In the eastern part of Mazara del Vallo, Italy’s largest fishing port, stands a not-so-famous memorial that reads “To Omar al-Mukhtar, hero of independence. In the name of friendship with the Libyan people.”
Located at a roundabout leading to Africa Avenue and overlooking the sea, this simple and inconspicuous stone monument has recently been the cause of a number of sarcastic comments by some locals. “I told the mayor to get rid of this stone,” said Ignazio Bonomo, whose father, Giovanni, returned home five days before Christmas after 108 days of detention in the coastal city of Benghazi in Libya.
A memorial to Libyan resistance hero Omar al-Mukhtar in Mazara del Vallo, now watched with suspicion by some locals
Giovanni Bonomo is one of them 18 fishermen were arrested by the Libyan coast guard on September 1 while sailing in international waters, over which Libya has illegally expanded its jurisdiction to allow it to control areas rich in the prized red shrimp.
Italian fishing boats have been involved in incidents of this kind in the past, but this time the fishermen are being held as political prisoners.
Tears of happiness and relief
Bonomo and his fellow fishermen sailed back to Mazara del Vallo in their boats, Medinea and Antarctide, which had been seized and pillaged by Libya more than three months earlier. A large crowd gathered to welcome them home. “When we got to the dock and I saw everyone waiting for us, I cried all day long,” he said.
Giovanni Bonomo is one of the fishermen detained by Libyan forces
After that, the fishermen were released on 17 December Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Minister of Foreign Affairs Luigi Di Maio fly to Benghazi to meet Khalifa Haftar, the warlord who controlled eastern Libya. Haftar is seeking international recognition and wants to be included in Italy’s foreign policy regarding the North African country. But Rome, like other European countries, officially deals only with the rival UN-backed government in Tripoli.
Questions about release requirements
Di Maio said the fishermen’s release was guaranteed without giving anything in return and had rejected questions about the terms of release, stressing: “This is the result of our external intelligence and diplomacy work.”
According to a pan-Arab journal Asharq Al-Awsat“Knowledgeable Libyan sources state that it has been agreed to extradite four Libyans convicted of trafficking in Italy in exchange for fishermen.” However, both the fishermen’s lawyers and the Italian prosecutors handling their cases deny this.
During the recorded phone call, former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi told Marco Marrone, owner of Medinea, that Russian President Vladimir Putin had facilitated the release by exerting influence on Haftar.
To clarify the situation, the Italian parliamentary committee for Republican security (Copasir), which is in charge of overseeing the state secret service, has said it will audit Conte, Di Maio and the head of external intelligence by January 2021.
Side effects of traumatic experiences
“Whatever happens, I am waiting for their release before decorating the Christmas tree. I am happy, but the struggle is not over,” said Rosaria Asaro, who said her husband, Giovanni, spoke in his sleep about the Libyan guard psychologically abusing him: “‘They came. , ‘he said. “
Medinea owner Marco Marrone is seen at a protest against fishermen detained in Rome, October 14, 2020
During detention, the fishermen were detained in four different prisons. Bonomo recalled the night before one transfer: “In the middle of the night, they let us out of the cell and put us next to each other, facing the wall. They had their guns pointed at us, and I thought they were going to kill us. Then they soaked us with hoses, to bathe us. us. “
Even so, he knew that he had an advantage compared to other inmates. “They once beat a Libyan with sticks and stones and made him lick food off the floor,” he said. Bonomo thought that he and his fellow fishermen would one day be given the same treatment.
He said some of them were close to being damaged, adding that one of the group “was nervously walking back and forth in the cell. He threatened suicide by drinking the bleach that was given to us to wash the holes in the floor. We used it as a toilet”.
As if these appalling sanitary conditions were not bad enough, the fishermen did not have proper beds until several days before their release. “We have some blankets that are so dirty you have to stay away from them. I got a painkiller injection for my leg after sleeping on the floor for months.”
The guarantees provided by the Italian government regarding the conditions of detention of the fishermen turned out to be inconsistent with reality, but it is not clear what the government actually knows about them.
At 22, Ibrahima Sarr is the youngest of the Antarctic crew members
Although their case made headlines around the world, Ibrahima Sarr only told his father in Senegal a few days ago that he had been imprisoned in Libya for more than three months. “I told him it was over, but I haven’t given details about what happened. He is old and I don’t want to worry him,” he said. Instead, he had spoken at length to his sister, to whom he had sent a video from the press reporting on the case.
At 22 years old, Sarr was the youngest member of the crew involved. He’s lived in Italy since 2015, when he made a secret boat crossing from Libya. “In the past, there, nothing happened to me. I didn’t know at the time what was happening in this country. In Senegal, I never saw militias or someone bleeding as a result of torture. But now, in El Kuefia prison. [near Benghazi], I’ve.”
There is no pause
For him, there is no lull for 108 days in detention. “It’s always been terrible. Every day, I think I’m going to die.” Hoping to have something to look forward to, he repeatedly asked the guards when he would be released, but received no reply. This meant that even if he tried, it was never easy to take his mind off things.
“From the Libyan prisoners we got T-shirts with chess boards drawn, to play chess using plastic caps as pawns. But when the guards came, we kept them or pretended to sleep, because we were afraid they would be angry”.
Khalifa Haftar, the warlord who controls eastern Libya, is seeking international recognition
Sarr now understands that his 2015 trip through Libya could have been much worse, but he is not yet fully aware of the geopolitical situation he avoided last week.
In 2017, Italy signed an agreement with Libya to stop illegal immigration and has since spent more than € 22 million ($ 27 million) on the Libyan coast guard, providing training for staff and buying a dozen patrol boats. But Libyan authorities continue to violate the human rights of migrants, and the same patrol boats are used to catch Italian fishermen.
Confined in the dark
Habib Mathlouthi argues that the last prison where he is being held is a military base called Tariq ibn Ziyad, somewhere outside Benghazi. He couldn’t see the road when it was being moved. His cell was number 40, and like the others, it was specially designed to psychologically abuse prisoners. “Everything is painted black, no windows, only the air vents in the roof. It’s really dark”.
Habib Mathlouthi, the cook on the Medinea ship, was subjected to what he called ‘psychological torture’
The door opened for the first time in 25 days. During this period, he only bathed three times. He felt that prior to arriving at the prison he might have been held in slightly better conditions than the others because as a cook in Medinea, he had been sometimes sent to help out in the prison kitchen before.
In an attempt to trap the fishermen, Haftar’s men initially pretend to find packages of illegal drugs on the seized boat and try to get the fishermen to sign false confessions. “I was obliged to sign some papers, but I couldn’t read what they said,” Mathlouthi explained. In a similar situation, other fishermen were tricked into touching a package of fake medicine so that they left their fingerprints alone.
But worse is coming: “One time, they isolated me for hours and I don’t know why. The guards were sedated”.
Now, however, Mathlouthi is fairly calm, even though her thoughts go back to the period of detention when she was alone. After resting, he wanted to return to the sea, although never to the troubled waters off the Libyan coast: “I will never return there. Even for thousands of euros. Instead, I will work closer to Malta or Tunisia.”