'If I die, so be it': Why Sudanese youth risk it all to reach Europe

#Migrants

A fate of enslavement in Libya or death off its coast does little to deter young Sudanese, who have little to live for in their home country

Young Sudanese migrants on the deck of the MSF rescue ship, Aquarius, after being saved off the coast of Libya in August (AFP)
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Last update: 
Wednesday 13 December 2017 13:02 UTC
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El Obeid, Sudan - When Ibrahim was 15, armed gunman straddling their horses stormed his village in the conflict-ridden region of Darfur in western Sudan.

"They torched everything," Ibrahim said, his voice cracking. "They killed three of my brothers and took one of my aunts. In 10 years, I have not seen or heard from her.

"My family had basically nothing, we were simple farmers, but they still destroyed it all."

Ibrahim hails from the fertile Marra mountains in Darfur and is a member of the Fur tribe, the largest in the area.

They torched everything. They killed three of my brothers and took one of my aunts

- Ibrahim , Darfur refugee

Since 2003, the Janjaweed, an Arab militia with alleged Sudanese government support, have attacked villages populated by ethnically African tribes such as the Fur.

Some 300,000 Darfuris live as refugees in neighbouring Chad and many more remain displaced from their homes across Sudan and further afield.

The Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir, remains wanted by the International Criminal Court for the alleged role of his government.



A UN peacekeeper stands guard in of Golo, Jebel Marra, June 2017 (AFP)

'I miss the rain'

Over 10 years later, Ibrahim finds himself in El Obeid, an arid city some 500km southwest of the Sudanese capital Khartoum.

Perched on a flimsy plastic stool, barely one foot high, he lets out yet another sigh, begins to untie his shoelaces and shakes the sand out of his beloved trainers.

While El Obeid is a vibrant city at the cross-section of southern Sudan, Ibrahim has never felt at home.

"We don't have this dirt in my village, this place is filthy," he says ruefully. Shaking his head, Ibrahim looks at the cloudless sky. "I miss the rain. I miss my home. City life doesn't suit me but I can't make money anywhere else."

Read more ►

Janjaweed godfather's arrest sparks fears of renewed Darfur conflict 

Now the 25-year-old, who makes a pittance selling mobile phone credit scratch cards, is one of tens of thousands of Sudanese – and almost certainly more - who have made plans to migrate to Europe via Libya with the help of human traffickers.

Put simply, it is too dangerous for Ibrahim to return home and he resents his status as a Darfuri in El Obeid.

"Trust me, I want nothing than to live my old life in the (Jebel) Marra but that will not happen," he says.

"Going back is impossible and it would remind of the past and the pain I felt. I have nothing left there and all my family are gone.

"Europe seems like an escape route, some sort of dreamland where I can start again."

In this frantic market in the centre of El Obeid, where traders hawk anything from dates to hard currency, Ibrahim is planning his escape.



Omar al-Bashir, seen here in El Obaid in 2012, is wanted by the ICC (AFP)

Straight into the arms of gangsters?

Ibrahim isn't initially keen to explain exactly how he will get to Libya, but to do so he has to pass through the northern reaches of Darfur and across the porous, bandit-ridden border.

Further complicating his journey is the announcement that Libyan general Khalifa Haftar has stationed additional forces on the Sudanese-Darfuri border.

Eventually, Ibrahim concedes he has already arranged to pay traffickers $500 to move him into Libya – a sum well over his yearly salary. After crossing into Libya, he hopes to meet more smugglers.

When questioned how he will then make the way to Libya's coast, given that all of his savings are going into one, small part of the journey, Ibrahim insists he can find work to pay the rest of the way.

He, along with everyone else with whom Middle East Eye spoke, seemed unperturbed at recent evidence that a migrant slave trade in Libya that has been documented for years continues unabated.

Nor were they concerned that traffickers in the coastal town of Sabratha have been paid to clamp down on smuggling.

Such was their desperation and mindset, the potential consequences of enslavement, torture and drowning appeared nothing more than a passing thought.

A source with extensive tribal mediation experience in Libya's south who cannot be identified because it would undermine his work said Ibrahim would likely end up with gangsters or traffickers who would force him to work under unbearable conditions so he could pay the next leg of his journey.

"He has to understand how these guys work. They are criminals and they don't have morals. They will pay him nothing before selling him to another guy to fund the next leg of his journey."

Ibrahim is joined by his friend Omar al-Wardi, who is also preparing himself for the voyage to Libya and Europe.

While Ibrahim is subdued and despondent, Omar is a charismatic bundle of energy who gestures wildly with every syllable spoken.

"Let me tell you, Europe will never meet a better salesman. Give me anything, I can sell it. Money is money!" he exclaims. In Omar's excitement, even spilling scalding hot tea down his lap does not seem to faze him.



Migrants, abandoned in the desert by human traffickers, in the northern Sudanese city of Dongola. Waves of Sudanese have followed them, knowing their trip could end in their death (AFP)

'Anything is better than here'

Omar is a black market money trader. Remarkably, he doesn't deal with dollar or euros but with the South Sudanese pound. Often, those fleeing Sudan's devastated southern neighbour eventually make it to El Obeid.

He makes a "decent" amount of money exchanging South Sudanese pounds for the Sudanese variety. But he believes his income is nothing compared to the "fortune" possible in Europe.

Omar hails from Barbanusa, roughly 300km south west of El Obeid. He fled three years ago as conflict spilled over not only from Darfur, but from South Sudan as well. Ironically, this has provided him with the perfect contact base for business.

"Many of the guys dealing with dollars laugh at for me for trading such a bad currency. But I ask them, 'How many people in El Obeid are rich enough to buy dollars off you? Why do you think they might have (British) Sterling falling out of their pockets?' No one. Trust me, you will find more southerners here."

With the UNHCR saying Sudan has hosted over 416,000 South Sudanese refugees since 2013, including some 170,000 in 2017, Omar is probably not wrong.

The Sudanese heading for Libya are a mixture of economic migrants and those with genuine cases for asylum. However, the lines can often become blurred in between these two crude definitions where migrants tick both boxes.

Ibrahim and Omar fall into this mixed category – and it is Omar's entrepreneurial spirit that makes him believe he can make money in Europe.

The only time his grin is wiped off of his face is when the subject of the Mediterranean Sea is brought up. Suddenly, his expression mirrors that of the often-glum Ibrahim. But it is also tinged with fear.

"I cannot swim. Never have I seen the sea or the Nile. The photos of the people screaming for help as they drown make me fear. I have also heard the army beats people they find trying to get into Libya. I don't want to be arrested and thrown in jail," he says, shaking his head.

"Anything is better than here," Ibrahim reassures his companion. "We will make it, I promise."



Tundubai villagers who escaped being massacred by Janjaweed militias in Sudan's Darfur in 2004. Many hundreds of thousands of Sudanese are still living in refugee camps because of the conflict in their home state (AFP)

His second wife, a better life

In Khartoum, Muna, an English teacher, nurses a tea in a cafe in the affluent district of Burri. That she is willing to be interviewed by a man in public – and a Western man at that - is indicative of her willingness to buck Sudanese norms.

Normally, women don't leave their family home here unless they are married. Now Muna is attempting to take the treacherous journey to Libya by herself.

"I have never met a European with good Arabic. Surely the country is in need of Arabic teachers," she lectured. While Ibrahim and Omar have dreamed of a new life in Europe for many years, it was only in the last three months that Muna decided to go.

From the town of Karima, some 400km north of Khartoum along the Nile, Muna's family was extremely poor. With 14 siblings and a farmer for a father, food was scarce. Muna came to Khartoum to find work as an English language teacher to help support the family.

Instead she found love – or so she thought.

"He seemed nice and had money. It was only after we married that I realised I was his second wife," she sighed.

Leaving the marriage, Muna set her sights on something else.

"I told myself that day I would make a better life, I had to go to Europe."

However, it also becomes clear that Muna has experienced a degree of social exclusion because she is a young divorcee. Sudan is a highly conservative country as it is, but gets more so the further you get from the capital. While Muna never explicitly said it, her marital status clearly weighs heavily on her mind.

As a 27-year-old woman, Muna's already precarious journey carries added risks. Reports of the rape of migrant women are widespread and the IOM says many women take birth control to prevent the chance of pregnancy before embarking.

Even if a female migrant has money to make the entire journey, traffickers would have no issue forcing women into prostitution, according to the source who mediates in southern Libya and backed up by a recent IOM report on sexually exploited migrants.

Compared to Ibrahim and Omar, Muna seemed the least fearful of the potential violence involved, conditions in Libya's migrant detention centres, or the risks when adrift at sea. She refused to be deterred.

Mohamed (not his real name), however, was terrified.



A Libyan coast guardsman stands on a boat during the rescue of 147 people attempting to reach Europe off the coastal town of Zawiyah, on June 27, 2017 (AFP)

'I am already dying here'

In a very religious society and a country run mainly under Sharia law, secular and atheist viewpoints are not tolerated – indeed, they are likely to be classed as apostasy.

While Mohamed, 28, still classes himself as Muslim, he has a huge disdain for many of the harsh laws that, in his words, "plague what was once a liberal Sudan".

Crouched in a dimly lit street in Omdurman, one of three areas in the capital and the one where most people live and where they socialise at night, Mohamed said his lax view towards religion make him feel uneasy and he worries that the authorities will not take kindly if he voiced his views.

His eyes are constantly shifting, looking for signs that someone is coming. Every word he utters is an almost inaudible whisper. Mohamed is convinced the local morality police are aware of his views on religion.

In the past six months, he has moved home three times, convinced they are watching him. Recently, a local imam scolded him for continuously missing Friday prayers and smoking shisha instead, which only confirmed his suspicions.

"The imam is at the mosque on Friday, so how could he know where I was? Someone must have tipped him off," he insists.

However, while he is clearly suffering, Mohamed is unable to give tangible evidence that the morality police are harassing him.

Previously, Mohamed worked as an electrician for the state energy company.

I questioned whether I should kill myself. I just couldn't think of any other way out

- Mohamed, Sudanese refugee

Paranoia has clearly taken hold and this apparent burden he carries has hammered his mental health too.

"I questioned whether I should kill myself," Mohamed whispers, eyes now fixed on the ground. "I just couldn't think of any other way out from this fear."

As these malicious thoughts began to cloud his mind, an old friend, recently arrived in Italy from Libya after crossing the Mediterranean got in touch.

"He made it sound so easy. Suddenly, after all that time, my head was clear again. I took up labouring to make money and saved up the equivalent of nearly $2000. That should be enough," he said.

"I told my brother and he said I should stay in Sudan and save the money. Two thousand dollars is a lot here, it is true.

"But my mind is already set. I have already decided to go to Europe though. If I die on the way, so be it. I am already dying here."