From Genocide to Slavery: An Anonymous Letter from a Refugee in Libya

For three decades, Sudan has been punctuated with one crisis after another. The harsh reality of war, successions and ethnic cleansing have left the people of Sudan desperate. As a result, forcibly displaced people flee the country day and night. This has affected the entire country, including the now infamous Darfur region. As of April 11, four months of popular protests and a six-day sit-in at the army headquarters ended with an announced military takeover of the Omar Al-Bashir regime. The prospect of a new military regime has left both the country and diaspora shaken.

The people of Darfur have been dispersed worldwide and some were lucky to find their way to safety. Others have been left in limbo. Below is just one of many stories of Darfur genocide survivors in Libya, a harrowing story of survival and despair told in his own words and translated to English. I will not reveal his name here for his safety and for the safety of his family and friends. I will refer to him only as “RS”.

“My story begins with the destruction of my village Taweelah in North Darfur. Like so many villages in Darfur, it was destroyed by the Janjaweed, a group of militants armed up by the Sudanese government and known for riding into a village, killing the men and raping the women, and then burning the village to the ground. My family and I escaped to an IDP (internally displaced persons) camp in Al Fashir where years passed and the situation went from bad to worse. Men were killed in front of our eyes and women were raped as we bore witness. I was forced to flee again to save my life – this time, to the border with Chad. It was there that I first learned from locals that there were people being smuggled to neighboring countries such as Libya to try and find a safe place to settle. I decided to take my chances and join them.

By the time I reached Libya in 2015 local fighting was already intensifying. The smugglers were under immense pressure from the government at that time, so they put us into goods containers to conceal our presence. We reached the city of Sabratha in June 2016 where I hoped I would be able to start a new life. However, the smugglers refused to release us. They demanded more money, claiming that they would transfer us out of Libya and bring us across the sea to Europe. But we had no money to pay for such a journey, so they held us as hostages instead to extort money from our families. The men put us in shipping containers where they starved, intimidated and tortured us. They told us that if our loved ones could not pay for our release, then we would die there. We lived under this torment for over a year.

Our conditions in Sabratha, where I lived for over a year awaiting rescue.

In September of 2017, fierce clashes broke out between the human smugglers and paramilitary militias on one side, and the national government on the other. During this time, we spent days without food or water. Finally, on October 6 our captors were defeated by the Libyan forces. But we had nowhere to go. We ran on foot into the darkness trying to find safety. Some of my friends were grabbed by other rival smuggling gangs who dragged their bodies through the streets of Sabratha towards an unknown fate. I found an abandoned house to seek shelter, where I hid for a week with some of my fellow refugees before the government’s army came to collect us.

The Libyan army lining us up to be transferred from Sabratha.

The Libyan army took me out of the city and for weeks I was transferred from one work camp to another. Despite all of the suffering I witnessed in my life, these camps were the most tragic places I had ever known. More than 25,000 people were there, from 26 African countries as well as Bangladesh and Syria. We stayed, gathered in a large bunker, waiting to be transferred from one camp to the next. There were contagious diseases, such as scabies and tuberculosis. We were treated like animals, kept in cages with no food and only dirty bath water to drink. It was in the midst of this torment that an individual from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, came carrying a single white piece of paper. He wrote down our names only, then he disappeared and we did not see or hear from him again.

Eventually I received my final transfer, to a detention center named Qaser Bin Ghashir where I sit today writing my story. When I arrived, I found hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers already gathered there. We were brought scraps food once a day. It was very cold and we did not have blankets, clothes, shoes, or showers. I still had the same lice in my hair as the day I fled Sabratha. We faced regular beatings, racist slurs and exploitation.

We were unknown, unseen and uncared for. No embassy nor human rights organization could help us. The negligence was overwhelming, and the situation was ripe for others to exploit us. During the day the director of the center would take us to militia camps where we were forced to work as slaves in hard manual labor. We were returned to the prison at night. This slavery became our routine for months. The Tarhouna militia had connections with Basit al-Na’as, the director of the detention center, and so they regularly took us to work in their camps cleaning and carrying heavy supplies. During this time five of my friends witnessed one particularly devastating clash where a Tarhouna leader named Salah al-Marghani’s wife was killed. Salah survived the attack but was injured. He became enraged and paranoid, and accused the five refugees who had been working in the camp of having a hand in the attempted assassination, thinking that they had somehow conspired with his enemies.

In January 2019, fighting between militias left us without food, water or electricity for days. UNCHR could not reach us, and we thought we were going to die.

Then, on February 17th 2019 at 9:30 am Salah al-Marghani appeared once more at the Qaser Bin Ghashir detention center. He asked the director, “Who were the refugees taken by the Tarhuna militia?” Salah was determined to leave with the five Darfuris who had witnessed his wife’s death. The militia rounded them up and took them away at gunpoint. Weeks have now passed and we have had no news as to their whereabouts, or if they are alive or dead. I fear that they are being tortured for information, or have been killed to avenge Salah’s wife’s death. Despite our attempts to inform the UNHCR in Libya, nobody has lifted a finger to save them or to protect us from the same fate.

We are facing the most tragic and horrible situation here in this detention center. There are 80 of us here from Darfur, alongside hundreds more refugees from Eritrea, Somalia and Ethiopia. Many of the people being held here are women and children, some just a few months old. We have no hope of being evacuated and sometimes spend days with no water, electricity or food.  In our last visit from a UNHCR delegation, they told us we should consider returning back to our home countries. There is no stability in Sudan and the people of Darfur continue to be targeted for ethnic attacks. My fellow detainees also fled from life-threatening conditions including slavery, religious oppression and political persecution. Can it be that our only chance to escape this nightmare is to return to a place where we will surely be killed?

I’m telling my story today, so that people can finally know what is happening to us in Libya. We call on the UNHCR in Libya and other humanitarian organizations worldwide to take immediate action to evacuate us from this prison. We call on the European Union to end their deal with the Libyan government that supports these prisons where we are held as animals. And we call international media to pay close attention to safe our lives. There are women and children who are more in need than we are. Please help us by whatever means possible to evacuate us from this nightmare.”


At this time, fighting has broken out again between militias in Libya and the 600 or so refugees trapped in Qaser Bin Ghashir are once again trapped in an active combat zone. The UNHCR has been unable to reach them, but the Libyan army arrived yesterday to the site with news that they would be transferring the refugees to the Zintan detention center. Although this location is outside the active combat zone, it is packed with about 900 refugees and plagued with an outbreak of tuberculosis. Moreover, the army general in charge of the transfer is allegedly connected to the Tarhouna militia and therefore new fears have arisen regarding the safety of the refugees during their transfer.

Overall, there are about 5,700 refugees from Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia trapped in detention centers across Libya and as long as they remain in the country they will be subject to severe violations of their human rights. The only way to secure their safety is to evacuate them to safe third party countries.

About the Author
Andrea Gagne is a U.S.-based aid worker who has worked for several years with Eritrean refugees in Israel. She has worked in multiple refugee community centers in south Tel Aviv, including the Eritrean Women’s Community Center. Andrea is a graduate of Hampshire College, has a master’s degree from Tel Aviv University, and also studied at the University of Ghana.
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