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Ahmed, 31 years of age, decided to leave his country, Somalia, because of the violent clashes caused by the Al Shabab militia in the region of Medina. On leaving, Ahmed was just searching for a safe place to live in; he could never have imagined that he was about to go on a journey of 5,000 kilometres and lasting 16 months, nor that he would be risking his life crossing the desert and the sea.
“There were many reasons why I left my country, the ethnic violence, because it wasn’t safe. The nearest place was Kenya, so there I went.
I lived in Nairobi for two months, but without any papers I couldn’t do anything to survive and I was worried that the Kenyan police would arrest me. So I decided to move down towards the border with Uganda and from there towards Kampala, where I stayed for a month, but life was very hard there too and I didn’t know anyone who could help me. One day someone told me to head for Libya because it was easy to get across to Europe from there and I thought it was a good idea.”
It’s already three months since Ahmed left. Getting to Libya from Kampala means having to get to South Sudan and cross it, enter Sudan by going up the Nile on a boat and going on as far as Khartoum. Then, finding a way of crossing the Sahara, which almost always means getting involved with human traffickers. The journey from Khartoum cost 360 dollars. When for Ahmed is time to leave, the group was made up of 80 people, all piled up in 12 big jeeps. The journey in the desert lasted three days and three nights, but didn’t lead to Libya. It stopped in the middle of the desert where a rich-looking man bought the whole group and fixed a new price for their freedom: pay 800 dollars, or be left to die in the Sahara, one day at a time, of heat and thirst.
“I fell ill – says Ahmed – I could feel myself close to death. There were about 200 of us at the beginning, five of us died right there. Thank God a fellow national gave me 200 dollars to make up the sum I needed. We left from there and headed towards Libya but just before reaching Kufra we ran into a group of Libya soldiers who arrested the traffickers in charge of us and left us there in the desert with no water, no food and no shade. They came to pick us up 24 hours later, loaded us up on a truck and took us to Kufra, into prison. There I remained for 4 months, and they beat us up every other day.”
Taking advantage of a moment when the guards weren’t looking, Ahmed and three other detainees managed to escape and hid in the ‘African’ part of the town. Here he found help and managed to contact his family and get them to send him 500 dollars, in order to reach Bengazi and then Tripoli.
“The first time the police stopped me at Tripoli to check my papers I made the mistake of answering in English instead of Arabic. They beat me with their truncheons and their gun-butts, took my money and told me to get the hell out of it. The second time I was thrown into a cell, where I stayed for two months; two months after my release I decided to get a boat for Europe, Libya was just hell, I didn’t want to live there. The others paid the sea traffickers with 400 and 500 dollars for the crossing, but I didn’t have any money. So I made up the story that I knew how to navigate, that I knew how to use a nautical compass and they believed me. Actually I knew no such thing, but I had read something about the GPS system on the Internet.”
The boat that left Tripoli, destination Malta, carried 55 people. Ahmed was handed a satellite navigator and given the direction to follow, but the weather conditions were bad. Soon the boat began to fill up with water and the crew were panic-stricken. They fought against the bad weather for 10 hours, drifting helplessly with the wind, trying to bale out the water as best as they could, hoping for a ship that would rescue them.
“The sea had taken us to within a few miles of Tripoli, towards the coast of Tunisia. The Tunisian patrol that intercepted our boat wanted to know if we were heading for Italy, then they beat us and took us to a detention centre where we remained for three weeks. There were also pregnant women in our group. Some of the guards were sorry for them so they let us go but they told us that if they saw us out at sea they would kill us. I returned to Tripoli and after a month I found another trafficker who had a boat, an inflatable dinghy actually, and we had just biscuits and a little water, which finished after two days at sea. The last day I drank seawater because I was so thirsty, but luckily after 3 days and 3 nights we arrived at Malta, safe at last.”
Today Ahmed lives in Malta, where he has been granted refugee status and where he has a part-time job as an interpreter and translator. His dream, he told them at UNHCR, is to emigrate to the United States and re-start a new life there.