Inside the smuggler’s warehouse: Africa’s 21st-century slave trade

An Eritrean teenager in a dormitory for unaccompanied minors in Shagarab refugee camp, eastern Sudan, in 2017. Many Eritreans stop here before travelling on towards Libya. Photograph: Sally Hayden
In Libya, migrants pay smugglers to get them to Europe. Instead, they are tortured, raped, killed

First came the smell, then the sight of hundreds of wasted people, and finally the realisation that he wasn’t going anywhere fast. Aaron had entered the smuggler’s warehouse.

Roughly 900 men, women and children were packed together – Somalis, Eritreans and Ethiopians. There were three toilets. “You sleep overcrowded, it didn’t have the capacity to hold that amount of people,” he recalls. “The temperature is very high; you have to suffocate. You drink water from the toilets and wash from the toilets. There are people dying because of starvation.”

The teenager was just 17 when he escaped compulsory, unending military service in Eritrea – one of the world’s most isolated dictatorships – and daringly made his way to Sudanese capital Khartoum. In Sudan, an Islamic country at the time still ruled by wanted war criminal Omar al-Bashir, older refugees whispered about their children being kidnapped or stolen.

In reality, many young people were convinced to leave the country on a “go now, pay later” scheme – with payments seemingly reserved until they saw results. A smuggler told Aaron he could be across the Mediterranean Sea within days and his new life in Europe would begin.

“We were misled intentionally,” Aaron says. Even crossing the Sahara Desert to leave Sudan took weeks. But Libya was where the real suffering started. In the smuggler’s warehouse, where he stayed between June 2017 and May 2018, Aaron was told he owed €10,000 – much more than he expected.

This was Bani Walid, a Libyan town migrants call the “ghost city” because of the number of people who disappear without trace: stored like cargo in compounds, starved, sometimes tortured to death. Aaron experienced “beating, starving, insanity and many stuff, just like all the other detainees. There were people dying in the warehouse. There were women being taken from the warehouse to [the smuggler’s] private house,” he remembered.

His smuggler was Kidane Zekarias Habtemariam, a vicious man of Eritrean descent and one of the world’s most-wanted traffickers until he was arrested in Ethiopia last month. Habtemariam was taking women to rape them, Aaron says – something other interviewees corroborate.

Once a day, detainees would be taken to the front of the warehouse, joining a queue to ring their families. There was no time for niceties; just moments to beg for ransom payments. The calls were monitored by fellow migrants: collaborators who brutalised others to save themselves.

Parents and siblings on the other end of the phone line grasped for information. “You’re not allowed to have a phone call more than two minutes,” Aaron explains. “You have to call [your family], you have to tell [them] the price, and you give them the phone number or the address of the person who would receive the money.”

Sometimes, refugees and migrants were tortured while on the phone. “They don’t have to beat a lot but a few severely,” says Aaron, who describes Habtemariam “displaying” grievously injured people to show others what could happen if they didn’t pay up quickly.

A photo from a Facebook post shows a family held in Libya by smugglers, who were demanding thousands of dollars for their release
A photo from a Facebook post shows a family held in Libya by smugglers, who were demanding thousands of dollars for their release

Habtemariam carried out the attacks himself. “One guy was beaten with electricity wires. [Habtemariam] beat him to the point that he was at the verge of death. He beat him with his own hands. Fortunately he survived.”

In time, Aaron came to feel the people in the warehouse were no longer human. They were more like “a herd of animals after you slaughter them and want to sell them”.

Aaron’s story is not unique. It’s one of dozens I’ve heard during face-to-face or on phone interviews with refugees and migrants across Europe, as well as in Rwanda, Sudan, Niger, Tunisia, and even through messages from inside smugglers’ warehouses in Libya.

All of them asked to remain anonymous or have their names changed because of fears about their safety, but they have spoken because they want the world to recognise what has happened to them.

At the time of writing, there has been only a handful of coronavirus cases in Libya. If it spreads, it could have a devastating effect on the country as a whole, already wracked by political and civil unrest, and on migrants in particular.

In 2011, Libya was thrown into turmoil when the Arab Spring led to the ousting and killing of long-ruling dictator Muammar Gadafy. The north African country of roughly six million people has always been a key launching pad for boats heading for Europe, something Gadafy exploited for his own advantage, even telling European leaders the continent would turn “black” if they didn’t support him.

After Gadafy’s fall, chaos meant smugglers could operate with impunity, devising increasingly violent ways to make their operations lucrative. Well-documented evidence shows collusion with Libyan authorities, which remain weak and, in Tripoli, get their power from disparate militias vying for territory and wealth.

In 2017, Fatou Bensouda, the chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, called Libya “a marketplace for the trafficking of human beings”. That same year, CNN journalists went undercover and filmed migrants being auctioned as slaves for as little as $400. While the video shocked audiences across the world, these reports were not new and have not ended.

Refugees and migrants continue to flee wars, dictatorships, corruption and crushing poverty across Africa. Many I’ve spoken to say they grew used to being called “abed” in Libya, which translates as “slave”.

When people are desperate they’ll take any chance, effectively turning themselves over to a system where they are bought and sold in kind of 21st-century slave trade. In Libya, the buying and selling of people isn’t hidden. Much of it plays out for anyone to see online. Now, victims say it is finally time for a reckoning.

In March, a number of human smugglers were arrested in Ethiopia and Sudan, according to police sources, local and international reports. Two of those apprehended are particularly infamous: Tewelde Goitom, an Eritrean nicknamed “Walid” who is known for raping a huge number of female captives, and Habtemariam, Aaron’s smuggler and another Eritrean, who was reportedly on Interpol’s “wanted” list (an Interpol spokesperson would not confirm this, saying they do not comment on individual cases).

It’s very difficult to speak about Walid. He is the devil.

Activists and victims are hoping prosecutions in Africa can be more successful than the last European attempt to bring a smuggler to justice. In 2016, Eritrean carpenter, Medhanie Tesfamariam Behre, was arrested in Sudan, extradited to Italy, and jailed for three years in what was later proven to be a case of mistaken identity. Last year, Behre was granted asylum in Italy.

Some former victims gleefully shared news of these arrests widely on social media, but many were also concerned. “It’s very difficult to speak about Walid,” said one former captive. “He is the devil.”

“They were the most brutal of all smugglers,” said another victim. “Walid was taking every beautiful girl by force and Kidane was known for beating people like animals.” He worried the pair would manage to escape. “They can pay plenty of money as [a] bribe to be freed as they are in Africa. You know money is the solution for any problem in Africa.” When asked what punishment he’d like to see him get, the victim, who is still in Libya, said he wants them drowned.

“Many lives passed due to them and many have suffered in Libya for more than three years, so my idea is after three years punishment they have to be thrown into the Mediterranean Sea. These kind of human beings should totally disappear from the Earth and should not buried after death if everyone is going [to] live in peace.”

“What’s the value of a person? You don’t think of that. You’re hearing their voices,” mused Meron Estefanos, an activist and journalist based in Sweden. “You know they’re suffering, these people, they’re asking you to help them.”

Estefanos first began getting anguished calls from Eritreans in Egypt’s Sinai desert, in 2011, who were being tortured and asked for up to $40,000 (€36,800) to be released. Over five years, Estefanos estimates one billion dollars was paid in ransoms by friends, family members, and supporters from the Eritrean diaspora to secure releases there.

Since Libya became a more common migration route, she thinks the money paid to smugglers could be approaching the same figures. “[Captives] are being extorted again and again so that makes it the same,” she said.

African migrants prepare food at a Safe House in the ‘ghost city’ of Bani Walid, on the edge of the desert 170km southeast of the Libyan capital Tripoli in 2017. Photograph: Mahmud Turkia/AFP via Getty Images
African migrants prepare food at a Safe House in the ‘ghost city’ of Bani Walid in 2017. Photograph: Mahmud Turkia/AFP via Getty Images

Estefanos has paid and crowdfunded ransom payments herself. Originally, she tried contacting human rights groups, UN agencies, celebrities and anyone else she could think of to rescue captives, but slowly she realised change wasn’t going to come. “We are black people,” she says. “The world doesn’t care. We always say paying ransom is not good. But hey, if your brother or your sister was in that situation, if your child was in that situation, which parent is going to say I’m not going to pay?”

'They say if you are not paying we will kill or cut his body by dividing the whole body by pieces. Like a horror movie'

Eritreans in particular have a culture of helping, she says, though she worries each payment increases the price. “People, when they feel hopeless and they don’t know what to do, it gives you kind of a peace of mind that you contributed 100 dollars to save one life.”

In the coming years, as migration routes shift again, Estefanos expects the same patterns of captivity and ransom to begin in other countries. “The smugglers are smart so wherever there are a lot of refugees there will be a lot of smugglers,” she says. “Migration never really stops to be honest.”

Asked if this is a slave trade, Estefanos doesn’t pause. “Of course it is,” she posits. “If it isn’t a buy and sell then what is it?”

In Libya’s Bani Walid, refugees describe washing once a week, with five people showering together. They get two meals a day of something plain, and two chances to drink water. “If you don’t pay money quickly you are beaten every day,” said an Eritrean.

No one knows how many captives have died. In 2018, an Médecins Sans Frontières staff member spoke of the demand for body bags in Bani Walid – up to 50 a week for just one camp. “They call our parents to pay or kill us. That is ransom,” says Hani, a Somali in his early 20s. “They say if you are not paying we will kill or cut his body by dividing the whole body by pieces. Like a horror movie.”

A 2019 report by the Women’s Refugee Commission found that sexual violence against both genders in Libya is also widespread. Male refugees said they had been both raped and forced to have sex with other detainees while smugglers watch. I’ve heard reports of smugglers in Libya raping women on camera, then threatening to post the videos online if the women ever speak out.

Even when you pay up, you are likely to be sold on to another smuggling gang. In one incident, hundreds of refugees and migrants were even exchanged after their smuggler lost a gambling bet. A Sudanese man, speaking from a Tripoli detention centre, says detainees’ families raised as much as $35,000 in various instalments, and a Somali woman with him paid $60,000 in total. Everyone in detention with him paid at least $3,000, he says.

For families, finding out what was happening was a shock. In April 2019, Hani got a call from his brother, who said he was being held in an underground “prison” in Bani Walid. There were 95 others with him, including women.

A victim of smugglers displays injuries he received while he was held captive.
A victim of smugglers displays injuries he received while he was held captive.

“They are burning them,” Hani said at the time. “There are no windows and air. They burn them with [dripping hot] plastic bags on their bodies. He told me he can’t tell me the smuggler’s name because the smuggler was with him when he needed to call me or my mum.”

Far away in Hargeisa, Somaliland, Aaden got a similar call the next month. His brother needed cash. “We send that time near to €15,000,” he recalls. “A lot of money. [After that], he said to send again €16,000. My brother is still in an underground detention centre. No one knows the place.”

Social media

In some ways, social media has made things easier for refugees and migrants. Facebook and WhatsApp in particular are used to raise ransoms. I’ve seen dozens of posts, some as recently as the last few months, where photos of captives in Libya are posted online along with a phone number people can send money to.

One, last November, which showed a picture of young man with a price of $12,000 dollars, was shared more than 780 times. A WhatsApp audio message from Bani Walid, sent around last year, asked for a $17,500 payment for each of a group of 150 Somalis. Sometimes, audio messages are recorded by the smugglers themselves.

Mothers of captives have set up WhatsApp groups to share information. In one case, each mother contributed $10 towards the release of a Somali boy who had no parents. “You see that always, mothers begging, my son is in Libya and I don’t have the money to pay [for] him,” says Estefanos. “I used to save it, take a picture, but it’s become our new normal; it’s almost every day.”

When asked about the posts on its site, a Facebook spokesperson responds: “We do not allow content or behaviour on Facebook or Instagram that may lead to human exploitation. Our policies are developed in consultation with expert organisations, including the UN, and do not allow people to post content or accounts related to human trafficking ... We will continue to work with law enforcement, expert organisations and industry to prevent this behaviour on our platforms.”

Offline, where the smugglers store their profits is a long-pondered question. Sudan, Switzerland, and Dubai are all locations victims suggested – with one saying his smuggler owned a gold shop in the UAE. Payments have been made to accounts in Khartoum or Dubai, though usually through untraceable “hawala” money-broking methods.

“For the smugglers who have gone this far, killed too many people, raped too many women, where can they go?” asks one teenager who recently passed through Libya. “All of this, it is blood money.”

Survivors

Life after smuggling offers little reprieve for many victims. Over the past two years, hundreds of people, many emaciated or too sick to attempt the journey across the Mediterranean Sea, have been delivered directly from Bani Walid to government-associated detention centres in Tripoli.

In one centre, more than a dozen women and girls showed up pregnant from the same smuggler – some paid high prices for abortion pills while still incarcerated. The latest survivor to die was a teenager released from Bani Walid this month, according to other refugees in Tripoli. “He was totally crushed,” said one.

Even when survivors go to sea, they’re unlikely to make it to Europe. Boats used to be wooden; now they’re unseaworthy rubber dinghies. And the European Union encourages the Libyan coastguard to intercept escapees and bring them back to Libya.

As happened to many others, Aaron was sold between smugglers, even after raising the money that was demanded through frantic efforts by his family in Eritrea and relatives abroad. When he eventually reached the Libyan coast, he was abandoned on the shore and quickly caught by Libyan authorities, who locked him up.

Now 21, Aaron is in Tunisia living a half-life, unable to claim proper asylum rights and enduring increasing hostility from locals.

“The time is wasted, the money is wasted ... We’re here in Tunisia, still we’re struggling with the migration journey,” he said, anger in his voice. “Probably [Habtemariam] will be detained and the detention he will have will be just like the house that we are living in here. Whether he is punished or not he will be safe now ... His punishment is not enough punishment for me.”