Ahmed Omar Isaak, 31, fled the conflict in his home country of Somalia in January 2012. His intention was merely to move to a place of safety, but that proved much harder than he had imagined. Over the next 16 months, he travelled nearly 5,000km in trucks, buses, boats and the boot of a car, enduring detention, beatings and being stranded in the Sahara desert. He told IRIN about his journey over the phone from Malta.
“I’m from the Medina District of Mogadishu region. I left the country because of so many reasons - lack of security and tribal fights. At first, I just wanted to go to the nearest country for safety, and that was Kenya. I stayed in Nairobi for two months, but without any documents, I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t survive, and I was afraid that the Kenyan police would arrest me. So I went to the Ugandan border by truck. From there, I went to Kampala and stayed one month, but life was very hard because I didn’t know anyone to help me. Someone told me that I should try Libya because it was easy to get from there to Europe.”
Crossing the desert
“I passed into South Sudan and took a bus to Juba, and from there went by boat up the River Nile to the border with Sudan, and then I took a bus to Khartoum. Then, I started my journey through the Sahara desert. I paid US$360, and there were 80 Somalis squeezed into 12 Land Cruisers travelling in a convoy for three days and three nights. We ran out of water, and the sun was terribly hot. In the desert, there was a big smuggler who works between the two countries [Sudan and Libya]. He kept us for three weeks. He told me to call my parents and ask for $800. I became sick; I nearly died. There were 200 of us there, and five of them died. By the help of Allah, there was a Good Samaritan, a fellow Somali who gave $200 from his pocket to pay for me.
“We came from there to Libya with smugglers, but before we reached Kufra [near Libya’s south-eastern border], we were met by militias. They arrested the smugglers and left us there in the middle of the Sahara. There were 99 of us, and we stayed there for 24 hours without water, food or shade before the militia came back for us. They put us in a lorry and took us to Kufra. That’s where we were jailed for four months and beaten, day in, day out.
“One day, I told them that I wanted to go to the toilet. The main gate was open and there was no guard at that time, so four of us escaped. We didn’t know where to run; we just went into town and hid ourselves in a building that was still being constructed. Then we went to a part of town where Africans were living, and they helped us and gave us food.
“I called my parents and friends, and they sent me $500, which I used to pay a smuggler to take me to Benghazi. He took me to the Red Cross there, and they gave me blankets and somewhere to sleep. I stayed there for two weeks, and then smugglers took a group of us to Tripoli in a private car. They dressed me up like a Libyan woman with my face covered so the police would not question me. Other times, they put me in the boot of the car.
“In Tripoli, the police stopped me to ask for documents, and when I spoke English to them instead of Arabic, they beat me with sticks and the back of a gun and took some money from me and told me to go. The next time I was stopped, I was jailed for two months. Finally, the Somali ambassador came and got us released.”
Crossing the sea
“Two weeks later, I decided to take a boat to Europe. I never wanted to stay in Libya because life there is hell. Others paid $400 or $500 to the smugglers, but I didn’t pay because I didn’t have money. I told them that in school I was taught how to navigate and knew how to use a compass, and they trusted me. It wasn’t true, but when I was in Tripoli I went to the internet and looked up how to use a GPS [global positioning system] and which settings to use.
“We were 55 Somalis in one inflatable boat. They just gave us a compass and a GPS and told us which direction to go, and then they put us in the sea and told us to go. We were aiming to go to Malta because the sea is very big and wide and that was the nearest place to get to. Around 160km away from Tripoli, the boat started taking on water. Everybody was screaming, some people wanted to go back to Libya, but I told people to keep taking the water out while we waited for a ship to come. But no one came to rescue us. After about 10 more hours, we drifted to just outside Tripoli, near the border with Tunisia. Some militia saw us and asked us where we were from and if we were trying to go to Italy. They beat us and took us to a detention centre, where we spent three weeks. Some ladies were pregnant and vomiting, and some of the militia felt sorry for us and decided to let us go, but said if they saw us going in the sea again, they would kill us.
“I came back to Tripoli, and after another month, found another smuggler with a boat. I had to go back to the sea again. It was another inflatable boat, and we only had biscuits and a little water, which [were] finished after two days. I drank some of the seawater because I was so thirsty. But after three days and three nights at sea, we came safely to the land of Malta.
“We were taken to detention, but it was an open centre, a nice place, and UNHCR [the UN Refugee Agency] met us there and registered us. I requested refugee status, and after staying there for three months, I got my protection. Now I’ve settled in town and I get a little money from the government and from doing some interpretation.
“Malta is a small country, and I like it, but I want to continue legally to another country, to be resettled in a country like America. I left Somalia because of Al-Shabab, and so many problems, but if I had known that’s how it would be, I would never have left. I never dreamed I would end up in the sea or the distance I would cross in the end to get protection and opportunities.”