Migrants tortured in remote desert camps in Libya

Testimonies collected against a Somali human smuggler who was caught in Italy last year have revealed the horrors migrants suffer in the hands of smugglers at remote desert camps in the Sahara.

The 22-year-old former smuggler Osman Matammud held his victims at a desert camp at Bani Walid, 160kms southeast of Tripoli. In 2016, he managed to smuggle himself to Italy by passing himself as a refugee. On September 26, one of his victims, a Somali girl recognized him when she saw him among other refugees at a migrant center in the Italian city of Milan.

When the Somali refugees recognized him as Osman Mahamud from Mogadishu, they almost lynched him before the police stepped in. The former smuggler raped women and tortured men to exert pressure on their families to pay more money to across the Mediterranean. The migrants were told that they would be murdered if their families did not wire the money demanded by the traffickers, which was at least $7,000 each.

A 41-page dossier documenting the horrors he inflicted on the helpless refugees has been compiled from the testimonies of at least ten witnesses who recognized him. Prosecutors have compared him to a Nazi concentration camp guard. The Milan judge in charge of the case has ordered for the details not to be published as they are too graphic and painful.

Chief prosecutor Ilda Boccassini was horrified by the testimonies. “In a career spanning 40 years, I’ve never come across such horrors. And what is going on in Bani Walid is going on in all the transit camps,” she said.

One woman, who stayed at his camp for five months up to March 2016, says that he told her: “‘Undress girl, you belong to me, you must obey.’ Then came his men and tied me up with ropes to the shutters of the two windows. I was locked in there three days and three nights when I was raped.”

One of his former victims, the 17-year-old Somali girl who was the first to recognize him said: “My family were struggling to pay the extra money, and he said to me, ‘I’ll take care of you tonight’ and from that night I suffered horribly.” Another teenage girl said: “The first night, he came into the hangar, he grabbed me and he ripped off my clothes in front of everyone. He penetrated me. I fainted but when I came to, there was blood everywhere. I was raped many times by him – every night.”

“I’m not Somali, I’m not Muslim – I’m your boss,” he shouted as he tortured his victims who had arrived across the Sahara from Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia.

Another male victim, Osman Abduloani, talks about the overcrowded and unhygienic conditions in the camp: “We slept in a large shed. There were hundreds of people, men and women. We slept on the floor, stacked on one another. Whenever new people arrived, space would be even tighter. We ate little and badly. There was only one bathroom for men and one for women.”

Ali Nuur Omar stayed there for five months. “I have personally seen the arms and legs of at least five men being split with an iron pipe.” Others say they were bound as their captor beat them on the soles of their feet. Some tell of being starved as punishment. He placed plastic bottles on the backs of his victims and set them alight so that the molten plastic could blister their skin. Abduloani remembers: “He enjoyed torturing more and more. He tortured us while laughing and talking on the phone. He took pleasure in torturing us.”

Matammud has been charged with four murders, multiple rapes and kidnapping and will appear in court on Friday to be questioned again by prosecutors.

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