Suobhe Altmmo had fled to Libya in 2012 hoping for a better life. He and his wife and children settled in the coastal town of Zawiya, where he planned to work as an electrician.
But soon the country was engulfed in anarchy, and outsiders became targets of violence. It was too dangerous to send the children to school or even leave the house. Libya was overrun with “uneducated militiamen with nothing to do,” said Altmmo, who is 35.
It seemed no better than his native Syria, where he had spent four years as a political prisoner.
And so he fled again, crowding on to a ramshackle, wooden boat with hopes of crossing the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. He, his wife and four children — including 8-month-old twin girls — were among 513 migrants rescued from five boats this month and brought aboard a ship operated by the non-profits SOS Méditerranée and Doctors Without Borders.
The Times interviewed more than two dozen migrants on board the ship, the Aquarius, during the 10-day rescue mission. Their stories offer a glimpse of the chaos that Libya has become, where migrants are regularly shot in the street, kidnapped for ransom or forced into slavery.
Migrants told of employers refusing to pay them after months of work and threatening them with violence if they quit. Some who had spent time in migrant detention centers in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, said they witnessed migrants being sold to visitor for 150 dinars, or just over $100.
Oussama Omrane, a Tunisian who has worked on rescue ships since 2015, said Libya is “like a house with no owner.”
When Moammar Kadafi still ruled Libya, the country welcomed foreigners — especially those from sub-Saharan Africa — who could provide manual labor in his oil rich economy. Foreigners accounted for 1.5 million of the country’s 5.5 million people. Most did construction and domestic work.
But Gadaffi’s ouster in 2011 set the country on a path to anarchy as politicians split into two rival administrations — one in the capital Tripoli, the other in the western city of Tobruk — and Islamic State militants temporarily seized towns along the coast.
Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates back an unpredictable military leader, Khalifa Haftar, who has sided with the Tobruk government.
The country’s breakdown has spurred a massive backlash against immigrants there. Roughly half a million have left the country in recent years, including 166,000 who fled across to the Mediterranean Sea to Italy in 2016. The numbers are up significantly the first two months of this year.
An estimated 300,000 foreigners are now considering leaving, according to the International Organization for Migration, a United Nations agency.
The harrowing stories told by the migrants on the Aquarius show why. In all but one case, the international groups operating the boat made the migrants available for interviews on the condition that their surnames not be used. The groups were concerned about the privacy of the migrants and possible repercussions for relatives still in Libya.
Shamim, one of several migrants from Bangladesh on board, was working as a tailor in Libya when he was attacked in the street, knifed and robbed of his passport.
He managed to find a police station, where officers demanded $1,000 to help him and asked him to contact relatives in Bangladesh for the cash. When he failed to raise the money, he was kept on starvation rations in a cell for three months, then sent out to work and forced to give his wages to the police.
He looked weak and thin and far older than his 22 years.
“In Libya they see us as animals not humans,” said Sumon, another 22-year-old Bangladeshi.
He had been working as a perfume maker. His employer forbid him from going out alone because of the danger he would be kidnapped and held for ransom. The conditions finally spurred Sumon to flee the country.
Isaac, 30, left his 11-year-old daughter back home in Ghana two years ago and found work in Libya as a builder. But he had seen so much violence that he decided to get out before he became a victim.
“If your employer pays you, which is rare, his friends will come round the next day to rob you,” he said. “And if you ever get a chance to spend the money, the police will arrest you as you walk to a shop and beat you up.”
Paul, 32, also from Ghana, described being robbed at gunpoint while leaving a supermarket. Unsatisfied with their haul, the robbers bundled one of Paul’s friends into the trunk of a car and demanded 500 dinars, or $357, to release him. On the streets, it seemed as if everybody had an AK-47.
“Libyans want to steal everything you have,” he said.
Raymond, 31, had come to Libya last year with hopes of earning enough money to travel to Europe for surgery he needed after being shot in the face during a robbery back home in Ghana. His left eye was badly damaged.
He was living with other migrants from sub-Saharan Africa when a group of young Libyans armed with machine guns robbed their house and killed three of the occupants.
“There is an old slavery mentality making a comeback these days in Libya,” he said. “Killing anything black makes them happy.”
Libya has also become a hub for traffickers who offer women — most of them Nigerian — jobs in Italy, then force them into prostitution when they arrive by threatening to hurt or kill relatives back home if they refuse.
Elizabeth Ramlow, an American medic on the ship, said many of the single Nigerian women on board were likely victims.
“They talk of being gang raped in Libya with other Nigerian women by the very people bringing them,” she said.
Dora, 20-year-old from Nigeria, said Libya was supposed to be a transit point in her journey to Italy.
But she wound up spending seven months there — five of them in a jail where she was being held arbitrarily and fed a little as once every three days and raped “only once,” she said.
Kington is a special correspondent.