It was an emotional moment for the nearly dozen Somali migrants who were repatriated to Mogadishu from Libya on Saturday.
Some fell to their knees, crying; others placed their foreheads to the ground in prayer; while some chanted the Somalia national anthem as they disembarked from a Turkish Airways plane that had flown them from Libya, where some had been stranded for years, to the Somali capital.
Since 2014, Libya has become a major transit point for migrants from Africa and the Middle East who are trying to get to Europe to flee instability and violence.
Somalia’s Deputy Prime Minister Mahdi Mohamed Guled, members of parliament and representatives from civil society organizations welcomed the migrants at the airport. The migrants then told stories of abuse, fear and horror they had experienced in Libya.
Abdikarim Mohamed Omar, 22, who shared his story with VOA’s Somali service, was among those repatriated Saturday. He said he left Somalia in 2016 and traveled to Libya via Ethiopia and Sudan.
Before reaching Libya, Omar said, he lost several of his Somali friends during the journey. At one point, he said, they fought with Eritrean migrants.
“I was among 150 migrants packed into a truck by smugglers from Sudan — 100 Eritreans and 50 Somalis. They mercilessly forced us into a truck that fit only 30 people. Some of the Somali migrants were thrown out of the truck into the desert. Then we fought with the Eritreans for survival. Several of my friends were killed during the conflict,” Omar said.
Earlier this week in Libya, a truck packed with more than 200 illegal migrants, mainly from Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan, overturned near Bani Walid, killing 19 of them. Sixty others were injured.
Omar said that once he reached Libya, he was filled with painful memories that he could not forget. He and other migrants were taken to the Kufra detention center, in southeast Libya.
“They lock us up in a room, where we hardly eat. You have no place to urinate. The room is overcrowded with migrants. Some of us sit the whole night, and some sleep a few hours. Every morning, they severely beat you with iron rods and sticks,” he said.
“To taste the pain and convince our parents to pay them, the smuggler woke us up with beatings early in the morning and send us to silence or sleep at night with beatings,” Omar said. “It was like our daily greetings and the first communication between the smugglers and the detainees.”
He continued, “Because of the constant torture [and] hunger, many of the migrants in the detention room where I was died, including my Somali friend who shared a blanket with me.”
Fleeing Africa, Middle East
Since 2014, more than 600,000 people have crossed the central Mediterranean to Italy. But the number of illegal migrants housed in Libyan detention centers has risen dramatically this year since armed groups in the western city of Sabratha began preventing boats from departing for Europe.
After clashes in Sabratha in September, thousands of migrants held near the coast were transferred to detention centers under the nominal control of the U.N.-backed government in Tripoli.
However, Amnesty International said in December 2017 that up to 20,000 people were being held in detention centers and were subject to “torture, forced labor, extortion and unlawful killings.”
Other human rights organizations have said similar things in recent months.
Late last year, Moussa Faki Mahamat, chairman of the African Union Commissions, said an estimated 400,000 to 700,000 African migrants were being detained in dozens of camps across the chaotic North African country, often being held under inhumane conditions.
Omar said he was lucky to escape from the Kufra detention center months ago, but he has since lived in Tripoli, in constant fear and hiding.
On Saturday, he was among 10 migrants repatriated to Mogadishu.
The repatriation effort was ordered by Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo after U.S. broadcaster CNN showed footage of a slave auction in Libya where migrant Africans were shown being sold.
“Following the order of President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo, the government has repatriated 10 Somali migrants from Libya and 30 more will be repatriated soon,” said Guled, the deputy prime minister.
Seeking to repatriate Somalis
The Somali government is working to return to their homeland a large number of Somali migrants who are in Libya. Earlier this week, that effort hit a snag, however, when the delegation sent to Libya was unable to persuade migrants to abandon the dangerous journey to Europe and instead return to Somalia.
The migrants have told government officials behind the repatriation effort that they have suffered during the journey to Libya but feel they have “nothing else to lose.”
Upon arrival, the 10 Somalis were registered with the government. For six months, they will have their relocation expenses paid for by the Somali government. The U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) are providing some training to help the recent returnees rejoin their communities and build their lives.
Mariam Yassin, special envoy for migrants and children’s rights of Somalia, was among the delegation sent by the Somali government to Libya this week to try to persuade migrants to return home. She said those who returned Saturday had survived a harsh journey.
“Among them are migrants who have spent three years in the hands of smugglers in Kufra, [in] south Libya. And now Allah saved them from the unbearable torments and torture they have been mentally and physically subjected to,” Yassin said.
Ahmed Abdikarim Nur, Somalia’s commissioner of refugees and internally displaced persons, said because of the extent of the abuses they faced, some migrants could not openly tell their horrific stories.
“They told us that they feel ashamed and embarrassed. … They have been subjected to all inhumane abuses against mankind,” Nur said.
The Somali government plan was to repatriate more than 5,000 migrants stranded in detention centers in Libya, but so far only about 40 migrants have accepted the repatriation.
“Our plan is to repatriate all those who want to return home,” Nur said.
Hassan Kafi Qoyste contributed this report from Mogadishu.