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The Great Escape

For the past few weeks i have been writing about the situation in Libya, the west of Libya in particular. Everything from the illegal trafficking to militias exerting their power and influence on all aspects of life, and not forgetting the huge problem of ISIS and its attempts to establish a foothold in the area. But things have sunk to new lows- as banks runout of cash causing citizens to not be able to access their money for the last four months. Locals have been lining up in front of banks to withdraw cash but with no luck. stories of old men spending the night at the door of the bank so they can be at the front of the queue became the norm. image4Rumours of cash delivers to the bank will result in more people arriving in hope of gaining access. The situation usually ends in a huge commotion. With emotions running high, fights and arguments breakout, militia members will intervene only to make things be worse, live ammunition will be used to disperse the crowed and it all starts again the following morning.

Amongst this new reality in Sabratha, a young man arrives at the back of the queue asking people at the back if the bank opened and if there is cash today. Most days the answer would be no. In that rare occasion that the bank did open, he will sit and wait under a tree across the street from the bank as it’s too hot to wait in front of the bank. «There is no shade,»Ahmed said as he looks now from a distance at the sea of people gathered on the steps of Al-Jamhuria bank, across from Sabratha Town Square. Ahmed tells me that he is a department manager at the Ministry of Social Affairs. He smiles and asks, «do you know what that means? I’m supposed to help people who are poor who do not have money, now we all don’t have money. Alhamdullah. (thank god)» He repeats whenever he talks about his money problems. Ahmed continues to tell me about how he sold his car to survive. Him and his young family of two young children. «It puts more pressure on the parents because children don’t understand the political situation or militias power plays, all they know is that they need stuff and need it now.» Jokingly, Ahmed tells me that he should have been smart and invested the money from his car sale like the old Barbar son. He smiles, «now it’s too late, I have a wife and two kids it won’t work.

Confused about what kind of investment he is talking about, he jumped in and clarifies, «you know, buy a small fishing boat and cross to Italy.» It all made sense now; the Barbar boy disappeared suddenly, years ago. Most people thought he died in the 2011 revolution but it turned out that he lives in Sweden, married and owns his own business. He crossed to Italy in a smugglers boat with illegal immigrants. «He was brave,» Ahmed continues. «Now it’s impossible to live here, lately tens of young locals have crossed illegally, something that was a taboo thing to do, a shameful and cowardly act in the eyes of many. But now, with everything that’s happening in Libya, more and more young men talk openly about paying to be smuggled to Europe. The only thing stopping many is money. To cross to Europe is 1500€. That is more than 7000 LD. For an average Libyan now days, that is nearly impossible to come up with.»

In the midst of researching more about this phenomenon, an amazing story breaks from
Sabratha. A young Libyan father with his young daughter risks his and his child’s life to cross the Mediterranean in a small fishing boat. The story spread across Libyan social media outlets. I managed to reach this man on the phone simply to ask what made him risk his daughter’s life in that way. The many questions that people had, I got the opportunity to ask.

Abdalhakeem Al-Shaibe is a mechanical engineer from Sabratha with three young kids that became the face of everything that is wrong with Libya today. I asked him straight away what made him do it. «I had no other choice,» he told me. «No options. My daughter, Sajeeda was dying in front of me. I had no option.» And then Abdalhakeem begins to tell me his and his brave daughter’s story. Sajeeda has a rare blood disease called aplastic anaemia that requires a lot of medical attention.

She was diagnosed with the illness in 2013, starting a long battle; this brave soul and her
incredible father along her side, against this disease. Abdalhakeem continues to tell me how the health care and medical facilities in Libya are so bad he opted to take Sajeeda for treatment in neighbouring Tunisia with with all the expenses. He was willing to do or spend whatever he had to on treating his beloved daughter. After a few months in Tunisia, Sajeeda had to go back to Libya to apply for government assistance to cover the cost of the increasing medical bills. Months of neglect by the government and after being rejected by local hospitals and with the health of his daughter declining Abdalhakeem decided to brave the dangerous climate.

He moved Sajeeda to the Tripoli main hospital but unfortunately, like many other facilities, it was too understaffed, underfunded and had to refuse to admit the child as a patient unless he agreed to provide the weekly blood for the transfusion on his own- a death warrant for Sajeeda. Facing all these challenges, he never gave up hope and never stopped believing that she will get the help she needs. The obstacles continued for a few months, all in the midst of an airport war between Misrata and Zintan Militia for tripoli Ramadan 2014.image3
With the security situation in ruins, Abdalhakeem and Sajeeda got their first good news when a friend in turkey contacted them and encouraged them to come to Istanbul with the promise that a contact in the Libyan embassy would cover Sajeeda’s medical bills. Even though a trip to Turkey would have a huge financial strain on the family, relatives and family friends supported them.
Abdalhakeem and Sajeeda traveled to turkey and she began her treatment of having weekly blood transfusions. After some time, a match for Sajeeda’s bone marrow was found in Germany and a transplant operation was scheduled. And the embassy refused to pay for the operation and ordered the hospital to close the file. The hospital informed Abdalhakeem of the news told told him that they were powerless and unable to do anything about it. Abdalhakeem tried his best to sort it out by talking to anyone who could possibly help but had no luck. One of the officials at the embassy even told him just to take his daughter back to Libya so she can die at home. Abdalhakeem could not believe what he was dealing with, filled with emotion, he could not hold back from crying any longer. «It was a dark moment,» he says, «the worst moment of someone’s life is when you realize you’re unable to help and protect your child.» Regardless of how he was feeling, and as he has done before, he picked up his things and went home to Tripoli with Sajeeda to find a new solution.

Right after arriving in Tripoli, Sajeeda’s health deteriorated and she was admitted to the Tripoli General Hospital that night while Abdalhakeem desperately made efforts to look for donors to give blood for his daughter. A clash between two militias in Tripoli brought the city to a stand still and Abdalhakeem got caught in the middle of it in the Abu Saleem district. «That’s when the thought came to me,» he said «I was sitting in my car bullets flying by… I didn’t even care, all I can think about is if I stay here my daughter and I will die. It’s just a matter of when.» Early next morning, from his daughter’s bedside, Abdalhakeem started to ask around among his trusted friends about how can he buy a fishing boat, how to use it, how far away Italy was and all other information he could get. «I knew that in Europe they will not just let a child die, they will help. I knew that and I knew if I stayed there Sajeeda would have died. In my mind, it was simple. My biggest problem was finding a boat, as travelling with other people was risky due to Sajeeda’s weak immune system. A small fishing boat for the two of us was the only and best option.»

image2 (1)After a few phone calls, a family friend found a smallboat «flooka» up for sale for 6000LD.
Abdalhakee borrowed money and bought the it the next day. He told his wife of his plans to cross the Mediterranean in the next few days. After checking sea weather updates and getting a quick boat lesson on how to steer and use a GPS, Abdalhakeem was ready. The 26th of June, 2016 was chosen as the day to cross. Only hand full of select close friends and family where told of the plans and early morning of that day Abdalhakeem told Sajeeda that she will be going on a boat trip. «I was so nervous,» Abdalhakeem said. «But I was praying the whole time.» They set off, followed by a friend who was a fisherman on a boat just behind them in case of an emergency. The friends that followed could only go so far, as they were afraid of getting stopped by Italian coast guards trying to stop illegal human trafficking. «Three hours after we set off, I can see a large vessel in the distance.» Abdalhakeem went on, «I got scared, I was certain that it was the Italian Navy. I was told that they arrest any Libyan who tries to cross, but I was determined. I raised a white cloth and waited for them, as the vessel approached they started to talk to me over a loud speakerphone. I frantically pointed to my daughter who was sleeping coved in blankets. It turne out it was a Red Cross vessel patrolling the Libyan coast to rescue migrants and refugees on boats. Two medical personnels climbed down and checked on Sajeeda. I could only feel relief as they carried her up to the vessel.» Abdalhakeem recalls looking back at the horizon towards Sabratha with a heavy heart but could not help but acknowledge his lucky escape.

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