On Wednesday at least 44 migrants were killed and more than 130 injured when an airstrike hit a migrant detention center in Tajoura, 10 miles east of Tripoli, the capital of Libya. Hundreds of men, women and children, mostly from African countries, who left their homes for Europe, have been locked up for months — in some cases for years — at the detention center.
The civil war in Libya intensified in early April after Gen. Khalifa Hifter, the leader of eastern Libya militias, ordered his forces to advance on Tripoli, where the country’s internationally backed Government of National Accord is led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj.
Fighting has continued between General Hifter’s forces and militias loosely affiliated with Mr. Sarraj’s government. A week earlier, forces allied with the internationally recognized government in Tripoli took control of Gharyan, a town south of Tripoli, which was the main supply base for General Hifter’s forces in their campaign to capture the capital.
On Monday, a commander of General Hifter’s forces promised to step up aerial attacks on the capital, claiming the “traditional means” to capture Tripoli had been exhausted. The airstrike that hit the Tajoura detention center came two days later. Mr. Sarraj’s government blamed General Hifter’s forces and called for a United Nations investigation.
But Mr. Sarraj’s government shares the blame for holding the migrants in detention centers inside or close to its military facilities. In May, an airstrike targeting a government weapons store in Tajoura hit 80 meters from the detention center. An Egyptian man who was being forced by the guards to work inside the weapons store was injured.
Mr. Sarraj’s government and the European Union share the responsibility for the deaths of the migrants and for the horrifying and precarious conditions of their detention in Libya. War crimes against migrants have been carried out by both the government aligned forces and General Hifter’s militias.
For 10 months I have been speaking with dozens of refugees and migrants in detention centers across Libya, who use hidden phones to send me details of how they are treated. Their messages describe a bleak and brutal world of abuse and exploitation. Migrants and refugees detained in Libya have been raped, tortured, starved, sold back to traffickers by guards, and forced to carry weapons for the various militias in the country’s civil war.
Minutes after the first airstrike on the Tajoura detention center Tuesday I got a call from a 16-year-old Eritrean migrant trapped inside. “Oh my God, it is a terrible moment. Pray for us. Oh my God,” he said, his voice trembling and words failing him.
A second strike followed. “The other cell is already destroyed, the people are lost,” the 16-year-old messaged me right after. Photos from the aftermath show blood, body parts and detainees’ belongings. Outside, the detention center, corpses were lined up in black plastic bags. “We picked up parts of their bodies,” a Sudanese detainee messaged me.
Many of those locked up in Tajoura were forced back to Tripoli by the European Union-supported Libyan coast guard, which arrested them while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach safety in Europe. The European Union has spent tens of millions on this effort since 2017.
Last year, roughly 15,000 people were intercepted on boats at sea and forced to Libyan detention centers, where they are held without charge. In May 2019 alone, 1,224 migrants and refugees were returned there.
They are among around 6,000 migrants and refugees, including at least 1,200 children, being held indefinitely in Libyan detention centers, in conditions that the former United Nations human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein described as “an outrage to the conscience of humanity.”
The detention centers are ostensibly run by the Libyan government’s Department for Combating Illegal Migration. In reality most of the detention centers are controlled by militias. Around 3,000 detainees, like those in Tajoura, have been trapped on the front lines of fighting. The only legal way out is to wait for the very slim possibility of being evacuated by the United Nations Refugee Agency, or to go back to the country you came from. Refugees regularly accuse the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees of not doing enough to help them.
The lines between military bases and detention centers are thin. Tajoura is a military complex. I have received many testimonies from detainees saying they are forced to assist fighters aligned with the Tripoli government. Guards select people from the migrants’ hangars to move weapons and force some to spend all their time in weapons stores.
I received photos of Sudanese detainees dressed in military fatigues in the Tajoura complex, who were made to guard checkpoints, wash blood from ambulances and clean vehicles loaded with guns. They said they couldn’t resist orders or they would be badly beaten. I was sent a video of another man surrounded by bombs. “If you post this video on the news they will kill me,” he said.
Occasionally, refugees and migrants are taken from Tajoura to the front line and to assist fighters. One former detainee said he was given an AK-47 and told to join the forces aligned with Mr. Serraj-aligned forces. “Many brothers, more than 20 disappeared (since the conflict started in April),” a detainee messaged me in early June. “They took them and they come every time to ask for more. I am so scared right now, I can’t sleep at night.”
In Tajoura detention center’s administration block, there is an isolation room, where detainees who try to escape are abused and interrogated. At the end of May, there was a crackdown on communications in Tajoura. Three men were taken away by guards and tortured. One later sent me photos showing wounds on his hands and legs, saying he was electrocuted and forced to name others who had been sending messages to journalists and activists.
On June 21, two men who tried to escape Tajoura were killed, according to detainees who knew them. Aid workers, speaking anonymously, confirmed there had been an incident that day, but couldn’t say whether anyone died. Many of those locked up are refugees, who have fled war-torn African countries or brutal dictatorships and can’t return home.
The renewed fighting has worsened the situation but deaths in Libyan detention centers aren’t all related to the civil war. Between mid-September and late May, at least 22 refugees and migrants died after being locked up without enough food, water and medical care in Zintan detention center, 110 miles southwest of Tripoli. According to an internal United Nations report that was leaked to me, more than 80 percent of detainees in Zintan could have tuberculosis. Most haven’t been tested.
Instead of moving them to a hospital, some of the critically ill detainees at Zintan camp were moved to a detention center in Gharyan, the front line of the fighting between the government and General Hifter’s forces. Management had complained the corpses of Christians were piling up, as there was no provision for non-Muslim burials in Zintan.
An Eritrean man, who is being held in Zintan, told me four men and boys tried to kill themselves by grabbing electrical wires. In April, Meron, a 17-year-old Eritrean boy, killed himself by jumping into a septic tank in Abu Salim detention center in southern Tripoli. Meron had fled indefinite military service and a litany of human rights abuses in Eritrea. It took the other detainees — men, women, and children from Sudan and Somalia — more than 30 minutes to get his body out.
On April 23, fighters aligned with the government forces opened fire on refugees and migrants as they prayed at Qasr Bin Ghashir detention center in southern Tripoli, killing several. Detainees there had refused to move to the Zintan detention center, believing it was better to die quickly than suffer a slow death caused by neglect and starvation. At the Tajoura detention center, detainees have been worried about attacks for months.
On Wednesday morning, a 26-year-old from Darfur, Sudan, who is being held at Tajoura detention camp, messaged me. “This is the world, my sister,” he said. “I am in the house of the slaughter. The European Union and the High Commissioner for Refugees must bear responsibility for this massacre.”
Sally Hayden is a journalist and photographer working on migration, conflict and humanitarian crises.