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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Migrant crisis: in the 45C heat, dead are buried in the sand and the living carry on

The TimesThose who survived the punishing journey through the Sahara Desert were forced to dig shallow graves for the four that did not make it.

Thirty-six migrants and refugees from across sub-Saharan Africa had been stuffed into the back of a Toyota Hilux by a gang smuggling them to Libya.

In the searing heat several had died along the way. The traffickers did not want to carry the corpses with them and made the migrants bury them.

“They died because they wouldn’t allow us water to drink and it was so hot we couldn’t breathe,” said Ali Joseph, 19, from Ghana, who crossed into Libya last summer. The smugglers had thrown away water as the jerrycans took up room.

“We had to leave [the bodies] by the side of the desert track, dig a shallow grave and just go.” The car was so overloaded with people it repeatedly broke down. The migrants were forced to push in 45C. “We all thought we were going to die. It was too much for some,” Mr Joseph said.

Testimony like this, repeated countless times in conversations with migrants in Tripoli’s crammed detention centres, supports the claims of aid groups that the desert is just as deadly as the Mediterranean for those trekking to Europe.

Mr Joseph had come along the well-trodden path from Agadez, the city in Niger that is one of the last stops for thousands of west Africans before they plunge into the desert. His journey took him to Qatrun, a smuggling hub in southwest Libya, one of several desert routes into the country.

Migrants pay smugglers upwards of £300 to make the journey, which lasts several days. Mr Joseph said that anyone who was sick, injured or deemed to be a “troublemaker” by the brutal traffickers would be discarded in the desert. Those who died were also dumped. Sometimes people were shot.

Food runs short amid squalor of Libya’s detention centres

The TimesIn Libya’s migrant detention centres, they call it knife sleeping. Locked in windowless warehouses, the migrants have so little space they sleep in shifts. The men lie pressed back to back like cutlery stacked in a drawer.

At the Triq al-Siqqa centre in Tripoli, the putrid smell of 1,300 people living in close quarters in the searing summer heat hits like a punch to the stomach. The air is so thick it is nearly impossible to breathe. In the main cell, 700 men crouch on the floor like animals in a pen. Two barred gates separate them from the outside.

Some of the detainees, who come from Africa, southeast Asia and the Middle East, have been living like this for eight months waiting to be repatriated. With almost no exceptions, Libya does not process asylum claims.

Bel Trew of The Times interviewing migrants detained at the centre
Bel Trew of The Times interviewing migrants detained at the centreTAHA JAWASHI FOR THE TIMES

“It’s extremely hard, there are not enough toilets, there are many fights for water and food,” said Shahadat, 38, from Bangladesh, weak in the heat.

He was arrested in May and is waiting to be repatriated, after losing $7,000 to smugglers and kidnappers. “The authorities are trying their best but you can barely sleep. It’s a nightmare,” he said. Inmates have set up an impromptu barber and washing station close by but disease spreads fast.

Behind Shahadat, dozens of Bangladeshi migrants were lined up cross-legged on the dirt floor, awaiting their turn to eat. Fights broke out when a different group from Mali claimed that they had jumped the queue. Supplies for lunch — a stale sandwich, juice carton and glass of water — were running out.

Anes al-Azabi, one of the centre’s heads, said that there were only four days of food left. After that, if the centre could not secure government funding or a new deal with a charity, the guards would have to bring in their own supplies.

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Migrant crisis: Libya calls for Europe to help stem the tide

The TimesBel Trew, Tripoli
Libya requires urgent help from Europe to stem the tide of migrants crossing the Mediterranean, the country’s prime minister told The Times.

Faiez Serraj, 57, head of the UN-backed unity government based in Tripoli, criticised Europe’s response — which he said did not “match the challenges Libya is facing”. Italy and Libya had been left to shoulder the burden alone, he said.

Years of conflict in Libya have ravaged the economy, created a security vacuum and left Tripoli unable to cope with the crisis. Hundreds of thousands of migrants have crossed illegally into the country, eager to get to Italy.

“We can no longer handle illegal migration as we used to, due to the increasing numbers,” he said. “We have limited financial, logistical, and security resources. Europe’s response does not match the challenges we are facing.”

He said that Europe should help Libya to build an electronic fence along its southern borders; lift the six-year UN arms embargo on Tripoli so that it could arm its coastguard against traffickers; put pressure on migrants’ original countries to take them back; give humanitarian help to emergency migrant shelters and camps in Libya; and reject the long-term resettlement of migrants in Libya. He said the country could not sustain big camps.

Mr Serraj said: “We still need more pressure from the EU . . . to discourage uncontrolled flow from neighbouring and other African states. We are absolutely not after profiting from this assistance but we want to stop this humanitarian crisis.”

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Desperate battle for life on the Mediterranean

Bel Trew, aboard Dignity 1
Plucked from a sinking dinghy and convulsing on a rescue ship’s hospital stretcher, a heavily pregnant young woman spluttered blood from her scorched lungs. Wide-eyed with panic, Joy, 23, coughed and thrashed as a medical team fought to get intravenous lines into her arms.
Cradling her semi-conscious older sister, Lovett, on the floor beside them, I watched as three Médecins Sans Frontières doctors fought to save Joy’s life. “We’re losing her. Breathing tube,” shouted a nurse as medical equipment crashed to the floor with the roll of the charity’s ship, Dignity 1. The doctor, Pierre, read out the decline in her vital signs.
The sisters, migrants from Nigeria, had each inhaled petrol that had mixed with water in their inflatable boat as it began sinking after setting off from Libya. It burnt not just their skin but their throats and lungs too. “Adrenaline,” another voice in the team cried.
The sisters were among 94 men, women and children badly burnt by boat fuel that Dignity 1’s crew were now frantically trying to help. Everyone on board, from the ship’s cook to the journalists, was pressed to help save lives. My job, I was told, was to keep Lovett upright, breathing and alive.

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