Refugee teenager Hennessy dreams of Europe after brutal 6,000-mile odyssey

Bel Trew, The Times Bel Trew, Cairo

His journey began eighteen months ago and took him 6,000 miles across Africa. It is not, however, the distance covered in his quest to reach Europe that is the most remarkable aspect of Hennessy’s odyssey but the horrors he survived along the way.

Hennessy, aged 19, has endured death threats in Juba, torture in Tripoli and crippling poverty in Cairo.

He fled his home in Juba, South Sudan in June 2016 after his family discovered that he was gay and threatened to kill him. He headed for Egypt in search of safety and a new life but quickly found himself penniless, begging in the streets of Cairo among other refugees. They convinced him that his dreams lay in Europe, that he should try to reach Libya and chance the treacherous sea crossing to Italy.

It was a risk that almost cost him his life, a life that began, improbably, in Chingford, Essex and Hackney, east London where his father had practised as a dentist before returning home to South Sudan in 2011. “I was kidnapped and tortured twice in Libya by militias,” he said from Cairo, where he is now camping on sofas.

“The first was immediately after I was smuggled in a jeep to east Libya. I had to be rescued by the smuggler who paid my ransom. When I flew to Tripoli to try to get to Italy I was taken at the airport and held in an underground prison,” he said.

Every morning his kidnappers lined the migrants up on the ground and whipped them with pipes until their families paid a ransom. He was eventually saved by the Libyan security forces and taken to the filthy Tariq al-Siqqa migrant centre under Tripoli airport, which he said was almost worse. It was there that The Times first met Hennessy, crammed in with 1,300 migrants.

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The Modern Slave Trade in Libya

Bel Trew, Tajoura, West Libya
The young Ghanaian migrant had already been robbed at gunpoint, left to die in the desert, kidnapped and tortured. Then he was sold into slavery.

From the moment that Abdulaziz, 25, crossed Libya’s vast desert border from Niger in 2015, he was at the mercy of heavily armed traffickers and militiamen. His story became even more violent in the past 12 months as Libya’s lucrative people-smuggling business morphed into a full-blown slave trade.

Hundreds of thousands of migrants, who like Abdulaziz travelled to Libya to make a living or to catch dinghies to Europe, are trapped in a hellish world where they are repeatedly bought and sold by rival gangs.

“I was a slave for one year in Qatrun,” said Abdulaziz, referring to a town in southwest Libya. The former teacher sat cross-legged in a detention centre beside a guard cradling a Kalashnikov. He had been arrested that day by the Libyan coastguard as he tried to get to Italy.

Qatrun, on the main road between Niger, Chad and Libya, is a hub for trafficking. “First I was kidnapped by an armed group in Qatrun and beaten so badly my body is still covered in torture wounds. When I couldn’t pay the money they demanded, they sold me for 5,000 dinars [about £550 on the black market],” he said. “The man who bought me had a business, so I became his slave labourer until after a year he felt sorry for me and let me go north.”

Abdulaziz had planned to stay in Libya and work but, fearing for his life, fled for Italy. He said that his dinghy, stuffed with 117 people, was stopped by the Libyan coastguard nearly 12 miles offshore, just short of international waters where they hoped to be rescued by a charity ship and taken to Italy.

Libya has long been a transit country for migrants and refugees desperate to get to Europe. In the past people fleeing war and poverty in Africa, the Middle East and southeast Asia would pay their way through the many legs of the journey. But trafficking has boomed in Libya’s security vacuum since the country toppled back into civil war three years ago. Many smugglers realise they can make double the profits treating migrants like slaves rather than clients.

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Libya’s Forrest Gump runs the long road to peace

The TimesBel Trew, Cairo
In Libya’s lawless south the sight of Abdul Salam al-Busayri running down the desert road began to draw a crowd. Locals who had fled their homes to avoid fighting were too afraid to return home, until Mr Busayri, who had covered 90 miles on an unorthodox peace mission, jogged into their lives.

As he ran, some began to go with him, others followed in their cars. It was the start of his extraordinary peace marathons, which have caught the popular imagination. “They feared the war was going to start again. When they saw me running on my own, it convinced many the area was safe,” he told The Times.

That was in 2015, when that area was a battleground. His uncle had been killed in crossfire, the fourth member of his family to die since the 2011 uprising that toppled Muammar Gaddafi.

Heartbroken, Mr Busayri decided to do something. “I got the idea that running could help people stop fighting and instead sit down and talk. I planned to run between the warring sides and talk to leaders of both and encourage people to go home. They had a huge reception for me on both sides. Both loved the initiative. I convinced them to talk to each other.”

Since then Mr Busayri, 30, from Qaraqra, a town 90 miles east of Sabha, has clocked up more than 1,000 miles running ultra-marathons through Libya’s conflict zones. This year alone he has run nearly 680 miles. He often crosses frontlines to talk with leaders from the warring factions to spread his message of peace. He carries a flag emblazoned with his catchphrase: “We embrace and reconcile with each other.”

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Photo curtesy of Abdul-Salam al-Busayri

Death stalks Egyptian Christians who dare to seek work in Libya

The TimesBel Trew, Samalout
The sign of the cross tattooed on their fingers marked out the Egyptian workers for especially brutal treatment at the hands of their captors in Libya.

Some were beaten so hard that they suffered brain damage. Shenouda, 30, says he was among a group of Coptic Christians brutalised while they were held for two weeks in a prison at Tripoli’s main airport.

He said that he was flogged twice a day after his tattoo was spotted by his Islamic guards.

He is among a wave of Egypt’s impoverished Christian minority who have gone to neighbouring Libya to find work despite the risk of violence.

“More and more people are going to Libya because of the economic crisis here. You can’t get work, you can’t make money in Egypt,” said Shenouda, who is now back in his village near the town of Samalout, about 150 miles south of Cairo.

“We are aware of the dangers, particularly as Christians. We know it is more likely we will die than live in Libya but we don’t have a choice,” he said.

Thousands of Egyptians are believed to cross illegally to Libya each year and about 500 young men travel each month from Shenouda’s region alone. They pay smugglers about £300 for passage from the nearby Minya to Benghazi.

Many die making the journey or at the hands of the numerous Islamist and jihadist groups that stalk Libya.

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Libyan militia chief admits deal with Tripoli to stem migrant flow

The Times
A powerful Libyan militia commander and suspected trafficking kingpin has struck a deal with Tripoli to stem the flow of migrants to Europe in exchange for cars, boats and the recognition of his force as a legitimate security body.

Ahmed Dabbashi, who commands the Anas Dabbashi brigade, said that he met officials from Libya’s UN-backed government in July to discuss how to shut down people trafficking along the coast. In the meeting the officials agreed to clear the accusations of criminality hanging over his brigade.

The deal coincides with a sharp fall in the number of migrants crossing from Libya to Italy in the past few weeks, down by 86 per cent last month. However, the militia warned that migrant numbers would climb again if the brigade stopped receiving financial help.
Mr Dabbashi, known by his nickname al-Ammu (The Uncle), has long been accused of running a trafficking network from the smuggling hub of Sabratha. Security officials in Sabratha and Tripoli said this week that his militia was paid millions of euros by Italy in a deal with the Libyan government to stop his trade.

It would not be the first time that Europe has paid unsavoury figures in Libya to halt the flow of migrants to its shores. The EU pledged €50 million to Libya in 2010 under Colonel Gaddafi to fight illegal migration.

Mr Dabbashi denied the smuggling charges and the Italian deal. He said that his brigade, which has 500 men and is part of the unity government’s defence ministry, was just policing the coastal city.

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Photo: AP