TRIPOLI — For a group of stranded Somali refugees hoping to reach Europe, even war-torn Libya seems a safe haven compared with their homeland from where they fled Islamist militias.
“I knew Libya was a war zone but I did not think it was more dangerous than Somalia,” said Omar Abdelkarim, a 19-year-old among dozens of refugees transferred to the care of the UN refugee agency on Sunday.
He said he fled Somalia because Al-Shebab, the Islamist militia controlling large parts of Somali, threatened to kill him if he refused to fight in its ranks.
“I am looking for a place where I can study, work and live in peace,” said Abdelkarim, who had a head wound from a bullet that strayed into the compartment where he and fellow refugees took shelter as rebel fighters wrested Tripoli from forces loyal to Moamer Kadhafi.
A patrol of those fighters found the 53 Somalis, including five women and one child, on Wednesday in a building in the eastern suburb of Tajura, one of the departure ports for illegal migration to Europe.
The majority of them had left Mogadishu with empty pockets, walking or hitch-hiking from Somalia to Sudan via Djibouti and Ethiopia. They completed the journey across the desert to Libya crammed into a smuggler’s truck.
“The journey took 25 days,” said Abdullah Ali Mohammed, adding that the entire trip cost 800 dollars per head, a sum mostly paid off thanks to financial aid received in Khartoum.
He said three of his group, two under the age of 18, died on the journey.
Mohammed, 29, is the only one to have taken his wife and daughter along on the arduous journey to Libya, a short boat ride from Europe and, they hope, a better life.
In Mogadishu, his family lived on less than two dollars per day, relying on scraps and charity from relatives and neighbours because he was unemployed.
“We only ate if I had money,” he said.
Five women braved the journey on their own.
“I was afraid of staying in Somalia,” said Sudi Salat, 29, adding that two of her uncles were killed for refusing to fight for Shebab and that one of her aunts was raped by the same militia.
“Detention in Libya is still better than going back to Somalia because there you can get killed any minute,” Salat told AFP.
For four days the refugees stayed under the supervision of the victorious rebel fighters who were able to provide one meal a day despite shortages of fuel, food and water in the capital.
“Our religion encourages to treat this people humanely,” said commander Adnan Ibrahim Mleigta, leader of the Alqaqa unit which found the Somali refugees.
“It was clear they had not been involved in any violence,” he said.
He said he was confident the National Transitional Council, Libya’s interim government, would cooperate with Europe in order to help stem the wave of illegal migration spurred by Kadhafi during his pan-African phase.
The NTC brought the vulnerable group to the attention of the UNHCR, which is setting them up in a safe house until a long term solution — integration, resettlement or repatriation — is decided upon.
“This is the first recognition of the humanitarian needs of a vulnerable group by the NTC,” Sam Cheung, UNCHR senior protection officer in Libya, told AFP. “We’ve had a very fruitful cooperation so far.”