From Somalia with fear | Ahmed Nuur Ibrahim

For most migrants, the boat trip from Libya is only the last hurdle of a harrowing and often fatal ordeal. AHMED NUUR IBRAHIM, a journalist from Somalia, retraces the steps of his own nightmarish odyssey

Ahmed Nuur Ibrahim (Photo: Ray Attard)
Ahmed Nuur Ibrahim (Photo: Ray Attard)

“The only thing I ever wanted was to work as a journalist in my own country,” Ahmed Nuur Ibrahim, 27 from Mogadishu, tells me as we face each other across a desk in the African Media Association’s office in Hamrun.

“I didn’t want to come to Europe at all.”

In any other context this would seem a fairly humble aspiration, especially to someone who has done precisely that for years. But it was never going to be an easy option for Ahmed. The country he so dearly wishes to work in has been torn apart by civil war for the past 30 years; and it is a war fought as much through the media as with weapons on the streets. 

The main bone of contention in the Somali civil war concerns a power struggle between the Transitional Federal Government, elected in 2006, and a militant jihadist group called Al Shabaab. But like most civil wars, the reality on the ground is much more complex than that. The country is also deeply divided among various tribes and clans, many of which are engaged in private wars of their own. And Al Shabaab has also declared war on all ‘infidels’ in Somalia: including all Christians, and particularly targeting the United Nations’ peacekeeping presence.

In a country as volatile as that, attempting to faithfully report the news is often a fatal career decision.

“My job is to report exactly what happens in my country,” Ahmed resumes. “When there is fighting, I will report the truth of what happened: how many died, how many were killed or wounded… but when you tell the people these things, they contact you, saying things like: ‘when you tell the news, you damage the dignity of my clan…”

Soon into his journalistic career, Ahmed was contacted indirectly by Al Shabaab with an offer to ‘join them’. Failure to accept such an invitation, he adds, can and very often does result in death. “They killed 18 of my friends for refusing to join,” Ahmed says. “Always you are threatened. You never know when you are going to die. You have to always be ready to die, when you are working as a journalist in Somalia…” 

Ahmed refused the invitation, and triggered off an intimidation campaign that escalated between 2007 and 2008. The last call on Ahmed’s mobile was to inform him that he would be dead within three days. 

“When they called me, I was staying with my mother. She heard what they said. Then she told me, ‘Leave Mogadishu. Find a safer place.’ I took her advice, and went to Bosaso [a city in the north-eastern Bari province of Somalia]…”

There he landed a job as a correspondent for IRIN, a Nairobi-based humanitarian news agency run by the United Nations. 

“One day there was fighting – because Al Shabaab still have a base near Bosaso, and their militia control the Gargala mountains. Every day the militia would come to Bosaso to kill. They kill religious leaders, they kill doctors, they kill journalists. It is easy for them, because there is no real security. No one to take responsibility for the safety of the people…”

Once again, Ahmed was on the receiving end of death threats. “One day they called and said, ‘Stop. We know who you are: you were always against us, and now you are working for the infidels’…” Then he was given an ultimatum: either quit his UN job and work for the Al Shabaab-controlled media instead, or face the consequences. But again he refused.

“I said, ‘I can’t stop my work. I will continue, and you can’t kill me. Do whatever you want.’ And I switched off my mobile. It was 19 May, 2010. Two days later they called again: ‘Ahmed, we know where your home is. We know where you work, we know the route you take when you go to the radio station. We know where you go to drink coffee, and even where you sit. We know. And we are going to kill you in 24 hours…’ Then I was very afraid...” 

Ahmed spent that night in the home of a local police officer. The following morning he decided to leave Somalia altogether.

Placing his wife and two sons in the care of his mother in Mogadishu, Ahmed crossed the border into Ethiopia; and finding much the same situation there, he eventually worked his way towards Khartoum in North Sudan. 

It was there that Ahmed first heard about the possibility of a trip to Europe: it was also there where the real trouble began.

“In Khartoum I was hoping to have a second chance, to get on with my life. But things are very difficult there, too. Sudan is a dictatorship, there is no freedom of speech. Still, I was not thinking about Europe back then... then one night I met other Somalis who wanted to cross the desert.”

Ahmed was introduced to one of the human traffickers. “He said: ‘you pay only US$500, and you can go to Europe easily.’ I said: ‘It’s not possible. How can we cross the whole distance from Khartoum to Europe for only $500?’ He insisted he would take full responsibility for all the trip, and that there wouldn’t be any problems…”

Despite strong misgivings, Ahmed eventually came round to accepting the offer along with a group of fellow asylum-seekers. “We paid the money, and they brought us – 26 people – to a small car. We were driven to the desert, and when we got to the middle, we stopped at a base controlled by another gang of human traffickers. There, they asked everybody for another ransom of US$3,500…”

Ahmed had effectively been kidnapped. “I told them I couldn’t pay the money. My family is poor. My father died in 1991, my mother runs a very small cafeteria in Mogadishu. She also has to take responsibility for my wife and children, apart from my brother and two sisters. I felt ashamed having to call my family, especially my mother, to ask her to pay the ransom…”

How does the racket actually function, I ask? How does a family in Mogadishu effect payment to a criminal organisation holed up in the middle of a desert flanked by four countries?

“They give you a satellite phone and a bank account number. The smugglers have bank accounts in different places: Khartoum, Tripoli, Dubai… so they give you an account number in one of those banks, and when you deposit the money, they have representatives there to confirm that the payment has been made…”

These banks, he explains, are directly implicated in the extortion racket. “They work like a network. Traffickers in Libya have contacts in the banks of Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia. They are all connected.”

Ahmed’s experience also attests to the sheer scale of the international human trafficking ring. The traffickers he encountered varied in nationality from Somali to Ethiopian, to Sudanese, to Egyptian, to Chadian.

“They are different gangs, but they know each other, they work together, and they bribe government officials in different countries.”

Back in the desert, Ahmed soon found himself the last of the initial 26 who left together, after the other abductees all paid the ransom one by one. He had been captive for just over one month. New victims were being driven in all the time.

“One day they beat me, then showed me the skeletons of the people who died already. They said, ‘You see these people? They were just like you. If you want to join them, don’t pay the money.’ Then they beat me again, and gave me the phone. I called my mother and explained the situation. I told her that if she didn’t pay $3,500, I would be dead within two days.”

Ahmed had already seen people being executed for failing to pay the ransom. “I saw them killed directly by the hand of the smugglers. I saw women being raped. People being tortured. And some children and a pregnant woman died, and were left in the desert.”

Later Ahmed would see several other corpses and skeletons on the long drive towards Libya. These, he explains, were the ones who died of dehydration or heat trauma on the way, and whose bodies were dumped out of the vehicle.

But that happened only after his mother managed to raise the $3,500 by selling a small parcel of family-owned land in Mogadishu.

“By then we were a group of 32 persons. They put us in a jeep, very overcrowded, and travelled through the desert for four days and nights. When we got to the first city in Libya, Sabha, we were met by another group of smugglers. They also asked for a ransom, this time of $2,500.”

At every different stage of the journey, it seems, different cells of human traffickers would step in to take over the operation. And with each new takeover by a different gang, a new ransom would be demanded.

“They put us in a small apartment on the fourth floor, and closed the doors and windows. There were over 200 of us in that hole, which was very small. When someone paid the ransom, they would open the door and call out the name, and he would be free to go. Everyone else stayed inside until the money was paid.”

One particularly hot night, panic broke out. “We all started shouting, ‘open the door’… and they opened one of the windows. Myself and two others who couldn’t pay the money took the decision to jump. There was a pile of sand near the building and I jumped on it, and started running. They fired shots at us but I was not hit…”

Ahmed is unsure of the fate of the two other escapees, but he himself managed to reach central Sabha unscathed. There he fell in with a small group of fellow Somalis; and after a second initial ‘deposit’ of $500, paid to another human trafficker in the same way, he managed to reach Tripoli… where he was promptly arrested by the police. 

“I had no documents. They told me I was ‘illegal’. But I was not illegal. I was an asylum-seeker. I have a right to seek asylum. But they arrested me and put me in prison.”

Prison conditions were harsh. Ahmed recalls how bread would be thrown into an overcrowded cell, and inmates left to struggle among themselves to get a piece. 

But security levels were equally primitive, and just over two weeks later Ahmed managed to escape again… this time, a mass break-out with another 15 people. Now nearing the final stage of the journey (or so he thought), he found himself one of a large number of people from various parts of Africa, all with similar tales to tell. 

“Everyone was calling their family asking for money to pay for the boat. You can’t stay in Tripoli: there are only two choices, prison, or the boats. You can’t go back across the desert. You are trapped.”

Getting on board a boat also means coughing up an additional $1,000, which Ahmed didn’t have. Once again he contacted his mother for help. This time she could only provide $800, but it was enough to secure a place on board. 

Ahmed and the other paid-up passengers – over 200 of them – were smuggled out of Tripoli to the beach packed up in cardboard boxes in the back of a truck. Once on the beach, he witnessed further violence. “I saw a woman being raped. You can’t do anything, or try to tell them to stop. They will kill you…”

As for the boat, this turned out to be a small, unseaworthy dinghy packed with 142 people. “It was very overcrowded. We had no compass for direction. We had no food or water. And the sea was rough…”

Some 25 miles off the Libyan coast the engine shuddered to a halt, leaving the passengers helplessly adrift in a boat that was now taking in water. Rough weather soon buffeted them towards Tunisia, where they were apprehended by the Tunisian coast guard.

“We all agreed to say that our aim was all along to reach Tunisia. If we said we were trying to reach Europe, they would punish us. [The Tunisians] don’t want the people going to Europe to come into that area. So we told them we were looking for safety and security in Tunis…”

The Tunisian coast guard however thought otherwise, and all passengers were placed under arrest and imprisoned. Two days later, they were loaded onto a bus and driven to the Libyan border.

“One of the guards told us: ‘Do you see that tree? Behind that tree is the Libyan border. Now start running and get back to Libya where you belong.’ Then they started to beat us, and we all started running…”

Immediately beyond the tree on the Libyan side of the border was a military compound. There they were greeted by armed Libyan soldiers, who pushed them back towards Tunisia at gunpoint.

What followed was an almost surreal standoff in a narrow strip of no man’s land between the two frontiers. On the Tunisian side the migrants were beaten back with truncheons each time they passed the tree. On the Libyan side, they were held at bay by a line of men with guns.   

“In the end we sat outside the compound and begged the Libyans to take us in. We showed them injuries from the beatings. Then one of the guards contacted his boss, and they sent a military truck and took us to prison in Sabratha.”

Yet again, Ahmed managed to escape: this time under circumstances that would almost be comical, if the bigger picture were not so grim. “One day a guard came in and asked if any of us had any experience working on a farm. We all put up our hands. ‘Yes, I know about farming’, I said. And all the others said the same.”

A large group of inmates was promptly driven to the guard’s private farm, and some made a dash for it as soon as they stepped out of the truck. “When I saw them running, I started running too… then everyone started running together…”

In the ensuing mayhem Ahmed managed to reach the highway and hitch a ride to Tripoli, where once again he had to go through the same process to board a boat for another $800. By this time the family had no more land to sell, and his mother was forced to borrow the money.

The second trip also involved an overcrowded boat, but this time they were provided with a satellite phone, a compass, and food and water. Together with another 124 asylum-seekers, Ahmed was rescued by the Armed Forces of Malta two days later. Once on land, he was handcuffed and transferred to the Hal Far detention camp, where he would spend the next five months unable to make a phone call to his mother to let her know he was still alive.

But he has since been able to fulfil at least one half of his lifelong ambition. He now works as a journalist, even if in another country. The African Media Association he set up in Malta aims to broadcast information about all aspects of the migration phenomenon to where it is needed most: Somalia, and other sub-Saharan countries where people are routinely conned, abducted and often killed by the seductive allure of Europe.