Desperation, drowning, and debt: international crisis, and its impact on individuals

While UK attention remains focussed on the situation at Calais, events closer to the homelands of the 5,000 people trapped there continue to remind us why they were forced from their homes to begin with.

Lib Dem Leader Tim Farron visited the migrants perched on the edge of the Channel last week, Green Party politicians are set to follow suit this week, Songs of Praise has filmed a sequence at the makeshift church some migrants have started there – in fact it seems that the only person who has not yet visited is the UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who one might expect could learn something of value to the nation he is employed to represent from such a visit.

Rather than meet the men, women and children he has ordered the dogs to be set on, he has decided to go on holiday.

Meanwhile, in the South Mediterranean, one of the darkest elements of the global crisis continued its grim progress – yet more men, women and children died at sea.

At nine am on Wednesday (5 August), a boat containing 600 people capsized 15 miles from the coast of Libya. The distress call was received in Sicily, and after three and a half hours, Irish rescue boat LE Niamh and MSF boat Dignity I were forced to finish their efforts (the boats were joined during the mission by three other vessels and a helicopter).

Two hundred people remain missing. It is almost entirely certain that all are dead.

Nor was this the day’s only Mediterranean disaster. Both Dignity I and LE Niamh carried out another emergency rescue on their way to the stricken vessel – their courses just happening to coincide with another capsized vessel. At this emergency, the boats’ crews were able to rescue 94 people.

In my book, The Toss of a Coin: voices from a modern crisis (out now on Amazon) I touch – in an entirely different context – upon just how quickly we can become used to the unbelievable: how we all adjust ourselves to the horrific, the awful and the unacceptable.

In some cases – when the only choices are to keep going or collapse, perhaps never again to stand – this is a remarkable, perhaps even admirable, human response. But we, in the UK, the EU, the ‘developed world’, are not in this situation when it comes to people drowning in the Mediterranean.

That is, we have no excuse to – and we must not – fool ourselves into accepting thousands of unnecessary and avoidable deaths. No ‘logical progression’ makes this mass extinction OK, and no process of collective blindness is acceptable here.

Those who drown while attempting to flee in desperation from what threatens – and is wrecking – their lives, must not become something we ‘become used to’. There is no reason – and therefore no excuse – for that.

Since the situation at Calais developed from one of bare, unrelenting desperation to one of desperate people banding together to act (though it may not seem like it to some, this in itself is a mark of the capacities of the human spirit), I have been fortunate and delighted to be able to contribute to media sessions focussed on events there.

I have spoken about the fact that those at Calais are not statistics to be dismissed or ‘dealt with’, but desperate people – perhaps us, under different and harder circumstances. In The Toss of a Coin, you have the chance (among other things) to ‘meet’ some of those people, hear their stories in their own words; what their lives were like, why they fled their homes, how they got to Libya and what happened to them since their arrival there.

But there are only so many times one can hear the words ‘conflict, terror, torture, oppression, lack of food, lack of access to medicine’ (although they are both accurate, and central, when listed as the reasons why people are so desperate they will risk their lives to escape) without asking for examples.

The Toss of a Coin provides plenty. But so does everyday life in Libya.

At around the same time as 200 more people drowned in Europe Africa and the Middle East’s holiday sea, a video was released featuring one of Muammar Ghaddafi’s sons, Saadi.

Saadi, a former professional football player and the younger brother of Saif Al-Islam (who was sentenced to death by firing squad in a questionable trial late last month – I wrote a blog on the topic, here), was originally arrested on suspicion that he had committed war crimes during Libya’s first Civil War in 2011. I deal with the extreme improbability of those charges in The Toss of a Coin.

Alongside those allegations, he is also set to stand trial on charges of killing a footballer while head of Libya’s Football Federation.

He is being held – along with several of his brother’s co-defendants – at al-Habda jail, Tripoli (Saif al-Islam himself is in the ‘custody’ of the illegal Zintan militia, which is an ally of the equally illegal Operation Dignity. The Zintan militia opened fire on the Libyan Parliament at Tripoli in May last year, one of the opening salvos of Libya’s ongoing Second Civil War), from which the video of Saadi was released.

It appears to show him being tortured by prison staff, including being asked ‘Would you prefer to be beaten on the feet or buttocks?’ (‘What sort of question is that?’ he responds. ‘My feet.’)

It also shows a man – thought to be Saadi – being hooked to an improvised ‘rack’ at the jail, and being made to listen, blindfolded, to the screams of other prisoners.

Saadi Ghaddafi is not a man likely to receive much sympathy in Libya. While few people could genuinely believe he took a leading role in his father’s regime, he was part of a family correctly reviled for the outrages it committed while in control of the state, and he certainly benefitted from being a part of that family, even if he himself was not directly responsible for them.

But as of yet, Saadi Ghaddafi has not been found guilty of – or even stood trial for – any offence. In the eyes of the law, at least, he is at present an innocent man.

Even if guilty, torture would still be a cruel – indeed brutal – way to treat a human being. Though some may argue that if found guilty of torturing or killing people, Ghaddafi may suffer being tortured himself, if one accepts that people who hold power can torture others who they believe to have done wrong, then how can one punish others for doing exactly the same thing?

And this is not an isolated case. After the trial of Saif Al-Islam, human rights groups and United Nations officials raised significant concerns that he and his fellow defendants may have ‘confessed’ under torture.

In Tunisia, I met people who prove that torture is by no means restricted to one group in Libya, or to Libya itself. In The Toss of a Coin, some of the people I met and worked alongside describe being tortured either under government guidance (‘legal’ torture) or by people in positions of power and authority acting under their own preference (‘illegal’ torture).

And Saadi is not being imprisoned by Ansar Al-Sharia (an illegal militia fighting at Benghazi, with close ties to Al Qaeda) or IS. He is incarcerated in a prison nominally run by the GNC, one of Libya’s two powerless and illegitimate governments, in the city which is that government’s main stronghold.

Even when we accept that in practice this means the prison is effectively ‘owned’ by Libya Fajr (Libya Dawn, one of the two main combatants in Libya’s Second Civil War. ‘Operation Dignity’ – the supporter of the HoR ‘government’ is the other. Both are equally illegal, just as the ‘governments’ they represent are equally illegitimate), we have to recognise that this means people are being tortured by groups who are nowhere near the most savage in Libya.

That is, it is genuinely possible to be arrested and imprisoned by a group worse than a group which tortures prisoners.

For people who have fled sub-Saharan African states to reach Libya, it is arguably even worse. One of the major criticisms levelled within Libya against Khalifa Haftar, the warlord at the head of Libya’s ‘Dignity’ militia, is that he uses ‘African mercenaries’. In today’s Libya, the colour of one’s skin may be used to ‘justify’ your arrest.

And if this is what one can expect if arrested – particularly in a state where the militias are the only effective ‘law’, and can ‘arrest’ anyone they like – then why should people stay? Add in the ongoing war, terror from IS, airstrikes called on Tripoli by ‘Dignity’, and the question edges closer to ‘how can people stay?’

Across Libya’s western border, the government of Tunisia (which, weeks after I wrote a blog comparing the reaction of the international community to ongoing war and the people fleeing in desperation to the Mediaeval practice of ‘pulling up the drawbridge’ literally fulfilled the metaphor by digging a moat between it and Libya. Not that it is alone. Hungary is in the process of building a wall along its border with Serbia) faces a dilemma after lawyers representing former Libyan PM Baghdadi Al-Mahmoudi claimed he had been extradited to Libya in 2012 by then Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali.

The lawyers have stated their intention to sue Jebali and ‘anyone else whose involvement will be established’ – potentially, given the nature of the case and the likely defence from Jebali, literally the entire Tunisian establishment. They argue that Tunisian law requires a state to promise it will not sentence any suspected criminal handed over by Tunisia, to death. In Mahmoudi’s case, they allege, no such promise was made (and of course Mahmoudi has since been sentenced to be shot by firing squad).

Jebali’s representatives argue that the extradition was a simple honouring of treaties between Tunisia and Libya, and note – correctly – that other states also forced the return of members of Muammar Ghaddafi’s toppled regime to return to Libya.

And current Tunisian Prime Minister, Habib Essid, has called for the UK and other states to help Tunisia fight terrorism, following two atrocities – at Tunis’ Bardo Museum and at Sousse Beach – since March.

He argued, on Thursday (6 August) that Britain and other states have a ‘responsibility’ to help Tunisia oppose terrorism because they were ‘partly responsible’ for the ‘chaos in Libya’.

Though a cynic might note – correctly – that the largest single group of ‘foreign’ IS fighters (those fighting outside of their own state of origin, i.e., Iraq, Syria, Libya or Yemen) are Tunisians, so that the state’s government could look closer to home for the source of its problems, it is hard to entirely disprove his arguments.

Unlike in Tunisia, where the state’s dictator Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali ran from the country before all-out warfare broke out (though not before being offered – and rejecting – support by the French government, which offered to send troops to ‘defend him’ against Tunisia’s revolution), and Egypt, where the army was largely in support of the protestors against Hosni Mubarak, in Libya a bitter war was fought between supporters and opponents of Muammar Ghaddafi.

That war was perhaps only won by the rebels with the assistance of NATO air forces, who used as justification a slightly ‘unusual’ interpretation of a UN guideline.

But having smashed much of Libya to rubble (I watched on TV as Cameron, Obama and Sarkozy patted one another on the back, from a Libyan city which was largely rubble. It was an eye-opening experience), those states simply pulled out, leaving a largely devastated nation, whose only potential leaders were those who still had weapons in their hands, some of whom had been politically- and others religiously-inspired to oppose Ghaddafi.

Just as at Calais, the UK does have a responsibility to help Libya recover, because we can, because we are partly responsible for the things causing millions of people to suffer, and not least because it is the right thing to do.


Mention of Egypt, above, gives an opportunity to briefly update readers on the Maghreb’s ‘other’ Arab Spring state.

In the last fortnight, its ruler, the army general Abdel Fatteh al-Sisi, has signed into law legislation which requires the state’s media to use only casualty and mortality figures issued by the government, in the wake of national incidents.

The penalty for infringement of this new rule is up to two years’ imprisonment for individual journalists.

Fortunately, I am not an Egyptian, working in Egypt, or employed by an Egyptian media organisation, so I may note without fear of jail that should any journalist fall foul of this law, they may well meet in prison some of the more than 16,000 political opponents Sisi has so far imprisoned.

They will be significantly more fortunate than the more than 4,000 people he has injured, and the up to 2,600 he has had killed since he shot his way into power in 2013.

Because this is the sad truth of the ‘new’ Egypt. A state which rose up against a brutal, corrupt military dictator and succeeded in ridding itself of him, only to find itself ruled by a military dictator who has stolen power, then murdered and maimed people to keep it, all the while crushing media and political freedom.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which was blasted from power by Sisi’s coup, has welcomed an invitation from Egypt’s Revolutionary Socialists to co-create a front against Sisi’s regime, pledging to have helped set up the front in time for the second anniversary of the massacres of anti-Sisi protestors at Rabaa Al Adawiyya and Al Nadha Squares, this Friday (14 August).

But the Socialists are low in number, while the Brotherhood in Egypt was outlawed by Sisi, whose soldiers burned its offices and jailed most of its active members. Even if the Front were to form, it is entirely possible that its only achievement would be to be destroyed in another Sisi-led massacre.

Life in Libya is certainly far, far worse than that of the average Egyptian. But the difference is that no-one in Libya claims Libya today is as it should be, or as it should remain.

Sisi’s grip on Egypt, however, and his erosion of personal liberty within the state, tightens by the day.

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