Love blossoms in a Libyan migrant detention centre

The Fourth Time, We Drowned tells the stories of refugees clinging to hope while detained

'I loved you as if I had never seen anyone else in the universe.' – Facebook status by a Sudanese refugee in Libya

'The worst thing about distance is you don't know whether they'll miss you or forget you.' – Facebook status by an Eritrean refugee in Libya

The sounds of humans hating each other rumbled outside Abu Salim detention centre one night, a week after the refugees were moved there, as one of the pregnant women, Helen, went into labour. Without other options, women pulled plastic bags on their hands to help, as men prayed and panicked about whether assistance would come. There was a hum of anxiety throughout the big hall. Aware that there was no medical worker available if anything went wrong, detainees prayed for the baby’s safe delivery. “It was the traditional way. But God was there with us,” one remembered later.

'It's too hard to find a woman in Europe... You have to marry someone from your own country'

The infant’s first breaths were those of the incarcerated, her deliverance praised by people who were waiting for their own. Like them, she would go without sunlight and nourishment; she symbolised desperation, but also hope. After coming into the world, she remained locked up: just another of the thousands of refugees and migrants trapped in indefinite detention in a war-torn country without a stable government, and one of roughly 640 children that were being held in “official” government-run Libyan detention centres at that time.

"Surprise. The pregnant woman I told you about has born a child" *

The backstory of the young parents of this girl was a reminder that love could blossom in the most unlikely places, even along an unpredictable and chaotic migration route that sporadically tore people apart. Helen escaped Eritrea in 2016 and made her way to Khartoum. Also in the city, though she did not know it, was Birhan, another Eritrean, who worked in a bakery. Both of them wanted to reach Europe.

In January 2017 they ended up in the same vehicle, crossing the Sahara Desert and arriving in a smuggler’s warehouse. The man who transported them announced it would cost six thousand dollars to get in a boat, so Helen phoned relatives, well aware that if she could not raise the money she would be brutally tortured. They would stay in that warehouse for a year.

Birhan had no one to come to his aid. The smugglers beat him daily. “He broke my arm, he broke my head, he broke everything in my body,” Birhan recalled, referring to his smuggler. “He knew I didn’t have anything. He was not happy, he was so angry, he was so mad.” Birhan was even shot in the leg at one point.

Helen’s brother and other relatives clubbed together and raised the money she needed, but by this stage she had fallen in love with Birhan. More than that, she was two months pregnant. He told Helen to go on ahead of him, to get their baby to safety. The couple separated but Helen was not sent to the sea; the gang who took her claimed they had problems reaching the coast. Confusingly, the chief smuggler seemed to tire of beating Birhan and put him on a boat instead. He stayed at sea for 16 hours before he was intercepted and brought back to Tariq al Matar detention centre in Tripoli, then relocated to Ain Zara detention centre.

Helen remained with the smugglers. Her pregnancy meant she was sick every day. Birhan procured a phone to contact her captors, who demanded six hundred dinars to have her sent to Tripoli. She arrived at Ain Zara by car, six months pregnant, her stomach protruding. At the gate, she explained who she was, angering Ain Zara’s manager, who threatened to send Birhan to the police station. In the end, Helen was allowed inside. Birhan was present as their first child was born.

Weeks later, sitting in a conference room in a high-rise building during the UN General Assembly in New York, I used a press briefing with Natalia Kanem, the executive director of the UN Populations Fund, to tell her how Helen had given birth. I described the plastic bags used as gloves, hundreds of refugees bent in prayer, and the echoes of war outside. This was a woman turned back from the sea under EU policy, I said. This baby could have been born in Europe.

Kanem listened carefully. She said women should not be forced to give birth in detention centres and should have privacy, no matter where they were. “Any pregnant woman deserves her full human rights and dignity and it does not matter whether you’re a refugee,” Kanem said. “I believe the concern for the life of the mother and her newborn is something enshrined in the common will, which the definition of human rights represents.”

But Helen knew her baby was far from any concept of human rights. “I just want to get my baby in a perfect place, a good place, and live as a normal person,” she told me through WhatsApp from Abu Salim. Birhan echoed this. “My plan was just to escape [Eritrea], but now I have a wife and child to worry about,” he said. “I just want to work and have a normal, proper family.”

For Helen and Birhan, their surroundings now presented as a list of all the ways their child was in danger. A baby was a burden, the complication that could prevent their escape, but also their biggest motivation for getting out of there.

Freedom

The first war subsided, but the Libyan guards who disappeared as fighting raged across Tripoli did not return full time to Abu Salim detention centre. In total, they were absent for nearly three months. One of the unexpected consequences of this newfound freedom was how many refugees began to fall in love. The Libyans had maintained that mixing between the sexes was haram – forbidden. Now, those rules were gone and they mingled freely.

Love doesn’t choose a place, every place there’s love. You start to meet a girl without the police. Everyone was sleeping in every corner.*

There were couples who had met in the smugglers’ warehouses or in the Sahara Desert. There was love that had grown over time, throughout the endless, spirit-crushing challenges, and love that had sprung in an instant. There was love that had bloomed from dependency, and there was love that arrived with the surging realisation that no one else would ever understand what their minds, bodies and souls had gone through.

You see amazing love. One woman waited one year until the man’s family could pay [the smugglers for him]. They met in the Sahara and she waited one year.*

The new romances lightened the general mood across the centre, but also made it harder for refugees pining sweethearts they had left behind. Some were not able to contact home at all, and they wondered if their partners were alive or dead, or had simply moved on, unwilling to wait for a lover in limbo. Mustafa, a good-looking guy with a bright smile and a fondness for selfies, told me his personal tragedy: the beautiful woman he was deeply in love with; the relationship he had unknowingly sacrificed to make this journey to nowhere. In photos he sent me, she smiled shyly into a camera. He had mapped out their life together, fantasised about their wedding. If he reached Europe she could come and join him there, he imagined, but he got stuck along the route.

Mustafa was from the border of Sudan and Eritrea. His girlfriend was Eritrean, and marriage was the only way she could avoid indefinite conscription. That meant the end of their future together. "Her mom said to my dad we can't wait a long time because maybe the policemen will take her to the military camp," Mustafa told me. As he counted seconds, days, years incarcerated in Libya, Mustafa's father agreed the woman should wed someone else. "My story with her [is] finished," Mustafa brooded. "Another man will marry her."

To distract himself, Mustafa worked out in Abu Salim’s yard each day, fashioning weights with metal bars he found lying around. At each end he placed a plastic bottle filled with cement. He set himself challenges, but they did not stop Mustafa from thinking about his lost love constantly. He compared her fate to Eritrea itself – caught up in the whims of a dictatorship exercising brutal control over its population.

Dear Eritrea is like a sweet girl. A selfish person came and killed her love and made her like darkness!*

Relationships

In Abu Salim, there was serious pressure on relationships. It came from the understanding that women were given priority for evacuation and, if they were married, their husbands would accompany them. Refugees usually flee without documents, or lose any they bring with them, so proof was unnecessary. It was not long before recently formed couples would have a conversation, reaching an understanding that they would register as married if the opportunity arose.

There were loveless relationships too, the women taking pity on the men. “It starts like a game and then they have a baby,” Essey would tell me about some of these. “If the woman is good [the man will] stay with her. It’s too hard to find a woman in Europe... You have to marry someone from your own country.”

This was not unique to Abu Salim. In Tajoura, a detention centre in eastern Libya, marriages were organised by letter. A man would write, giving his carefully worded script to a detainee who worked with the guards – the capos – before it was passed on to a woman in a separate cell. He may have never seen the woman in person but, if she accepted, for the sake of their evacuation bids they were together and in love.

We are in different hangars but they write letters and give it to the migrants who are working together with the guards who give letters to the females, so this is how they marry. As she is from your country, she will accept marrying because she knows that UNHCR is [only] dealing with those who are married. UNHCR doesn’t transfer single [men], so people are marrying here in Tripoli so that UNHCR will evacuate them.*

In the days before an evacuation the guards in Tajoura would allow refugee couples to meet for the first time, for about 30 minutes. It was a chance to say hello and exchange bashful smiles, or to be met with steely eyes, hardened in pursuit of an escape route. These were Libya’s marriages of convenience.

In several cases the women did not consent. One refugee, who acted as a translator in Abu Salim when international organisations visited, told UNHCR he was married to a woman in the same centre without her understanding what he was saying. They were registered and he convinced her not to correct the mistake. Eventually, they were evacuated to Italy together, but she told friends she hated him.

Other times, men would pull out of the arrangements last minute. One young Somali man told me he came to an agreement with a woman in Tajoura whom guards allowed him to speak to for five minutes, face to face, after a day of forced labour. He later panicked, worried about the pressure of being responsible for a wife, and decided he could survive more easily alone. The woman was later evacuated with another man.

As the UN Refugee Agency began to register more detainees inside detention centres, a select number of refugees living in the city outside – including those who had bribed their way out before – began paying money to the guards to let them enter, desperate to have their asylum claims heard and their details taken by UNHCR. Married couples were particularly likely to come in, hopeful that they would be selected.

It was especially hard for those who were already married and had left spouses behind, whom they wanted to be reunited with one day. They could not allow a fake marriage to be listed on their documents and rule out the possibility of applying for family reunification down the line. “For someone like me, I’m married. My wife and son are suffering somewhere [but] UNHCR can’t believe that I am married unless they see my wife and my son. That’s unfair treatment,” one South Sudanese man in Tajoura said to me.

Years later, I travelled around Europe meeting former Libya detainees. Some were dead or disappeared

There were also people in detention with spouses already in Europe. One young Eritrean, Hamid, arrived in Germany in 2014 without a hard copy of his marriage certificate, which he lost while escaping. Even with it, the German authorities said the union would not have been recognised, as it was carried out in a church and not certified by the Eritrean government. Though he had gone ahead to save his wife, Kedija, the perils of the journey, she ended up having to make the same trip without his protection. Kedija was caught by the Libyan coastguard. After months in Ain Zara and Abu Salim, she called him saying she wanted to die.

I became aware of their case when a German pastor, who was looking out for Hamid in Germany, contacted me asking if there was anything I could do (I referred him to the UN). In late 2018 I interviewed Hamid, asking whether he felt his relationship could recover from this lengthy separation and all they endured apart. “Although the trauma we both have, I believe that we could live a normal life again,” he said. “We still love each other like five years ago. Love makes you strong and there is always hope.” He told me he was doing well: he found a job as a systems engineer, had an apartment, and was ready for her arrival, whenever it might happen. All he had achieved to date was for his wife.

Kedija was evacuated to Niger, en route to Europe, after being chosen by UNHCR for resettlement. It came too late. In November 2019 she revealed that she was pregnant with a baby from another man. She severed the relationship with Hamid and was resettled to another country instead of Germany. Later, she would lose her baby and attempt to reconnect with her husband, but he was unwilling to speak to her. He became depressed, unable to concentrate to the extent that he risked losing his job. The future he had projected for them, the goal which had kept him going for so long, had crumbled. Theirs was just another tragedy in the broad tapestry of destinies irrevocably altered by this inequitable, treacherous system.

Survival

Years later, I travelled around Europe meeting former Libya detainees. Some were dead or disappeared. Those I met in person would fill me in on the fate of others whose stories I had come across. Helen and Birhan, the couple whose daughter, Ikram, was born in Abu Salim detention centre as war raged in 2018, were eventually resettled to Canada. Their baby had grown into a healthy toddler with a wide smile, who loved dancing in front of the TV. I was passed Birhan’s number, and we spoke on the phone. “She changed my life,” he said with pride, as Ikram babbled in the background. “She’s smarter than average. She’s playing with me all the time... I love you, honey,” he added, the last part directed to his daughter. When she was older, he said, they would tell Ikram the story of where she came into the world; how brave her mother was; and how many people prayed for her survival.

Extract taken from The Fourth Time, We Drowned by journalist Sally Hayden, which is published by Harper Collins on March 31st

Sally Hayden writes from Africa for The Irish Times

*Direct message sent to the author from a detained refugee

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden, a contributor to The Irish Times, reports on Africa