My fourth time, we drowned Seeking refuge on the world's deadliest migration route

Sally Hayden

Book - 2022

"The Western world has turned its back on migrants, leaving them to cope with one of the most devastating humanitarian crises in history. Reporter Sally Hayden was at home in London when she received a message on Facebook: "Hi sister Sally, we need your help." The sender identified himself as an Eritrean refugee who had been held in a Libyan detention center for months, locked in one big hall with hundreds of others. Now, the city around them was crumbling in a scrimmage between warring factions, and they remained stuck, defenseless, with only one remaining hope: contacting her. Hayden had inadvertently stumbled onto a human rights disaster of epic proportions. From this single message begins a staggering account of the migra...nt crisis across North Africa, in a groundbreaking work of investigative journalism. With unprecedented access to people currently inside Libyan detention centers, Hayden's book is based on interviews with hundreds of refugees and migrants who tried to reach Europe and found themselves stuck in Libya once the EU started funding interceptions in 2017. It is an intimate portrait of life for these detainees, as well as a condemnation of NGOs and the United Nations, whose abdication of international standards will echo throughout history. But most importantly, My Fourth Time, We Drowned shines a light on the resilience of humans: how refugees and migrants locked up for years fall in love, support each other through the hardest times, and carry out small acts of resistance in order to survive in a system that wants them to be silent and disappear." -- Provided by publisher.

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2nd Floor 362.89912/Hayden Checked In
Travel writing
Brooklyn : Melville House 2022.
Main Author
Sally Hayden (author)
Item Description
Simultaneously published: London : 4th Estate, 2022.
Physical Description
xxviii, 419 pages : maps ; 24 cm
Includes bibliographical references.
  • Maps
  • Prologue This SIM Card Is Our Life
  • A Note
  • Timeline of Important Events and Relevant Statistics
  • Immigration Statistics
  • Chapter 1. Where It Ends and Where It Begins
  • Chapter 2. Sudan: Through the Desert
  • Chapter 3. Libya: The Twenty-First Century Slave Trade
  • Chapter 4. Ain Zara and Abu Salim: New Life and New Death
  • Chapter 5. Libya: Escape to Hell
  • Chapter 6. Triq al Sikka: Burned Alive
  • Chapter 7. Disunited Nations
  • Chapter 8. Tunis: The Last Days of Rome
  • Chapter 9. Abu Salim: Love Finds a Way
  • Chapter 10. Khoms Souq al Khamis: A Market of Human Beings
  • Chapter 11. Sierra Leone: The Temple Run and the Left-Behind Women
  • Chapter 12. Brussels: Migration Crisis "Over"
  • Chapter 13. Triq al Sikka: Going Underground
  • Chapter 14. Tripoli: War Erupts Again
  • Chapter 15. Qasr bin Ghashir and Zawiya: Shots Fired
  • Chapter 16. Zintan: Libya's "Guantanamo"
  • Chapter 17. UNHCR Gathering and Departure Facility: The Hotel
  • Chapter 18. Tajoura: War Crimes and War Slaves
  • Chapter 19. Rwanda: A New Route to Safety
  • Chapter 20. Tripoli: Closing the Gathering and Departure Facility
  • Chapter 21. The Mediterranean Sea: Fortress Europe
  • Chapter 22. Addis Ababa: Smugglers on Trial
  • Chapter 23. Paris and Berlin: Europe on the Dock
  • Chapter 24. Europe: Home Sweet Home
  • Epilogue Luxembourg: Kaleb
  • Author's Note
  • A Note on Terminology
  • Acronyms
  • Endnotes
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Journalist Hayden debuts with a harrowing look at the refugee crisis in Africa. Contacted in 2018 by an Eritrean migrant confined to the Ain Zara camp in Tripoli, Libya, Hayden soon realized that she "had stumbled, inadvertently, on a human rights disaster of epic proportions." In 2017, she explains, the EU began funding the Libyan coast guard's efforts to intercept migrant vessels in the Mediterranean and detain the passengers. Those "locked up without charge or trial, indefinitely," include Kaleb, an Eritrean teenager who traveled from Ethiopia to Sudan, then across 1,400 kilometers of the Sahara Desert to Libya, where he was held captive by smugglers for more than a year before making two failed attempts to cross the Mediterranean. Elsewhere, Hayden documents torture and sexual abuse, women giving birth without medical care, and suicide by immolation. She also widens the lens to explore the repercussions of the civil war in Sierra Leone in the 1990s and talks with refugees sent to camps in Rwanda, which still bears the scars of the 1994 genocide against ethnic Tutsis. A running thread is the inefficiency, and in some cases outright corruption, of international relief organizations including the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, whose staff members are alleged to have taken bribes in exchange for fast-tracking the resettlement process for asylum seekers. Intrepidly reported and vividly written, this sobering account shines a spotlight on an underreported tragedy. (Mar.)

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Kirkus Book Review

A powerful, horrific account of the rigors that African immigrants face in fleeing their homelands for sanctuary in Europe. "You become cargo, a piece of meat, a being that loses humanity when you can no longer recognize the humanity of others around you." So writes Hayden, the Africa correspondent for the Irish Times, regarding the global refugee crisis. The European Union has seemed of two minds about illegal immigration into its domain: Leaders lament the human rights implications the refugees underscore even as they put more effort into blocking the flow. "In 2018," writes the author, "a study found that almost 1,000 kilometers of border walls had been erected by EU member states and states in the European Schengen travel area since the fall of the Berlin Wall nineteen years before." Moreover, the EU has contracted with the Libyan government--such as it is in a time of civil war--to intercept refugees crossing the middle Mediterranean and house them in settlements that resemble concentration camps, one even bearing the nickname "Guantánamo." In some cases, refugees are used as human shields, meant to deter attacks by rival warlords, often to no avail. Worse, many are forced into slavery, either in Libya or delivered into the hands of the Mafia in southern Italy and put to work on farms there. Hayden tells her story through deep exploration of legal papers, archives, and government data. Even more affective are her personal encounters and interviews with refugees themselves, whose situations, if anything, seem to be worsening. "Between 2014 and 2020," she writes, "more than twenty thousand men, women, and children would die on the Mediterranean Sea," while Europeans who try to assist them often became targets of legal prosecution. The narrative is consistently harrowing, revealing the complexities within a global crisis that lacks an easy solution, especially as the numbers of refugees mount. An important contribution to the literature of forced immigration and humanitarian crisis. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

On Sunday, August 26, 2018, I was browsing through Netflix, in a sublet room in north London, when I received a Facebook message. "Hi sister Sally, we need your help," it read. "We are under bad condition in Libya prison. If you have time, I will tell you all the story." Of course, this did not make sense to me. How did someone thousands of miles away find my name? How did they have a working phone if they were locked up? I was skeptical, but I replied quickly to see what would come next. "I'm so sorry to hear that," I wrote. "Yes, of course I have time, though unfortunately I can't do much to help." We exchanged WhatsApp numbers. The sender explained that his brother knew my journalism from Sudan, a neighboring North African country, and had traced my contact details online. He needed them because he was trapped in Ain Zara, a migrant detention center in Libya's capital, Tripoli, alongside hundreds of other refugees. Conflict had broken out around them. Smoke rose above the walls outside. They were watching the city smolder and burn. The Libyans in charge at Ain Zara, who had been abusing them for months, fled when the sounds of fighting grew nearer. It was never clear whether the guards--or the "police," as the refugees called them--left to escape or join in: many had sympathies with those fighting, while others were simply frightened or arrogant young men who signed up because they needed work, felt comfortable being armed, and had spotted the potential for extra profits through exploitation. There were still children and pregnant women inside the building. The refugee men, who had been locked in one big hall for months, broke down the separating door. They hoped the group would be safer if they were all together. "We see bullets passing over us and heavy weapons in the street," my new contact typed, before sending me photos he said were from that day. One, taken through a window, showed vehicles with anti-aircraft guns visible outside the center's gates. Another was an image of himself: an emaciated-looking 28-year-old sitting on the ground with three young children. Everyone inside the building was unarmed and defenseless: stick thin after months with maybe a meal a day, sometimes nothing. Their bodies were scarred from torture and beatings, inflicted both by the guards who had just left and the smugglers who held them for months or years before they arrived in Ain Zara. The war raging outside had been coming for a long time, and these people needed help--any help, even if it was a journalist in a faraway country with little to offer. "If there is any United Nations Refugee Agency or human rights organizations near you, contact them. Since yesterday we haven't eaten any food," messaged the man. "If you have a page post something on that about this situation." He said he came from Eritrea, a repressive country in the Horn of Africa where citizens are forced into unending military service by the ruling dictatorship. He had breached two borders, survived kidnapping by traffickers, and traveled nearly 3,000 kilometers to get to Libya. Like everyone else with him, the man then tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe but was caught and incarcerated. Now they were in trouble. They had one phone between hundreds that the detainees had kept hidden for months. He said it was the phone a smuggler gave him to bring on board the rubber boat so they could call for rescue once it inevitably began to sink. The European Union was responsible for the situation they were now in--it was Europe that had forced them back. I spent the next twenty-four hours doing all I could to verify his story. I asked for photos of his surroundings, videos, selfies, GPS locations, and contact details for his family members. I knew people in Libya, and they confirmed there was conflict in the suburb they were in. I called him numerous times. As I requested more and more detail, the man I was speaking to told me how, before the fighting got bad, detainees had regularly been taken from the detention center and forced to work like slaves in the homes of wealthy Libyans. Women were raped, and Christians targeted for particular abuse--violently assaulted while their crucifixes were ripped from their necks. Some mornings, around 3:00 a.m., the armed Libyan guards would call hundreds of detainees out to be "counted," sadistically making them stand in the cold for hours. They probably were not aware, but this ordeal echoed Appellplatz , the early morning roll calls Nazis used to do in concentration camps--a grim ritual carried out with the aim of intimidating and humiliating prisoners. Despite the UN saying its staff had regular access to the centers, that did not seem to be true. Many detainees who had fled war or dictatorships were never even registered as refugees. That meant there was no list of their names anywhere. They were terrified of being sold back to smugglers, who torture migrants until their families pay hefty ransoms. They were begging to be saved. I had stumbled, inadvertently, on a human rights disaster of epic proportions. There were eight pregnant women and roughly twenty babies and toddlers among the Ain Zara group. As the man and I spoke on the phone, bombs exploded nearby, and I heard the sounds of shrieking. "Now everyone is disturbed, it is becoming worse and worse . . . Look at the women and children, you can post this video for the European people to know." Frantically, I searched for an answer. I contacted the UN and international aid organizations working in Libya, but they said it was too dangerous for their staff to act ("In Libya today, everybody is at risk, so not an easy situation," one aid worker responded, showing a callous pragmatism I was to encounter again and again). I emailed editors asking whether they would publish a report, but I was a freelancer, and--as often happens--replies were slow. Feeling unmoored and useless, I began to post screenshots of my messages with the refugees on Twitter, where they were quickly shared, garnering tens of thousands of views, and then hundreds of thousands. Within months, their words would reach millions. "There's no food, no water. The children are crying. We are suffering, especially the children. We haven't slept in two days. We are waiting for some miracle. Tell them the people are dying here." Time stretched out for me, with sleepless nights and nerve-racking days measured in countless moments laden with danger. I barely left the sparse room I was renting, except when I was picked up by a taxi to do TV and radio interviews after BBC producers spotted my Twitter updates. Online, there was a cascade of retweets and likes and shares, but in Ain Zara nothing changed. The refugees would turn off the phone to conserve its battery, silence suddenly interrupted by a flurry of messages at any new development. Eventually, buses arrived. Was this salvation? At first, we did not know if their drivers were Libyan authorities or smugglers (I would later learn there is not always much to distinguish the two). Armed men in uniform said they were taking the detainees to a different area, which was--at least at that moment--farther from the front line. Then, about fifty hours after I received the first message, I watched through WhatsApp as the GPS location of the man's phone edged across the city. I used it to update the refugees on where they were. "To your left, you will see the University of Tripoli," I remember typing, and they responded excitedly when they spotted its modern facade. For many of the passengers on board, this was the first time they had seen the city in daylight. The buses and their occupants reached another compound. Worried that they might have been transferred to a smuggler's den, my main contact asked me if it was a detention center under the control of Libya's Tripoli-based government. I, in turn, emailed my new UN sources, who told me yes, it was. Inside, there were already around seventy other detainees who had been moved from elsewhere. Staff with the UN's International Organization for Migration--wearing fluorescent, garishly branded jackets--turned up to hand out water. Those employees would later message me, too, telling me that things were under control. Around midnight, the detained refugees were given cake and yogurt: their first food in days. "Get some sleep, it is enough for you too, you were with us the whole time," read my final messages from that night. "The guys are thanking you so much. They are saying 'give her some rest.' May God bless you." *** What does your phone mean to you? Is it a way to chat to friends or swipe through dating apps? Do you take selfies, send voice notes or Snapchats? Is it a vital source of information? Has it saved your life? What would it represent if you were incarcerated, its little screen your only window to the outside world? What would it be like to spend months or years in the same building without one? Could you share a phone with five hundred others? Would you risk being tortured to keep it or forego eating to buy data, knowing you would starve without food but could disappear forever if you had no way of sending a distress call? What is it like to watch innocent people being shot through Facebook messenger? How would you feel listening to their faltering voices as they mentally and physically withered away? That's what I was going to discover. Originally, I believed these first contacts in Libya were an anomaly, the isolated victims of an accidental oversight. Once these people were helped, I thought, my job would be done. I was wrong. Within days, more and more detained refugees began contacting me. They got my number from friends, or found what I had been posting online. They sent messages through Twitter and WhatsApp. Their stories were eerily similar. I would learn that roughly six thousand people were being held indefinitely, at that time, in more than twenty so-called "official" migrant detention centers in Libya. These centers were ostensibly run by Libya's Department for Combatting Illegal Migration (DCIM), which was associated with the UN-backed Government of National Accord in Tripoli--one of two governments vying for power in the febrile North African country. In reality, the Tripoli government was weak, propped up by a collection of militias that operated with impunity. The majority of those locked up had already tried to reach Europe but they had been caught on the Mediterranean Sea. I researched more and discovered that, in an effort to stop sea crossings, the EU had committed to spending close to 100 million euro on the Libyan coastguard. Libyan sailors--many of whom were former smugglers--were encouraged to patrol the Mediterranean and intercept refugees' boats. This allowed the EU to circumnavigate international law, which says people cannot be returned to countries where their lives are in danger. Between 2017 and late 2021, more than eighty thousand men, women, and children were captured at sea and forced back to Libya. Most of them were then locked up for being in the country illegally, but there were no official charges, trials, or any way to contest their imprisonment. Captives had seen friends escape detention centers only to be killed by militias that patrolled the streets. Others were shot trying to get away. They told me how tuberculosis ended lives and food deprivation left people lying motionless on the ground. They described detainees who stopped speaking after losing their minds through stress and hopelessness, rocking backwards and forwards, their arms tight around their knees. They sent me torture videos of tormented relatives held for ransom by merciless smugglers. They felt abandoned by the UN and cursed the EU for not recognizing that refugees are humans, too. Throughout everything that happened, my contacts carefully hid their phones, begging friends elsewhere to top up their credit so they could connect to the internet and secretly charging the batteries on the rare occasions there was electricity. "This SIM card is our life," one man explained. Groups of tens or even hundreds of people would crowd around a phone to craft messages together, carefully deliberating how best to describe their situation. Each word they sent was a precious cry for help. Raising awareness of their plight might be the only thing giving them hope. _ In the course of my reporting, I found many ways to confirm what I was told, and I am grateful to all the people who assisted me but cannot be identified. Over time, I developed many sources in each detention center. This book is based on interviews with hundreds of refugees and migrants who have found themselves stuck in Libya since the EU started funding interceptions in 2017. I also built up a large network of contacts among international and local humanitarian workers who wanted to talk but needed to go unnamed to continue their work. Much of what they said could not be published at the time due to security risks. Instead, my job became passing information between detained refugees and the aid organizations or UN agencies that were supposed to be assisting them. Unexpectedly, my geographic distance from Libya was exactly the reason that refugees trusted me to do this. The first thing I always say to people who contact me is that I cannot help them directly. I am just a journalist; I don't have the power to do anything except report. I have been surprised by how many responses are positive. New sources say they understand but still want their stories told. They hope the rest of the world will realize they exist, that for now they are alive and worth saving. For years after that first message came in August 2018, I messaged refugees and migrants in different Libyan detention centers every day. I imagined the network of hidden phones, the connections between me and them, between them and their families or friends, like lifelines--arteries, pumping blood. I could not fathom the bravery of the people I spoke to. We talked about the dangers of going public, but if a source wanted to take that risk, I respected their choice. Some were beaten up or tortured on suspicion of sending information. Their phones were regularly confiscated. Still now, I often receive videos, photos, or audio I cannot share. Missing people and evidence of atrocities accumulate in my phone's photo album in between pictures of autumn leaves or friends' babies. I set WhatsApp to save media automatically because detained refugees send me videos they cannot keep for safety reasons, and I do not want to risk them failing to download. I was getting so many messages at one stage that it was almost impossible to read them all. These images are a sharp reminder of the world's growing disparities. People are more able to communicate than ever before, yet routes to safety are being shut down. Citizens in the West can look away, despite windows everywhere--phone screens, TV broadcasts, videos posted online--providing insight into our vast inequality. Anyone who does open their eyes may end up bearing witness to human rights abuses thousands of miles away without any ability to intervene. This is not a story about me, but it is true that when I received those first messages, I could not have anticipated the personal ramifications of reporting on this crisis. The following years would see my life threatened in North Africa and my freedom on the line in Europe. I would travel across three continents chasing leads, spending weeks on a ship in the Mediterranean Sea and coming face to face with human smugglers accused of torturing people to death. I would uncover corruption, lies, and gross negligence and be denounced by government propaganda channels. My reporting would be referenced in human rights reports, legal challenges, and a submission to the International Criminal Court that called for EU officials to be charged with crimes against humanity. I wrote this book because I wanted to document the consequences of European migration policies beginning from the point at which Europe becomes ethically culpable: when refugees are forcibly turned away. Until I began writing it, I did not realize how small a book can be. There is a lot I had to leave out, but I hope what is contained here goes some way towards documenting the scale of what we are responsible for. I ignored an initial suggestion by a literary agent to avoid naming detention centers because it could be too confusing for a reader. It felt important that the places where so many people suffered were identified. For length reasons, I was not able to include all the centers where I was in touch with detainees, but each had its own particular definition of hell. Excerpted from My Fourth Time, We Drowned: Seeking Refuge on the World's Deadliest Migration Route by Sally Hayden All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.