WE LEFT LIBYA ON A FRIDAY NIGHT
We left Libya on a Friday night is a project about life inside a male underage refugee camp. The following pictures were taken in Augusta, Sicily (Italy) in the month of September 2014 inside a former school that hosted about 120 male kids who arrived in Sicily between May and September 2014. Along with the pictures you’ll find the article where I included the stories that the kids shared with me.
I keep looking at the time on my mobile. I’m in the room I rented for the rest of the week, it’s 3AM in the morning and I can’t sleep at all.
The day before I received my permission to visit the camp as a photographer. I had been asking for this release for a month, but only one week before the end of September I got an answer from Augusta City Council where they said that they had accepted my request. I didn’t have many days left so after printing my permission, I grabbed my camera and everything I needed, called into a bed and breakfast and drove to this little city less than one hour away from my hometown.
The idea of spending the rest of the week here started to seem like a big challenge. Over the past few weeks I had been reading all sorts of stories about people who crossed the sea to reach Europe. I knew that meeting these people and possibly hearing their stories face to face would have been a totally different experience. When all is said and done who was I to get into their lives with a camera after all that they had been through? I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that this was all happening on the island where I live and it continuously passed through my mind whether I could measure up to a situation like that.
I fell asleep thinking and woke up a few minutes before my alarm started ringing.
THE ISLAND ON THE ISLAND
The school is located in the old town of Augusta which is situated on a little island connected to Sicily by two bridges. The school is currently hosting around 120 underage kids mainly from Egypt, Western Africa and Bangladesh. The kids are divided into nine classrooms depending on their nationality or behaviour. Around the building you can see various armoured vans and off-road vehicles from the main Italian security forces. I walked in through the main entrance and went straight to the office where I met the people I had to show my pass to. After signing a paper I asked to leave my backpack in their office and took a walk inside the school.
While in the main corridor I noticed two kids standing near the entrance staring at me with confused looks on their faces. I said “Hi” and asked them where they were from. A. told me they originally were from Bangladesh but they just arrived on a boat from Libya the night before. He asked me if I knew what was going on and where their room was. After I explained to them that I didn’t know and that I wasn’t part of the staff he asked me: “Can you at least tell me where we are? I mean on a map!”. They had no idea of where they had ended up after that boat trip. Later that day thanks to one of the doctors I borrowed a laptop with internet connection to show them where Sicily was. The kid actually seemed even more confused and there was a sort of frustration on his face.
CROSSING SAHARA DESERT
I met C. for the first time when I visited his room during my second day at the school. C. is from Nigeria and agreed to share his story with me. When I walked in he was sitting on his bed organizing his clothes. Most of the kids keep their belongings inside a paper box that they keep under their camp beds. After a quick chat I asked him about the sock filled with coins laying on his bed and from there a long conversation arose.
A few minutes later he asked me if we could talk away from the school. The kids are allowed to leave the school during the day. C. said he doesn’t really like being in the school so he usually spends the day outside in the park.
C. is from Benin City (Edo State) Nigeria, he is 17 years old and he left his country after his father was killed in the conflicts between Christians and Muslims.
“My mother left me after the death of my father and all I could do was leave my country. To raise some money I sold the land in front of my house, the TV, the fridge and the rest of the furniture and I spent all the money to cross the biggest desert in the world on a pick-up truck.
The vehicle was filled with people, we were 32 and the wheels would easily get stuck in the sand so we often had to push it out. The driver was an Arab man from Libya. Everytime we would complain about the fact he drove too fast he would hit us with a stick or with the gun’s grip. You could easily fall off but he didn’t care at all about us.”
C. kept saying that it was all a matter of hope, mind, courage and patience and that he believed that something good was going to happen. After travelling through the desert he reached Libya were he spent two months working to find the money and the right moment to get on a boat and try to reach Europe.
“In Libya I did different jobs, I cleaned house compounds, helped on a farm but they didn’t always pay and you had better not complain because they could beat you anytime. Everyone there has a gun, you are not safe there. At night all you do is pray, beacause you know that they can come any time and shoot you with no reason”.
As C. goes through his memories I asked him to tell me something about the kidnappings, as various kids that are currently hosted in the school had been kidnapped while passing through North Africa.
“Kidnapping can easily happen, all I knew was that at anytime I would see a black or a white car with tinted windows I had to run away as fast as I could. Sabha is the most dangerous city and Sunday is the most risky day because there are less people around. Usually they screech to halt in a car in front of you, open the doors and tell you to get in. If they catch you they make you call anyone who can pay a ransom for you. If you don’t have anybody to call then they beat the hell out of you.”
During the two months in Libya C. escaped twice from kidnapping attemps. He left Libya as soon as he collected the money to afford the boat ride to Sicily.
Before leaving I asked C. about that sock filled with coins that he took with him, he explained that after 5PM he usually begs for money in front of a supermarket but he has to pay half of his earnings to another kid in the school that controls this little “business”.
A DRAWING ON THE WALL
During the first day at school something on one of the walls of room number four caught my attention. It was the drawing of an inflatable boat seen from above. No one was in the room so I decided to return later to find out more about it.
Most of the kids I talked to travelled on a boat similar to the one in the drawing and they allowed me to record their stories. As C. said: “We left Libya on a Friday night. We were 102 including the driver and the compass holder. The people who drive the boat are generally those who get to travel for free. The “organization” recruits anyone who supposely knows how to navigate and lets them travel for free as long as they accept to drive the boat to the destination. I think it’s better if you leave at night so that people don’t realize too soon that they are in the middle of the sea. Otherwise they would panic. The inflatable boat was about three by five meters. They loaded it with four cases, each one containing twelve water bottles. But we soon ran out of water so some people started drinking the sea water and you could see them throwing up. If I would look ahead of me I would see water, if I would look behind me I would see water, if I would look to my right or to my left all I would see was just water. That’s when I started feeling really scared.”
While looking at the drawing K., a guy originally from Ghana, explained to me how his experience was at sea. As he would talk he would point his fingers at the drawing to show me exactly where the water started leaking inside the boat. “Only the strongest survive. I don’t mean strong in terms of your body, it’s all about the strength of your mind. Your mind makes you who you are. Without a strong one you wouldn’t go far. The sea gave me the experience and experience is the best teacher. Staying on an inflatable boat is like sitting on a balloon. Those boats could load about 20 people but when I travelled on it we were 75. I was sitting in the front part and I could see how the boat would continuously bend, you can feel how weak it is and you know it can puncture at anytime especially for those wood sticks they put on the ground to try to make it stiffer. Eventually the boat started collapsing so people would hold onto the different parts. Water started getting inside. Our feet were dipped in the sea water. When we saw the rescue boat we started praising God for saving our lives.”
FEW CHANCES OF A NEW LIFE
The last day I was at the school I was introduced by my local guide Nuccio, to a guy known as “Il Calciatore” (The Soccer Player).
Y. is 17 years old and he is part of a muslim family from Mali. He is a very quiet guy, he speaks French but he is putting a lot of effort into learning Italian.
A few years before the birth of Y. his father was involved in a bloody fight caused by some religious frictions among the two mosques in the village. At that time his father was the imam. The chief of the village tried to make peace among the two factions but it was not enough to calm the bad circumstances and forget the arguement that had happened between his father and the other mosque.
“One day my father went out with his friend for the morning prayer. On their way to the mosque they met a group of people from the other mosque who were waiting for them. There was the same man he had argued with. But this time he wasn’t alone. They beat up my father and his friend and they only left when they thought they were dead. As my mother didn’t see them arriving she sent my older brother looking for them. When he found them they were in a pool of blood. He started crying desperately. Then other people arrived and called an ambulance from the village and they took my father and his friend to the nearest hospital. My father was in a coma for 30 days while his friend was found dead.
After more than a month in the hospital my father came back home but he couldn’t walk well anymore and he was scared because he was sure that him and his family were still in danger. In that period my brother left home, I never met him. That’s when my parents decided to escape from the village to go to Bamako, the capital of Mali, where my uncle lived.
In Bamako life was not easy for them, my father had a permanent knee injury and both him and my mother didn’t have an education that would allow them to find a job. So my mother would think about family management. I was born about three years after the accident that changed my family life. My uncle in Bamako didn’t have a son, so he decided to take care of me and pay for my needs and my education. He got me into soccer school since I was a little kid. I was getting good at soccer thanks to him. He was like a father to me.
In 2012 the president of Mali escaped because of the coup d’état. In that phase two military forces were fighting each other and my uncle was accidentally involved in a gun firing. He died. At that point nobody could take care of me and I had no money so I left school and I found a job as laborer, but it was a hard life. I was working from 8 in the morning till 4 in the evening getting a miserable pay. I was destroyed, my uncle was dead. He was all my life.
I decided to go to Algeria. I stayed there for five months doing all kinds of jobs. It was terrible. So from there I went to Libya which was even worse. Everyone was carrying guns. You would work and they wouldn’t even pay you or sometimes people would just come to your place and steal your mobile and your money. It was too risky. I knew that if I would stay in Libya I would risk my life as much as if I would get on a boat trying to reach Europe. There was no difference anymore, the risk was just the same. After seven months I got on a boat. I knew it could have killed me, I didn’t even know how to swim, it was the first time I had seen the sea.”
Y. arrived in Sicily in about 24 hours. During the five months he spent in the school he met a man and a woman who offered to become his tutors. Right now they are taking care of him and had put him in contact with the manager of a Sicilian soccer team. A few weeks later after seeing him play he offered him a contract as a soccer player and a room to live. After all he went through Y. found another chance to change his life for the better. He is now living a dream and is just waiting for a confirmation call to move out of the school and start playing soccer.