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5 July 2016

Nameless bodies: the horror faced by migrants in Libya

Even after I'd visited the morgue, and spoken to trafficked women, it was Jallo's story which stuck in my mind.

By Anthony Loyd

I handed the one-legged man my mobile phone. He made a short call, then began to weep. Apart from the slow rolling of his tears, his face was expressionless. His hands, cuffed with fresh scars, remained motionless by his side on the hospital bed.

And he made no noise. It was like watching an Easter Island statue cry and his stillness and poise made his wretchedness seem all the more acute. I walked out of the room and left him alone for a while. There are few things worse than having a stranger standing at your bedside mouthing platitudes when you have so many reasons to weep.

Ibrahim Jallo was probably his name. That’s what he told me he was called, though the Libyan staff at Abu Salim Hospital in Tripoli, who had handcuffed him to a bed and who amputated his right leg a few weeks earlier, called him “Jambo”, which they had scrawled on his medical file beside the letters “HIV”.

A tiler by trade, Jallo said that he had migrated from Senegal to Tripoli last year in search of work. A few weeks ago, he was shot in both legs by a Libyan employer in a pay dispute. There was nothing especially unusual in this. The staff on the ward told me that they usually receive seven or eight African migrants a week, shot by Libyans during arguments over money or as victims of robbery.

“We try to look after them but they don’t get the same treatment here as Libyans,” one nurse said. “It seems there are more guns here than medicine for Africans.”

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When Jallo’s right leg became infected, doctors decided to cut it off. If he had been Libyan, they would probably have tried to save it. But as he was a sub-Saharan migrant and could not afford the course of antibiotics required, amputation was easier. Jallo refused to sign the consent form. There was a struggle. Hospital staff handcuffed him to the bed. As he thrashed around, the handcuffs bit deeply into both wrists, tearing the flesh away in bands. The back of his head got smashed up against the metal bed frame.

Eventually someone stuck a needle into him and Jallo lost consciousness. When he woke up, his right leg had been cut off below the knee. Despite all this, he wasn’t sure if he wanted to go home. “As the eldest son, I came here to support my mother,” he said. “Now I am no one and have nothing. I cannot work here but I cannot go home without a leg.”

Complicating matters, a diplomatic representative of Senegal who had visited the hospital to arrange Jallo’s repatriation doubted his claim to be from the country. As a result, Jallo was left alone, his fate and true nationality uncertain.

Although Libya continues to attract hundreds of thousands of Africans each year – some on their way to Europe, others in search of work locally – the violent abuse of migrants has become steadily worse since the revolution of 2011, which was the start of the descent into chaos. A few days after meeting Jallo, I visited a morgue in the port city of Misurata to check on the number of Da’esh (or Islamic State) fighters whom militias had claimed to have killed in a firefight along the coast in Sirte.

The half-crazy old man who ran the morgue laughed merrily when he saw me. We had first met last year, when he showed me a storage container full of dead African migrants pulled from the sea. (I remember three bodies in particular: one, bleached white by salt and sun, wore a Barcelona FC strip that held its colours as all else faded; another had set with rigor mortis, arms outstretched, as if crucified while still wearing a life jacket; the third was a baby boy, damaged badly by gulls, who had been found washed up on the beach – naked, alone, without history.)

This time, the mortician showed me a handful of dead Da’esh fighters, all Arabs. Then I noticed in the gloom that there were another 20 or so corpses on racks in the room, all sub-Saharan Africans. “Who are these guys?” I asked.

“Oh, they are just bodies of unknown Africans killed around Misurata by locals, for one reason or another,” he said. “Killed for their watches or phones – that sort of thing.”

It wasn’t only the murder rate of migrants that was prompting thousands more Africans to consider crossing the Mediterranean Sea to Europe – there were plenty of other tales of horror. I met several Nigerian women in Tripoli who had left their homes believing that they were on their way to find jobs in Europe, only to end up being trafficked to Libya as prostitutes, forced to work in one of the coastline brothels. They told me that they had been beaten and shaved as part of a black magic ritual along the way, which also involved being cut with razors on the inside of their thighs. Their blood and pubic hair were taken away in vials as a fetish for a spell, which they were told would drive them mad if they ever tried to escape.

Among all of these stories, it was Jallo’s that stuck most in my mind, for the width of the gulf between hope and reality. We had met by chance in the hospital while I was looking for another wounded migrant. Segregated because of his HIV status, he had no passport, no money, no phone and, it seemed, no friends. He owned nothing more than a pair of hospital crutches, pyjama bottoms and a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt.

It was an easy favour to lend Jallo my phone so that he could at least speak to his family. Once he had stopped crying, I walked back into the room and asked him if he wanted anything else. He requested a French copy of the Quran.

A few days later, I got hold of one. I gave it to him and left. That was three weeks ago. I know from speaking with the International Organisation for Migration, which I asked for help in his case, that Jallo is still alone in that hospital ward and that his true nationality remains a mystery.

It seemed a strange lie to have told, if it was a lie. Scrolling through my mobile phone’s call history, I checked again the number that he had called from his hospital bed. Whatever his nationality, one thing is certain: the voice on the phone that had made him weep was reached on a number in Senegal.

Anthony Loyd is a war correspondent for the Times

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This article appears in the 29 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies