Tunis, Tunisia – Aisha spent months in Tripoli’s Abu Salim detention centre, before eventually making her way to Tunisia.
Originally from Freetown in Sierra Leone, she remembers how bad the conditions were at the site, formerly a notorious high-security prison.
Now, sheltering in the shadow of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) offices in Tunis, along with other refugees living in brightly coloured tents bleached by the sun, she barely reacts to the news that a woman has been filmed dead in Abu Salim.
The video was published by the Guardian on Tuesday, and while the identity of the woman remains unknown, the British newspaper said that Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF) and a United Nations source had confirmed its veracity.
The video is believed to have been shot approximately two weeks ago by detainees at the centre.
“I was in prison for five months,” Aisha told Al Jazeera, referring to Abu Salim. “There is no food, only bread. They will give us bread at 12pm and that is it. No fruit, no vegetables. People died there.”
Aisha described how the guards would regularly force themselves on the centre’s women, sometimes at gunpoint. “A lot of women were raped and got pregnant,” she said. In the end, it proved too much for Aisha and her friends.
Attempting to escape, one was killed by a guard, an act the group were able to capture on video.
“The guards killed one of our friends,” she said, “We did the video and said we were going to post it [on social media], so we deleted the video in return for our escape.”
Those descriptions were in line with the reported conditions at Abu Salim, with a recent outbreak of tuberculosis infecting dozens and potentially claiming the life of the woman in the video.
Libya hub for refugees and migrants
Refugees and migrants arriving in Libya are often attempting to leave the country via a boat across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, or attempting to journey to Tunisia.
The situation in Libya has been unstable since civil war broke out in 2014, leaving rival administrations in different parts of the country, and competing fighting groups.
Thousands of refugees have been housed in camps operated by the Directorate for Combating Illegal Migration (DCIM), an organisation headed by a prominent leader of one of the groups, whose existence continues despite promises by the internationally-recognised government in Tripoli to close it.
While abuse of refugees and migrants in Libya has been well-documented by aid agencies and the UN, Libya has remained a key pillar of European efforts to push its internal migration concerns overseas.
A controversial deal between Libya and Italy and, by extension, the European Union (EU), to “combat illegal immigration” was renewed earlier this year.
Responding, rights groups claimed that the renewal highlighted EU complicity in the alleged rape, torture and even murder that refugees and asylum seekers have regularly claimed took place at the hands of Libya’s militias.
Journey from South Sudan
Twenty-six-year-old John Weel from South Sudan, who carried UNHCR papers confirming his status, seen by Al Jazeera, said that he was tortured during the nine months he spent in one of Libya’s detention centres.
“They used electric shock, they beat me, they don’t give you food,” he said.
John struggled to remember where he had been held, but knew enough to know that it was not Abu Salim.
“There were 540 people in my camp. It had barbed wire around the border,” he said, describing how torture, hunger and physical abuse were everyday occurrences for those trapped there.
John had fled South Sudan in 2019, in a bid to escape a civil war that had already led to widespread famine, accusations of ethnic cleansing and the extensive use of child soldiers.
Along with close to a million South Sudanese refugees, John said he left his home, where he had lived with his father, a cattle herder, and settled in a refugee camp in Uganda, where he learned English.
From there he attempted to head to Europe by travelling across Libya.
“They arrested us in the desert. There were 46 of us. They just came and chased away the driver, then put us in their cars. I showed them my documents, but they said they had nothing to do with the United Nations and the United Nations is doing nothing,” he said.
For those fleeing, first, famine and war from across sub-Saharan Africa and then, the deadly conditions in Libya, Tunisia has provided scant relief. While racial tensions have long simmered, a controversial speech by President Kais Saied in February in which he said that migration was aimed at changing the country’s demographics, offered an effective green light to many who resented the presence of Black refugees and migrants in Tunisia, a country noted for its own contribution to irregular European arrivals in Italy.
While the vicious attacks that began after Saied’s words eventually subsided, there was a resurgence in violence against Black migrants and refugees in the port city of Sfax in early July, forcing the country’s security services to intervene.
At the time, authorities were widely believed to have rounded up over a thousand Black refugees and migrants and expelled them to the borders with Libya and Algeria, leaving many stranded in the desert.
This has since been denied by Tunisia’s interior minister.
Nevertheless, Aisha, along with her husband and four-year-old daughter, Octavia, say they were in Sfax at the time of the violence
“Killing is normal [in Libya],” she said, as she poured water into a bucket. “That is why we left Libya for Tunisia. We spent six days in the desert. Some of the people died in the desert.”
The police came for her husband and daughter, she said, taking them over the border into Algeria. “I heard from him two weeks ago, but not since. I do not know their whereabouts.”
She wiped a tear off her cheek, picked up the bucket and left.
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