SEKOU Balde is living testimony to the increasing chaos and brutality that is sweeping Libya, as fears grow that the Islamic State terrorist group is seeking to establish a caliphate on the shores of the Mediterranean.
Lifting up his sweatshirt, he reveals the six stab wounds he received when he was attacked by a gang of four Libyan soldiers who demanded money after they raided the house near Tripoli where he was living with other African immigrants.
“They said ‘where is your money?’. I said I didn’t have any. Then they attacked me. It was four of them against me. They came at one in the morning. My brother was shot dead in front of me – boom, boom – as well as two of my friends,” he said.
The 20-year-old recounted his experiences on a bare patch of rocky land outside the refugee reception centre on Lampedusa, the Italian island that represents the promised land for hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing persecution and war in Syria, Iraq, the Horn of Africa and the Sahel.
Libya, a country devoid of a functioning government and awash with weapons from the civil war, is now also the major take-off point for people-smuggling vessels across the Mediterranean, with boats full of hundreds of people departing almost daily.
Nearly 8 000 refugees and asylum seekers have reached Italy so far this year, in what is normally supposed to be a quiet period for boat crossings because of rough winter weather.
Dozens of refugees on Lampedusa painted an alarming picture of Libya descending into ever-greater chaos.
Four years after rebels overthrew Muammar Gaddafi, the oil-producing North African state is being fought over by two rival governments allied to armed factions.
The more secular of the two is recognised by the West, having won elections in 2013. But it is now in effective exile in the eastern city of Tobruk after being ousted by the Libya Dawn movement, a coalition of moderate and more hardline Islamist factions. Both sides are now in a low-level civil war, while militants and people smugglers exploit the vacuum.
All the migrants spoke of being subjected to random brutality, not only from the Libyan army, police and militias, but also ordinary citizens intent on robbing them of what little they had managed to earn to fund their quest to reach Europe.
“Everyone in Libya is armed now,” Djiby Diop, a 20-year- old from Senegal who spent three months in Libya dodging gunmen, said.
“Every guy of my age has a gun,” he said. “If you don’t work for them, they shoot you. If you don’t give them all your money, they shoot you. Or they shoot you just for fun. Or throw you in prison and you have to pay 400 dinars (R3 600) to get released.”
Small groups of Africans and Syrians wander Lampedusa’s dusty lanes, between the reception centre and the main town of the island about a kilometre away, with nowhere to go and no money to spend.
“The Libyans beat us with sticks and held guns to our heads,” Bereket Habte, 23, an Eritrean refugee, said.
“They especially don’t like Christians,” he said.
None of the refugees said they had encountered IS in Libya – most had transited through the west of the country, whereas IS fighters are reported to be in the east, establishing a foothold in the country around the ports of Derna and Sirte.
“It’s complete anarchy in Libya and it has become very, very dangerous for migrants,” Flavio Di Giacomo, a spokesman for the International Organisation for Migration, said.
“In the last year, the Libyans have become much more violent, especially towards sub-Saharan Africans. They are treated worse than animals.”
With Libya torn between rival governments in Tripoli and Tobruk and with IS threatening to use the country as a springboard for attacks on Europe, prospects for peace look increasingly remote.
– The Telegraph