Human Rights, Migrants, Multiculture, Politics

Libyan immigrants: surviving does not mean living

Unofficial detention centres in Libya are camps where militias torture refugees until their families pay up. EU migration policy is silently complicit in an industry of extortion in a war zone. One warehouse hit by a bomb revealed hundreds of victims held in conditions that recall the Second World War.


Graham Douglas

Limbo was created in 2016 by Cecile Allegra and a group of human rights activists in response to a dramatic reality. They were appalled by the state of traumatic shock while they were spending time with young survivors of the torture camp in Libya.

Cecile Allegra is a French journalist, filmmaker and activist. In total she made three films: “Under the skin” (2014), “Libya, the anatomy of a crime” (2018), and her latest, “Songs of the living”, which focuses on a group of young refugees living in a therapeutic community run by Limbo.

“You are alive, but part of your brain is still dead, and it will try to push you towards death at a moment that you cannot predict. There is a serious risk of suicide, as happens with Syrian children in the camp on Lesbos. They just stop functioning, one day they wake up as a vegetable, because a child cannot commit suicide.”

Governments and armies have their own agendas, where rescuing migrants from traffickers and from torture are low on their priorities. The EU concern is to keep migrants out -and out of sight- by funding Libyan coastguards, whose ‘work’ often means that refugees are sent back to torture camps run by traffickers, while some countries criminalize rescuers.

At any one time there are between half a million and 1 million people stuck in Libya, not out of choice, they have been kidnapped and deported.

This is the first part of a conversation that The Prisma had with Cecile after Songs was premiered at the Visions du Reel festival.

How did Limbo originate?

Limbo was created in response to a personal experience during my last trip in Sinai. At this time, I met a guy who was survivor of human trafficking. I managed to rescue him from Cairo and make sure he could find a safe place in France. Three months after he arrived, he just couldn’t stand up or eat. He lay down and stayed that way until he went into a coma. I thought that he would have been safe in France but I understood that I was wrong. I suddenly realised that surviving does not mean living. Everything had to be done. I realised that something urgently needed to be done. At this point, it was necessary to create space where survivors could speak and develop the resilience they needed to rebuild themselves.

How were the people from “The song of the living” chosen?

They were chosen from young people waiting for asylum in shelter centres in Paris, Lille and Lyon. The project was explained to them (the film, the writing and singing workshops,) and they volunteered to take part.

All the young survivors I have filmed, have crossed Libya, been detained and tortured for months, sometimes years, in torture camps, before being released on the Libyan coast.

What do you hope to achieve with your film?

To find a way for the survivors to find a therapeutic way of telling their stories, and for the public to be able to hear stories that are extremely traumatic. It is a crucial issue, at the core of our collective efforts to determine what kind of European society we want to achieve.
I hope that people who are not aware of this terrible crime being committed in Libya, or prefer not to see, will watch it, sing the songs and understand what is really happening on the other shore of the Mediterranean.

How important is Mathias Duplessy’s music in the healing process?

They need to speak, but they can’t because they feel shame, and they themselves cannot name what they have been through. They will just say: “Ah, Libya, it is a bit complicated”.

So, we have to find a way for them to speak and for people to listen. That’s where music came in. I thought if you see the film and you sing the songs, about loneliness, love, rape and torture, they will stick in your head, and you will have to take an interest.

Mathias is a very talented musician, well-known in France, and he talked to each person in the film before we started, about their personal tastes in music. Cherif is a reggae fan, and he wrote this beautiful song “There and not there” about PTSD, which is actually a very joyful reggae in spite of the terrible problems it evokes. Sophia loves Gospel so we imagined “Tell me how can you love?” a gospel on love and rape.

In the UK, asylum interviewers have accused people of lying, because they don’t believe such things could happen.

People who have been raped and tortured walk with an invisible crutch, they need help. You cannot call anyone a liar who has crossed Libya. They arrive with serious psychological and physical symptoms, nightmares, anorexia. When you have suffered this for a long period of time you cannot adjust to normal reality, clinically a part of your brain is still in that situation. You are alive, but part of your brain is still dead, and it will try to push you towards death at a moment that you cannot predict.

Afterwards, they have permission to look for work in France?

Of course. They are followed by the LIMBO team in Paris, which runs weekly workshops providing art- and music-therapy programs. We also help them with career guidance

One reviewer said that your film lacks criticism of the West’s part in this situation and paints white Europeans as noble rescuers of African victims.

I created this NGO 5 years ago, when nobody wanted to talk about the outrageous crime being committed in Libya, which is still true today. In all my interviews, I constantly repeat that one day the EU will be considered an accomplice to Crimes against Humanity.

What do you mean?

I was a direct eye-witness to a lot of those things, and when I was in the Sinai with Delphine Deloget it was only beginning and there were only about 25 torture camps that we knew about. It could not spread because the whole area is under military occupation. But once the Egyptian army bombed the Sinai area, to stop Daesh infiltration from Gaza, and Netanyahu put up the 6m-high double barbed wire wall, there was no way for the victims to cross the desert. It was a strange moment in history, there were drones flying over the desert and we had to move very fast because there was bombing every day.

The trafficking shifted to Libya on an industrial scale, instead of 25 traffickers there were 150. Then, I understood that it was a system.

All over the country the torture camps operated in the same way, controlled by militias from both sides.

It’s a complete hypocrisy that we still do not make this link. And once you do, you can no longer call this organized crime, it has to be re-classified as a War Crime at least.

It is not a case of Arabs trafficking black people, which is what the EU wants public opinion to believe, in an attempt to re-write history even while it is being made. Libya has been a war zone for a long time, so everyone who escapes from Libya is a war victim.

This changes the picture completely; you can no longer consider anyone who has come through Libya as simply a migrant, when they have spent at least 6 months and up to 3 years in a jail being tortured, starved. In the process of asylum application, countries still ask people why they left their country. Is this relevant to someone who has been tortured, raped sometimes mutilated, in a place like Libya? No, we are an accomplice to a crime, because we have trained and armed the coastguards, and they are all linked to militias. When they capture people, they bring them straight back to these jails.

There are about 10 official detention centres in Libya, but there are many others ‘under the radar’, which MSF cannot enter to offer treatment. Sometimes during the fighting a bomb was dropped on one of those centres, and we discovered with horror that there were hundreds of people living inside a warehouse, starving, dying of TB, in a state that recalls images from the Second World War.

There is a variety of torturers, you have the guy who is a migrant himself and does it for a short time, or someone who wants to make a bit of money before he crosses and becomes a ‘coordinator’ for a time. And then there are those who decide to make a career out of torture: Libyans, Chadians and Eritreans, all controlled by local militias.

I smile sadly when I hear EU politicians talking about a ‘peace process’ without addressing these enormous crimes. How can EU leaders guarantee free elections in Libya while at the same time they do everything in their power to stop people from crossing the Mediterranean? People who will be sent back to jails, to torture, and probably to death?

I’m 45 and I’ve seen my share of things around the world, but this seems like a desperate attempt to cover our tracks in a situation to which we have contributed.

(Photos by Thibault Delavigne, supplied by Cecile Allegra and authorised for publication)

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