Smugglers trade on tragedy in the tide of hopelessness
Published 12/09/2015 | 02:30
Perched on the Mediterranean coastline some 70km from Libya's border with Tunisia, the town of Zuwara has long been famed for its sandy beaches. In recent years, however, those picturesque beaches have become better known for the bloated corpses of migrants and refugees that have washed up on them, the fallout from a burgeoning regional human smuggling industry that counts Zuwara as one of its most important hubs.
It is from Zuwara that most of the rickety boats crammed with migrants begin their journey to Europe. Many capsize on the way, the Mediterranean waves returning their lifeless human cargo to the shores of Zuwara, body by body. Tens of thousands have transited through the town this year.
Libya's role in the multi-million dollar human smuggling business is not new. Many of the networks that underpin it existed under Colonel Muammer Gaddafi, and it was said that certain figures in his regime were closely involved.
Gaddafi often used the issue as a means of leverage with Europe, threatening to turn the flow of migrants on and off to get what he wanted.
After Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011, the security vacuum that followed allowed the smuggling networks across Libya to flourish. Some traded fuel, some traded drugs, but one of the most lucrative was funnelling people desperate for a new life in Europe. Many smugglers became entwined with the scores of militias that emerged during and after the uprising against Gaddafi.
Today, Zuwara is divided between those who profit from the industry that has brought the town notoriety and those who abhor it. A new low was the recent sinking of a boat carrying between 400 and 500 people in the waters off Zuwara.
Rescuers, including the Irish naval crew taking part in search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean, brought almost 200 people to safety and recovered some 110 bodies.
As many as 200 people remain unaccounted for. Ghostly night-time images of the bodies of children washed up on the powdery sands of nearby beaches triggered revulsion.
Some Zuwarans took to the streets in protest. They carried banners with slogans including "Zuwara should not be in the hands of bloodsuckers" and "Stop killing children".
Another demanded of the local smuggling kingpins: "How many dead bodies did that luxury car cost you?"
It was not the first time sections of Zuwaran society have rallied against the smugglers. Demonstrators last year demanded action, chanting on the streets the slogan: "Our city will not be graveyard for illegal immigrants."
But the power of the smuggling industry's local Mr Bigs is such that their gangs are rarely confronted. Last week, however, after the protests in the Zuwara, a local militia seized three men alleged to have been implicated in the capsizing of the vessel. They were paraded holding photographs of three children whose bodies had washed ashore and were accused of responsibility for the boat's sinking.
The militia, known locally as The Masked Brigade, claimed their capturing of the trio would be "a deterrent to this destructive phenomenon". But many remain sceptical about the extent to which Zuwarans really want to take on the smugglers in their midst, given that many have benefited hugely from the trade in a town where there are few other ways of making a living.
Hanan Salah from Human Rights Watch observed on Twitter: "In such tight-knit Libyan communities, everyone knows everybody. They can do a lot more if they wanted to."
Those who do want the issue tackled bemoan media coverage they say portrays Zuwara and its inhabitants, who are predominantly Amazigh or Berber, as operating a vast network responsible for all human smuggling in Libya.
They point out that the boats do not just leave from Zuwara, but also from other towns on Libya's western coast including Sabratha and Zawiya, in addition to places like al Khoms and Garabulli, east of the capital Tripoli.
The few foreign journalists who venture to Libya these days are mostly there to report on the human smuggling story and tend to head straight to Zuwara.
Eyebrows were raised when the ministry in Tripoli which deals with foreign journalists recently tried to organise a trip to the town to view its "historical and tourist sites" - clearly an attempt to change the narrative. There was, however, little interest.
"We are caught between a rock and a hard place," says one Zuwaran resident who did not want to be named.
"The people running the smuggling networks know that they are untouchable for several reasons, including their connections and the fact so many here are benefiting from their trade in one way or another. There are locals who are very opposed to this but many of them are afraid to raise their voice."
As summer turns into autumn, the number attempting to make the crossing to Europe from Zuwara is expected to drop as weather conditions make it more difficult. But though the numbers may be less, the smugglers will continue their work and bodies will continue to wash up on Zuwara's pristine beaches.