Photo exhibit documents horrors of human trafficking in Libya
Milan - Narciso Contreras’s collection of photographs, made over three trips to Libya in 2016, contains the haunting image of a topless woman with a mental illness. Dark-skinned, she looks fiercely towards the camera. Her stomach reveals a scar from an abortion, interviews and reports said. She has been in a detention centre for migrants for two years and a doctor said she may have become pregnant in custody.
“[The photograph] gave me goosebumps,” said Patrick Baz, a former war correspondent with Agence France-Presse and the logistics coordinator for Contreras’s trips on behalf of the Paris-based Fondation Carmignac. “It’s amazing. She talks to you and you freak out at the savagery.”
Contreras was the recipient of the 2016 Carmignac Photojournalism Award for his series on Libya. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for his work in Syria.
Contreras’s photos from Libya were exhibited in May in Milan. He documented how local militias and some Libyan authorities profited from human trafficking.
His photographs show predominantly sub-Saharan African migrants and refugees in putrid detention facilities. Packed into small cells like sardines, the migrants are at the mercy of their captors. They plead for water, food, cigarettes and their release but many never attain freedom or reach Europe. Instead, they are sold into slavery.
“Stepping into a detention centre is like passing through into a parallel world,” Contreras said, as documented at the exhibition. “It was like looking at the dead, as if these women no longer had a soul.”
Libya has been in a state of civil conflict for more than six years. After the collapse of the regime of Muammar Qaddafi, rival militias carved Libya into sectors in which they exert more influence than the largely powerless central government. Many former military officers work for militias that operate human trafficking operations for massive profits.
“The EU has previously seen Libya as a transit zone, a place where migrants gathered before making the perilous journey,” a text accompanying the exhibit reads. “This is true but only partially; in reality Libya has become a slave market run by militias and privately armed groups with links to international mafia networks in Africa and Europe.”
Contreras gained intimate access to the detention centres and several militias. At first, Baz said, Contreras was documenting the story through the prism of a photographer but after relating what he was seeing, Baz encouraged Contreras to take his reporting a step further.
“I told him you are alone and this story is more than pictures,” Baz said, advising Contreras to take video and write articles about what he was seeing. “What you are seeing is huge, so bring the maximum amount of information.”
In one photo, bodies, baking under the afternoon sun, lay motionless on a beach. In another, a man suffering from stomach cancer writhes from pain on the ground as he tries to avoid being transferred to another facility. The cancer-stricken man, named Ibrahim Mussa, was not receiving treatment and would likely die.
Detention centres in Libya are billed as places where refugees or migrants can be registered. Contreras discovered that they are really hubs where people are sold and distributed to organised crime networks. About 3 million foreign nationals are estimated to reside in Libya and many fear that a militia will pick them up off the street, at a checkpoint or even from their homes and sell them into slavery.
This threat has not deterred migrants and refugees from trying to enter Libya and cross the Mediterranean. In June 2016, the bodies of 236 migrants, asylum seekers and refugees washed up on the shores of Zuwara and Sabratha in western Libya.
“It was everything that was emblematic of the trafficking situation in Libya,” Contreras said after meeting a trafficker at Sabratha while attempting to photograph migrants headed out to sea. “To see this with your own eyes, to see militias leaving the dead on the beach, the deflated boat. It was as if, in that moment, I had reached the point of no return.”