“People are bleeding a lot; now I need urgent help. Please share for us in the world. Please, please, please, my dear, we are in danger…”
It’s hard to imagine how many of us would react to receiving a bulletin like this on Facebook Messenger, sent by a stricken asylum seeker enduring unimaginable treatment, and worse, in a Libyan detention center, but for Sally Hayden, those messages were too real and too frequent. As Europe is plunged into a new refugee crisis due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, his book, My Fourth Time We Drowned, is a timely reminder of an earlier but lasting calamity along the coast. Mediterranean, and the extent to which the EU and others have botched the job.
Hayden is an excellent journalist whose work has featured in various publications and on broadcast media across Europe and America, and the Dublin-born journalist’s outright commitment to the plight of those trying to surrender in Europe from Africa is to be admired.
As she explains, it all started with a message on her phone, unsolicited and uninvited but absolutely essential in getting her to research the abuse so many face on what was already a perilous journey. His phone and associated messaging apps have quickly become a conduit for people from countries such as Eritrea and Ethiopia who fall victim to the brutality of human traffickers – those who exploit those who already have only little or nothing.
It is often a deeply disturbing and sometimes corrosive read. In almost every case, Libya is the place where these dreams of a better life in Europe are blocked, beaten or extinguished. While Western Europeans were deeply moved by the sight of Alan Kurdi, the little boy whose body was dumped on a beach following a tragic and failed attempt to cross Bodrom to Turkey on a boat tire, the situation elsewhere in the Mediterranean was only as deadly.
As Hayden illustrates, the difference here was that the EU was working with forces in Libya, then effectively a failed state, to keep people out – and in doing so condemned many to unforgettable and nightmarish experiences. .
Take the Souq al Khamis detention center in the port city of Khoms, where warnings have been daubed on the walls. “Who comes to this house, God help you. Libya is a market for human beings.” And next to it, another: “Where is the UNHCR? Three people have been sold here.”
Messages received by Hayden, verified and trusted, depict a medieval system in which beatings, rape and torture were commonplace, with people who had once crossed the Sahara on foot spending their life savings now held illegally by often racist custodians, eager to squeeze even more money out of them just so they can eventually – if they’re lucky – end up in the dark seas of the Mediterranean.
You could, if you wanted, quibble about the genesis of travel in some of these cases, the primary reason people left their home countries, although it is clear that many leave places where they feel ‘they will only ever live half their lives, either because they are conscripted for life in a country like Eritrea or because they face violence and oppression elsewhere.
But from Hayden’s book, it’s clear that those who found themselves in this Libyan dystopia needed rescue; the very act of undertaking this refugee’s journey has led them to a horrific conjuncture where their fundamental and human rights have been inflamed, denied, trampled on, desecrated. But for many, rescue never came.
The horrors detailed in the pages of My Fourth Time We Drowned should prove punishing reading for the UN agencies whose job it was to ensure that such suffering did not take place. Here they are portrayed as hopelessly ineffective at best, while the EU’s fortress mentality has led it to do business with Libyan authorities happy to allow people to see no sunlight for a year, trapped in warehouses, surviving on little more than basic rations of macaroni and cheese and whatever vision of a better future they can cling to.
The evolving crisis in Ukraine has brought a new refugee crisis to the fore and has also highlighted the importance of having a free and independent media operating on the ground, close to the action. One example is the supreme reporting of Orla Guerin and others on the BBC, another the brilliance of AP reporting from Mariupol.
Yet despite often having to filter fact from fiction via her smartphone, Hayden proves to be just as dogged in her pursuit of the story, focusing on the struggles of the people who contact her and ultimately coming face to face with many of them. She travels to Rwanda to see how some of those who failed to make it to Europe find themselves being hosted by a country that only decades ago was the scene of a horrific and genocidal massacre.
She is in the courtroom when the notorious boss of a hellish detention center in Libya is brought before a judge to answer for his crimes. She’s in shiny EU buildings, asking piercing questions of those too eager to turn away from the atrocities happening across the sea, and she’s also taking to the waves on a boat tasked with picking up those who drift on the Mediterranean. The only place that seems out of reach is Libya itself, and this is due, as she explains, to reliable reports that her life could be in danger if she were to go there.
The question of people from a vast continent wanting to realize their dreams in Europe is not about to go away. Climate change is likely to hasten the process, and reading Hayden’s book it’s easy to fall into despair at the poor response so far and the likelihood of things getting worse in the future. .
My Fourth Time We Drowned is a quietly angry book, and it’s likely that as you read it you’ll feel a similar sense of fury: that people have been bought and sold at a sea crossing far from where the tourists go. frolic on European beaches, that people’s physical, mental and emotional lives were destroyed by heartless desperadoes happy to exploit those who had nothing. And also an anger that we still tend, even today, to look away.
“It is beyond my word to explain the inhumanity that has occurred,” said an inmate at a center. But another says it better: “We can say that there are killings, threats, rapes, hunger, but it is already known to the world.
At least Hayden can say she’s done her part to remind us of all that, the known horrors that we could and should be aware of, but find too easy to put aside.