to reach Europe
The ‘Black Route’ to Europe, and the story of a Syrian family who braved it

Never has it been more difficult to stop the migrants and refugees trying to cross the sea to Europe. Over 600,000 people have made the journey this year, more than twice the number in all of 2014. In Greece and the Balkans, borders have crumbled before the onslaught from the east. In Libya, the jumping-off point for a smaller but still immense stream of  migrants, hundreds of people climbed aboard flimsy ships nearly every night this summer, taking advantage of a state that has virtually collapsed since the 2011 overthrow of Moammar Gaddafi.

European officials have held meeting after meeting, trying to slow the ceaseless flow of people. They have discussed targeting smugglers’ boats from helicopter gunships, adding naval vessels in the Mediterranean and hiring intelligence experts. So far, nothing has worked.

The crackdown in Zuwarah looked like it might. Thousands of residents filled the streets to demonstrate against human smuggling. A militia pursued smugglers. For the first time in years, rescue boats reported that the seas north of this crucial city were empty.

But could it hold?

Throughout Zuwarah, in crumbling stash houses and spare concrete rooms, the migrants waited for their chance.

Amadou, a Gambian migrant, listens to music on his phone in the streets of Zuwarah. He paid $2,300 to a smuggler to reach Libya and then board a boat for Italy. Laundry hangs outside a cinderblock home shared by migrants, including Amadou. Amadou works on a city maintenance project while waiting to see if he’ll be able to get on a boat bound for Europe.

Amadou heard the protesters from the abandoned house where the smuggler had taken him. He had traveled 3,000 miles from Gambia in 20 days, riding a bus through Mali and Burkina Faso, a truck through Niger and a van across Libya.

Now he could hear the sound of Zuwarah’s crackdown, a chorus of voices chanting in  Arabic.

“No more murdering for money,” he later learned the crowd was saying.

He had arrived here just as the bodies from the shipwreck were being collected. His boat was supposed to leave the following day. But his smuggler fled, hoping to avoid arrest.

“Just give me a few days,” the man told Amadou over the phone. “We need to wait for this thing to calm down.”

Then Amadou was on his own, roaming around a city that was being transformed. On a main street, residents posted a large banner with pictures of the dead from the shipwreck. Amadou walked past cafes and restaurants and the harbor, where people had hung a white sheet proclaiming: “A thousand times no to smuggling.”

Amadou is 26. He is short and thin with a big toothy smile, boylike except for the goatee he is trying to grow. He knows about the danger in crossing the Mediterranean illegally, how the journey has killed about 3,000 people this year. When friends asked if he could swim, Amadou replied: “I sink like a stone in the river.” Everyone would laugh, but it was also true, and it scared him.

But he was tired of earning around five dollars a day in Gambia, tired of an authoritarian government that seemed to jail anyone it didn’t like. Amadou had dreams: a car, a television, a little piece of land. He wanted a wife who was kind and smart and tall, so that his children wouldn’t be as short as he was.

He had left Gambia after selling his market stall in the city of Serrekunda for $250, and begging his uncles and cousins for more.

Eventually, Amadou had the $2,300 he needed to travel “the Backway,” as Gambians call the  journey to Europe. He spoke on the condition that his last name not be used, because of his precarious legal situation.

Libya had been an abstraction, less a country than a springboard to something better. Two weeks after arriving, though, Amadou wandered into a dimly lighted Internet cafe and slumped over a keyboard.

“I’m still here, man,” he wrote on Facebook to a friend back home in Gambia.

“We stuck in Libya,” he wrote to another who had migrated to Austria.

He scrolled down his feed, clicking on photos of his friends who had already made it to Europe. They posed in front of fancy cars and shopping malls. They wore new sneakers and baseball caps.

Amadou was a half-mile from the sea and 187 miles from Italy.

“I gotta get out of here,” he wrote.

Members of the Black Masks, a militia that is trying to shut down the local smuggling business, drive through Zuwarah.

The men who hunted Zuwarah’s smugglers wore black ski masks. Underneath, they were schoolteachers, graying bureaucrats and engineers. They had to improvise an anti-migration effort out of the chaos of a failed state.

There is no effective police presence in this port community, where homes and apartment buildings are still pockmarked by the war that toppled Gaddafi, and covered with posters of the men who died fighting.

In a country so dysfunctional that it has two rival federal governments, there are no military operations, either. Instead there are the Black Masks, a volunteer militia that drives through town in pickups with tinted windows, combating everything from burglars to militant groups from outside the city.

“It fell on us to end this,” said Adam Abza, the militia’s spokesman.

It’s not that residents had been unaware of the tragedies occurring off Zuwarah’s coast. Boats had capsized before, killing dozens and even hundreds of people at a time. But those disasters happened in international waters, and the bodies were taken to Italy or Malta. Few here saw the carnage.

And Zuwarah’s 60,000 residents were consumed with more immediate problems than human smuggling, such as attacks by tribal and political rivals. Militant groups, including followers of the Islamic State, had seized power 15 miles away. In December, warplanes belonging to another faction bombed Zuwarah, killing at least eight people.

Amid the chaos, local smugglers had thrived, driving through the streets in Mercedes-Benzes and Hummers. Some of them had day jobs as government officials. Some were unemployed young men looking for a quick profit.

“Everyone knew who the smugglers were,” said Nanees, the security official. “But we only had so many resources, and we had other priorities.”

Then the Aug. 27 catastrophe happened, leaving nearly 200 of the roughly 400 passengers on the old wooden boat dead. Within hours, the Black Masks were in their pickups, with jerry-built holding cells in the back.

After 10 days, the militia had arrested about a dozen smugglers and their affiliates, locking them up in a makeshift prison.

As the militia members crisscrossed the city, they saw migrants from sub-Saharan Africa walking down side roads or sitting on curbs. The migrants spoke quietly in English or Wolof or Hausa, their eyes darting around nervously. But the Black Masks weren’t pursuing them. The militiamen believed that if they could remove the smugglers, the migrants would go home, or find jobs in Libya, where foreign workers had long done manual labor.

“I don’t know what will happen to them,” Abza said.

Migrants sit and chat during a break from maintenance work they are doing in Zuwarah. Many are waiting for the chance to sail illegally to Europe.

In the center of the city, next to a row of buildings that had been pulverized in an airstrike, Amadou held a paintbrush in one hand and a cigarette in the other. It had been just more than two weeks since he arrived here.

He wore a yellow construction worker’s vest and a ski cap, even though the temperature was close to 100 degrees.

He shuffled down the road, bending to paint the curb in black and yellow stripes. He was surrounded by 16 men wearing identical vests, all of them migrants.

Now, they were paid about $10 a day by the city to sweep the streets or paint the curbs.

The men quietly discussed their plans during a lunch break, eating chicken sandwiches, the sea breeze casting a layer of sand over everything.

“Man, I’m tired of this. I’m thinking about going to Tripoli,” said one man. “The boats are still leaving from there.”

“I’m ready to go back to Nigeria,” said another.

Amadou wasn’t thinking about going home. If he returned to Gambia, he risked being jailed by a government that banned its citizens from taking “the Backway” to Europe.  He would be an insult to his family, having wasted the extraordinary amount of money they had lent him.

During the lunch break, while the others talked, Amadou stared at the ground. The previous night, he had spoken to his mother for the first time in weeks. She had heard a radio segment about boats capsizing in the Mediterranean.

I think you should come back to Gambia, she told him.

He had talked to her from the cinder-block room he shared with six Gambians and Nigerians, a cramped home where they listened to West African love songs and cooked rice with tomatoes in the evenings.

“I told her I would, that I would come back,” he said. “But I was lying.”

Amadou had grown up on the beach in Gambia, staring at the sea. There’s no way, he thought, that men could defend something so vast. Libya had a 1,100-mile coastline, the longest in North Africa. It couldn’t be sealed.

A migrant sits in a shipyard in Zuwarah, one of the most important departure points for migrants leaving North Africa for Italy. Clothes belonging to migrants who have set out for Europe have washed ashore in Zuwarah. Members of the Libyan Red Crescent society remove a body found on the coast of Zuwarah. Bodies of migrants and refugees whose ships have capsized sometimes turn up on the beach.

From the hull of Lt. Col. Assam Tor’s patrol boat, the Mediterranean looked wide open, the sunlight flat against the sea. Nearly three weeks after the crackdown began, Tor was conducting a morning patrol for the Libyan coast guard, whose Zuwarah force consisted of two small skiffs with no lights and hardly any fuel.

“Even the migrants have bigger boats,” he said, shaking his head as a wave crested over the rim of his 30-foot skiff. For the past few years, his force had been virtually useless as a parade of smuggler ships sailed from the Zuwarah coast.

This morning, though, the horizon was a clean line. There were no other vessels to be seen. The crackdown was working.

A week later, the city’s blockade was still in effect.

“There’s been nothing,” said Foued Gamoudi, the Tunisia country director for Doctors Without Borders, which operates rescue ships off the coast.

“When the families of Zuwarah say smuggling should stop, it stops.”

But back in his office, Tor received reports of the boats leaving from the surrounding cities. ­Thirty-nine people died off Khoms one day. Twelve died off Tripoli another. About 4,500 were saved by the Italian coast guard on another.

“If you can get out of Zuwarah, you can still leave,” Tor said.

Amadou knew that, too. By mid-October, some of his roommates had paid a driver to take them to Tripoli, where the boats were still departing. It cost $400 for the 80-mile drive. Amadou had only $250, and was struggling to find work.

The weather was turning colder, the waves were choppier, the risk of capsizing was increasing. There were rumors that Zuwarah would soon target the drivers shuttling people to Tripoli.

“Man I need your help,” Amadou wrote to friends and relatives on Facebook, appealing for the extra money.

Zuwarah had shut down the smugglers, but that didn’t mean Amadou’s journey was over. He would find the money, he declared in a Facebook message. He would find the driver. He had learned that you could will yourself across any border if you were ready to risk enough.

Postscript: Two weeks after this story was published, Amadou paid a smuggler $500 to take him to Sabratha, about 15 miles from Zuwarah. After a week in Sabratha, Amadou finally set out in a boat for Europe. In the Mediterranean, a rescue ship picked up him and the other passengers from the flimsy vessel. Amadou now is living in the southern Italian city of Calabria, looking for work.  

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