DAVID GREENE, HOST:
African migrants who pass through Libya to board smugglers' boats to Europe are being captured by militias, and some of them are being sold as slaves. NPR's Ruth Sherlock traveled to southern Tunisia recently and met migrants who managed to escape from Libya. They told her about their kidnappings and about the prisons where they were bought and sold. Here's the disturbing testimony of one of the men Ruth spoke with.
RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: As Boubaker Nassou (ph) speaks, it feels as though he's telling stories from a past century.
BOUBAKER NASSOU: They took us and sell us as slaves.
SHERLOCK: Nassou is slim, 30 years old and talks about the awful experiences he's gone through in this kind of matter-of-fact way. He's a migrant from Gambia and was crossing North Africa to try to reach Europe. But in Libya, the smuggler's car he was in was stopped at a militia checkpoint.
NASSOU: They caught us on the road. They put us in the taxi, and the taxi was going straight to the prison where they sell people.
SHERLOCK: The prison where they sell people. At other times, Nassou calls it a slave market. The place was a large, dank room crammed full of African men and women. No one was allowed to shower. The air was putrid. And all the while, Libyans would come to haggle with the guards. And what they were haggling over was the price of the prisoners.
NASSOU: This man would come and say, I need one person. They said this one is for $400 - 400 dinar. This one is for 500. This one is for 300, and this one is for 200. They sell like that.
SHERLOCK: Did this happen to you?
NASSOU: Yeah, it happens to me.
SHERLOCK: When? What happened?
NASSOU: Yeah, in 2016 - in 2016.
SHERLOCK: He was bought for the equivalent of $350.
You got time? Should we go sit over there maybe?
SHERLOCK: We sit in the room of a shelter run by the Red Crescent aid group where Nassou now lives with other migrants who escaped Libya and have similar stories. In the chaos that's followed Libya's civil war, the trafficking of migrants has grown. As the United Nations and other rights groups have found, militias run detention centers. These are places where migrants are often held until they compare ransom or are sold and then resold. Nassou says it's become a business.
NASSOU: They will buy you, and then they'll buy you. They will increase the money so that they will have profit. You buy me for 200, you sell me for 1,000 or 500 so that you can make some profit out of it.
SHERLOCK: The Libyan who bought Nassou for the equivalent of $350 then sold him on to another militia at three times the price. Nassou doesn't remember the man's name. He was taught to call all Libyans mudir or boss in Arabic.
Who was this man?
NASSOU: We do call him mudir. Every Libyan is called mudir. Like, in English, we say boss man, boss man.
SHERLOCK: Nassou's worst memories come from a prison in the coastal town of Zawiya. It's known only as Saleh’s prison, named after the militia leader who runs it. In there, detainees die from beatings.
NASSOU: That kind of treatment kills so many of us. You do lie down - knew somebody before in the morning. Now, you've found that he's gone because of bad treatment.
SHERLOCK: He says Saleh's men would play these sick games, like making the women undress and forcing the male prisoners to stare or ordering prisoners to shoot each other. There were rapes. Nassou survived there for seven months. When - finally - his name was called, it almost came as a relief. A man needed a painting job done.
NASSOU: One day, somebody was looking for a painter man, who can do painting. And that man - he paid the money and released me and took me to his room so that I can work for him.
SHERLOCK: Nassou was now sold into bonded labor. He was told to paint the man's home.
And he didn't pay you?
NASSOU: No, he didn't pay me. That was the payment - to make me safe from the prison.
SHERLOCK: It took Nassou weeks to paint all of the rooms. When he'd finished, his master - as he still calls him - appeared to take pity on him and decided to let him go.
NASSOU: He gave me 10 dinar to buy cigarettes and some food.
SHERLOCK: And then he just left?
NASSOU: Yeah, he just left.
SHERLOCK: Nassou tried to lie low. He'd heard stories of Libyans roaming the streets in cars with guns in search of black men to sell back to Saleh's jail. One day, two Libyan men did approach him. He was barefoot, and one of the men surprised him by giving him his shoes. The other man offered to take him to another part of town, a safer place where other Africans lived.
NASSOU: One of his friends is there. He - that's what he tells me. You come here. I will take you where black people are living. So he take me in the car and - to rescue me to my fellow blacks - to drop me there.
SHERLOCK: One night, Nassou managed to get over the border to Tunisia, but he still thinks a lot about those he left behind. He calls them his brothers.
NASSOU: Yes, slave markets still - our brothers are in the prison. A lot of them are in the prison still now.
SHERLOCK: Sometimes he gets calls from people trying to find relatives trapped in Libya. He doesn't have words of comfort. Instead, he warns them Libya is terrible. Whatever you do, do not go. Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Medenin, Tunisia.
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