Photo exhibit documents horrors of human trafficking in Libya

Sunday 28/05/2017
More than a picture. Illegal migrants are seen after being sold by a Libyan militia that runs the detention centre in Sorman, 55km west of Tripoli. (Narciso Contreras for the Carmignac Foundation)

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.”