Achuil stands tall and resolute for a sixteen year old. He’s seen too much for a young man, but on the day that he speaks to me from detention at the Initial Reception Centre (IRC) in Marsa a tone of playful hopefulness never leaves his voice.

He was born in Aweil, South Sudan, a protracted war between the Sudanese Government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army the violent backdrop to his mother’s labours. She died in 2005, when Achuil was two years old, the same year that South Sudan formally declared independence from Sudan. Having never known his father, he was taken in by an aunt who endeavoured to treat him as one of her own. 

In 2013, at the outbreak of yet another conflict, the ongoing South Sudanese Civil War that has seen 400,000 people killed and four million displaced, Achuil’s family fled to Juba in Sudan. “My country [South Sudan] she said you cannot stay here,” he whispers.“Soldiers shot people and we saw more people die every day.”

However, Sudan was no promised land. Being South Sudanese, Achuil couldn’t attend government schools and sporadic battles between South Sudanese and Sudanese forces meant that his family had to cope with harassment and structural discrimination. At the age of ten, hoping to provide some economic support to his family, facing possible imprisonment in Sudan and conscription into a militia back at home, he decided to try his “best to change this life” and travelled to Egypt alone.

For three years he worked cleaning offices and restaurants, all the while sending the little money he saved to his family back in Juba. But wages were low in Egypt and when a friend extolled the value of the Dinar in Libya, Achuil decided to cross the border with him and take his chances in the midst of Libya’s ongoing civil war.

Within a few days of that conversation the two boys crouched in the dark with hundreds of other people on the Egypt-Libya border. Spotted by Egyptian border guards, who began to fire their guns into the air, the entire mass of people, families and unaccompanied children amongst them, ran through the night into Libya. In the chaotic flight, Achuil’s young friend triggered a landmine and in that no-man’s land he died.

Achuil’s two years in Libya read like a horror story. Eight years after rebel fighters, aided by the US, the UK, Italy, Spain and France, overthrew Muammar Gaddafi, Libya remains in a state of civil war. The UN-recognised government in Tripoli, the Government of National Accord, clutches desperately to a tiny fraction of the country, as General Haftar and his self-proclaimed Libyan National Army gain ground under the banner of the Tobruk based House of Representatives. In reality however, a patchwork of warring militias dominates the landscape, pledging allegiance as their interests dictate, buying weapons all too easily, smuggling oil and people, and running makeshift migrant detention centres where rape, torture, and extortion are the order of the day. Human rights abuses against migrants in Libya are absolutely appalling, pervasive and particularly well-documented.

Achuil speaks of his time in Libya with sombre resignation, seemingly unaware of the courage and acumen it must take for a child to navigate that war zone alone. For short periods he found work, washing cars for example, and was able to send some money to his family. Often he was left unpaid. Physical violence was commonplace, the threat of arrest, detention, torture, and extortion everywhere.

On Achuil’s first attempt to cross the Mediterranean to Europe he was loaded onto a rubber dinghy with “one hundred something people, with women and children.” After eighteen hours at sea they were intercepted by a Libyan Coast Guard (LCG) vessel, one of many such naval assets provided by the Italian Government, likely controlled by Abdelrahman al-Milad, known locally as Bija. 

Achuil on his forty-first day detained at the Initial Reception Centre in Marsa.Achuil on his forty-first day detained at the Initial Reception Centre in Marsa.

Bija is a militia leader cum-LCG Commander who has been sanctioned by the UN Security Council for being a kingpin of people trafficking in Libya. According to the UN, Bija’s LCG unit is “consistently linked with violence against migrants and other human smugglers” and may have been “directly involved in the sinking of migrant boats using firearms.”

Hurling abuses and threatening to leave them to drown at sea, LCG forces embarked Achuil and his fellow passengers and took them to the infamous Az-Zawiya detention centre, a facility under the defacto control of the Al-Nasr Brigade militia. UN investigators have deemed conditions at the detention centre “inhumane” and “not suitably equipped to hold migrants,” and stress that women and children in the facility are held in “critical conditions.”


EU policy

European member states, Malta included, have unanimously pursued a policy of legitimising, financing, training, and providing assets to the so-called Libyan Coast Guard in a myopic attempt to stem the flow of migrants across the Central Mediterranean. Well aware that returning people to Libya would violate international laws - in particular the principle of non-refoulemount, which prevents states from forcibly returning people to unsafe places – EU states have outsourced this responsibility to the LCG. Never mind that the command and control centre for the LCG operates from the relative safety of an Italian naval vessel moored in Tripoli’s harbour, or that the LCG is made up of warring militias accountable to nobody in particular.

The EU is funnelling taxpayer Euros through a shell entity in Tripoli to militias along the Libyan coast. That these funds are likely used to purchase arms, that naval assets are used to carve out territory in an internecine war, that LCG commanders, militia leaders, human traffickers and smugglers are one and the same, matters little in the face of supposed ‘migration management’.

So, on our watch, funded by our money, Achuil, a child in a war zone, was forcibly rendered by a militia leader to a facility where human rights violations are rife. Facing deportation to South Sudan and extortion by the Al-Nasr Brigade, he joined a prison break and fled Zawiya to Tripoli. Back in Tripoli he worked mixing cement on building sites for a few months and saved money to pay for another journey across the Mediterranean, but the Libyan smuggler he paid for the journey promptly absconded to Tunis, leaving Achuil penniless and in despair. Thus, he began the process again, this time working twelve-hour days in Sabratha, and resolved to try one final time to cross the sea.

In the dark of night on the beaches of Sabratha, heavily armed men in military fatigues rushed Achuil onto an overcrowded, flimsy rubber dinghy. Lacking any means of communication or navigation on board, the militiamen told the desperate travellers that sailing in the direction of three stars would take them “the right way to Europe.” Within twenty-four hours of departing the engine had ceased to function and the vessel and her human cargo were adrift, a pin drop in a sea of blue. Just when all seemed hopeless the outline of two powerboats emerged on the horizon. Fearing another forced return to Libya, all those on board were “very happy at the moment” they realised that these were European people coming to their rescue.

'A second life'

As the crew of the Sea Watch 3 transferred Achuil from the rescue boat to the mother vessel and cared for the immediate medical needs of his fellow travellers, he thought, “We have a new life, a second life. God has given us a second life.”

That second life would not be easy in coming. With all of Europe’s ports currently closed to search and rescue NGOs and the people they save, Sea Watch called in vain for a port of safety. Stormy weather and rough seas drove the vessel to seek shelter in Maltese territorial waters, an allowance granted by the Government of Malta while the rest of Europe refused.

The nineteen-day standoff that proceeded, making headlines across the world, needs no revisiting. “Europe for us was a dream, and when we came here they kept us in the sea and looked at us like animals,” Achuil recalls.

Holding people, some of them women and children, some of them refugees by the strictest legal definition, hostage on a small vessel in rough seas while Europe squabbles over their distribution is ethically reprehensible. Sea Watch has adapted its standard operating procedures in an attempt to cope with this deplorable new reality. Meals for migrants on board have been diversified and a programme has been established to alleviate the additional trauma imposed by Europe. Achuil, with his keen sense of social dynamics and English and Arabic language competency, became pivotal on board as a translator and mediator. “Sea Watch gave us hope,” he says. “The life we lived on that boat was like a family life. We had everything. Food, drink, we danced, music, English classes, drawing with the children. I tried to learn the guitar. They were amazing people. We will not forget the Sea Watch people! They gave us hope. They tried to keep people strong.”

“I remember the moments when I was in that port. Malta is Europe. Inside is Europe. Why do these people here treat us like this when the Sea Watch people make us so happy? The weather was very bad. We were afraid. The people were not safe in the sea, but we were refused. And this is the Europe we hoped for?”

On January 9, Maltese authorities finally allowed for the disembarkation of Achuil and the thirty-one other ‘guests’ aboard the Sea Watch 3, having secured an ad-hoc agreement that would see most of them distributed across eight EU member states. Today he remains detained in the Initial Reception Centre (IRC) in Malta, without any sense of when he will be released or transferred to another country. “When we came inside IRC everything changed. Our dreams are dying. This is different than the life on the ship. I think too much here. It hurts my head. Now I’m in Europe, I want to start school to become a doctor. To play basketball at a good academy. All that dream stops. Forty-two days here today.”

“My country is not safe. If I go back it’s a problem. I don’t know what will happen to me. I hope to go to school, to a good academy, and the money I make I will send to my family. My aunt has malaria. The doctors [in Sudan] don’t have the power to stop that sickness. That sickness should not be a reason for people to die. I will study. I will try my best to become a doctor and help my nation. That is my dream, but in here my dream is dying.”

'Our heart is the same like yours'

For the first time in one and a half hours there is silence. Achuil breathes heavily, strained by the effort of recalling his own life story. My stomach wells up through my throat and I swear to myself that I will not cry until the interview is over. “What else do you want to ask me?” he breaks into that moment pregnant with injustice.

“What do you want to say to the people of Malta, Achuil?”

“I will say that they’re supposed to think about these people that are in this camp. Everyone here has a dream. It is not good to kill his dreams. He dies like that slowly, slowly. Think of him as your kid, your child, your friend and give him a chance. Help someone. Maybe one day one of these people will become a doctor and save your life, or become your friend. You don’t know what God is planning for him. Maybe you do something good and God will do something good for you. We want to respect your rules. Think with your heart. The way we live here, this isn’t a life. I need to tell what I have in my heart. I don’t know why our life has become like this. I know the Maltese people are good. Let them give us a chance. And we will thank the Maltese people, we will remember that for life.”

“We are black, but our heart is the same like yours.”

As of March 4, Achuil has been in detention at Marsa for 56 days. To help him secure decent housing upon his release, click here to donate.

Daniel Mainwaring is a foreign policy researcher and Sea Watch volunteer. 

This is a Times of Malta online opinion piece.


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