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Locked down in Libya: One refugee’s reflections on conflict and COVID-19

‘For migrants and refugees like me, the virus hasn’t changed that much.’

A group of migrants wait in the east of Tripoli after their boat capsized and they were rescued by the Libyan coast guard, on 26 July 2019. (Ayman al-Sahili/REUTERS)

I’m writing this on my phone, from a room in the Libyan capital that I share with seven other refugees. Inside my building, there has been no electricity for several days. We don’t have any running water. Outside, there is a war and a global pandemic.

Tripoli is nothing like the place I grew up, in Sudan’s South Kordofan province. In my Nuba Mountains hometown of Lagawa, the air always smelled fresh, and my primary school held classes under a baobab tree. Our food was homegrown. 

In Libya, I live about six kilometres from a front line. I hear rockets whistling overhead, and I smell the dust that gets thrown up into the air whenever the fighting that has been going on for a year now kicks off.

The calm that I remember didn’t last in Lagawa. Fighting broke out between the army and rebels in 2011, when I was 20, and my home was shelled. Two of my brothers and a cousin were killed. There were mass arrests based on tribe, and executions. I ran to the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, where I thought I would be safe and could attend university, where I wanted to study medicine, or maybe political science. But there I found a country ruled by force, where I was discriminated against because of where I came from. I could not speak freely, and I was not free.

I wasn’t planning on becoming a refugee, nor was I hoping to cross the Mediterranean and put my life in danger. Instead, I tried to get a visa to leave Sudan, but was refused at every turn. Eventually, I followed the journey that so many young people from sub-Saharan Africa make to Libya. I found myself here in 2018. It took time, but last year I managed to register as an asylum seeker.

So here I am, at 28, working at a grocery store for the limited hours it is open because of COVID-19, in the middle of a war. As of 29 April, there are 61 confirmed cases and two deaths in the country. Libyans are panicking about the virus, and buying everything they can. There are lots of rumours spreading about it, and nobody really knows what’s true. 

But for migrants and refugees like me, the virus hasn’t changed that much. Fear has always been a constant, and life has never been secure. We have become used to uncertainty, unsure if we will have somewhere to sleep at night or not. I now understand why people try to cross the sea, but I have lost many friends to the Mediterranean and for me it’s a last resort. I’m still waiting to see if the UN will be able to help me start a new life somewhere else.

I’m not sure if things are worse for me now that the coronavirus is here. I’ve been through much scarier times, both in Sudan and in Libya. When the fighting first erupted last April, I was stuck with other refugees and one Libyan family for 23 days in the middle of clashes in the south of Tripoli. We couldn’t escape and had very little food. We were under siege, drinking bad water. Nobody could rescue us, but eventually we made it out on our own.

“I’m not sure if things are worse for me now that the coronavirus is here. I’ve been through much scarier times, both in Sudan and in Libya.”

That time was far more frightening than anything I’m dealing with now. Of course I don’t want to get the coronavirus, but it doesn’t feel like there is much I can do. 

During the day, my roommates and I try to keep away from each other, chatting from a distance. But at night there isn’t much we can do, given that we sleep in such close quarters. It is so hard to find affordable accommodation in Tripoli that we don’t have any other options. 

Some people thought that the coronavirus would bring people together. But that hasn’t happened. It hasn’t stopped the war, not when there is power and money at stake.

There is one place in Tripoli that makes me feel at peace: a church downtown. I volunteer there, helping the woman who runs it communicate with other migrants and refugees who go there for help. I fight for their rights. But for now, because of the restrictions on movement, I can’t even go there. 

In my years fleeing home, I’ve found that while I can count on some NGOs and international organisations for basic assistance, for the most part I have to find my own way. Life for me is a constant struggle. That was true before the pandemic, and it will be true after. 

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