To 3 a m. on February 5, 2021, Aliou Candé, a robust and shy twenty-eight-year-old migrant from Guinea-Bissau, arrived at the prison. He had left home a year and a half earlier, because the family farm was failing, and had decided to join two brothers in Europe. But, as he tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea in a rubber dinghy, along with more than a hundred other migrants, the Libyan coast guard intercepted them and took them to Al Mabani. They were pushed inside Cell No. 4, where some two hundred others were being held. There was almost no place to sit in the crushing bodies, and those on the floor slid to avoid being stepped on. Above, there were fluorescent lights that stayed on all night. A small grid in the door, about a foot wide, was the only source of natural light. The birds nested in the rafters, their feathers and droppings falling from above. On the walls, migrants had scrawled notes of determination: “A soldier never backs down” and “With eyes closed, we move forward”. Candé piled up in a far corner and started to panic. “What should we do?” he asked a cellmate.
No one in the world beyond the walls of Al Mabani knew that Candé had been captured. He had not been charged with a crime or allowed to speak to a lawyer, and he was not given any indication of the length of his detention. During his early days there, he kept most of the time to himself, submitting to the dark routines of the place. The prison is controlled by a militia euphemistically called the Public Security Agency, and its gunmen patrolled the halls. About fifteen hundred migrants were detained there, in eight cells, separated by sex. There was only one toilet for every 100 people and Candé often had to urinate in a bottle of water or defecate in the shower. The migrants slept on thin floor mats; there wasn’t enough for everyone, so people took turns, one lying down during the day, the other at night. Inmates argued over who slept in the shower, who had better ventilation. Twice a day, they were taken for walks in single file through the courtyard, where they were prohibited from looking up to the sky or speaking. The guards, like the zookeepers, put common bowls of food on the ground, and the migrants gathered in circles to eat.
The guards beat prisoners who disobeyed orders with whatever was at hand: a shovel, a pipe, a cable, a tree branch. “They beat anyone for no reason,” Tokam Martin Luther, an older Cameroonian who slept on a mat next to Candé’s, told me. Inmates speculated that when someone died, the body was thrown behind one of the exterior walls of the complex, near a pile of bricks and plaster rubble. The guards offered the migrants their freedom to the tune of two thousand five hundred Libyan dinars, or about five hundred dollars. During meals, guards walked around with cell phones, allowing inmates to call relatives who could pay. But Candé’s family could not afford such a ransom. Luther said to me, “If you’ve got no one to call, just sit down.
Over the past six years, the European Union, weary of the financial and political costs of welcoming migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, has created a ghost immigration system that stops them before they reach Europe. . He equipped and trained the Libyan Coast Guard, a quasi-military organization linked to the country’s militias, to patrol the Mediterranean, sabotage humanitarian rescue operations and capture migrants. The migrants are then detained indefinitely in a network of for-profit prisons run by the militias. As of September this year, around six thousand migrants were detained, many of them in Al Mabani. International aid agencies have documented a host of abuses: detainees tortured with electricity, children raped by guards, families extorted for ransom, men and women sold for forced labor. “The EU has done something that it has carefully considered and planned for many years,” Salah Marghani, Libyan Minister of Justice from 2012 to 2014, told me. “Create hell in Libya, with the idea to dissuade people from going to Europe. “
Three weeks after Candé’s arrival at Al Mabani, a group of detainees drew up an escape plan. Moussa Karouma, a migrant from Côte d’Ivoire, and several others defecated in a trash can and left her in their cell for two days, until the stench became overwhelming. “It was my first time in prison,” Karouma told me. “I was terrified.” When the guards opened the cell door, nineteen migrants burst in front of them. They climbed onto the roof of a bathroom, fell fifteen feet above an exterior wall, and disappeared into a maze of alleys near the prison. For those who stayed, the consequences were bloody. The guards called for reinforcements, who sprayed bullets into the cells, then beat the inmates. “There was a guy in my room who they hit with a gun on the head, until he passed out and started to shake,” a migrant later told Amnesty International. “They didn’t call an ambulance to pick him up that night. . . . He was still breathing but he was unable to speak. . . . I don’t know what happened to him. . . . I don’t know what he did.
In the weeks that followed, Candé tried to avoid trouble and hung on to a hopeful rumor: the guards planned to release the migrants to his cell in honor of Ramadan, in two months. “The Lord is miraculous,” Luther wrote in a journal he kept. “May his grace continue to protect all migrants in the world and especially those in Libya. “