Translated from tigrigna
By Tedros Abraham
My father, sharing a room with an Abed!
Abed, in Arabic, means slave.
In November 2012, I was in Benghazi, Libya. I intended to cross the Mediterranean Sea into Europe by working and saving enough money. Before getting a job, I was arrested by armed forces and was held in a camp where hundreds of West Africans and Egyptians, tens of Somalis, and a handful of Eritreans shared the same fate.
If you didn’t have anyone outside the camp who could pay for your release, the only means of getting out of the prison was to run away or sign up for any job which some Libyans offered by coming there. Running away would have been simple for me. Yet I didn’t opt for it as it would result in an ill treatment of those Eritreans who would remain rejecting it as a bad option. Nor was I interested in signing up for a job which was mainly tending gardens and herding sheep.
The armed forces that controlled the prison needed labourers who would clean underground prison cells of Gaddafi’s period. It was a volunteer and paid job. An Ethiopian from Tigray region, a Somali, two Eritreans and I signed up for it. I once had been jailed, for a few days, in an underground prison known Track B in the outskirts of Asmara, Eritrea’s capital; these cells in Libya, however, overpowered me with swooning effect.
While in this job, having eaten canned sardines I fell ill. I quickly took to my bed with diarrhea. One of the Eritrean colleagues accused me of trying to escape by faking my illness. Worst of all, he informed the guards. Three days passed without getting any medical care. I just became feeble. It felt like spirit of death hovered over me.
The Ethiopian, from Tigray region, whose name was Ghirmay and the Somali whose name slipped my memory protested saying, “We cannot work while our brother is dying here; if our fate is dying like this, we choose that you kill us now.” The Eritrean man who was initially accused me had none to side with him and mumbled alone. Ghirmay threatened to kill him if he uttered a single word against me. The Somali also told him that it was ill-advised of him to not feel the pains of a fellow prisoner. Yonas, the other Eritrean, who was born and raised in Ethiopia, not knowing what to do, just sat at a corner and let his tears drop. At that moment, let alone to utter a single word, I was so weakened to move a single finger. My eyes, though, probably threatened him to wait for a better day.
The Libyan soldiers, shocked by the quick deterioration of my health, immediately rang and reported to commander of the camp. The commander, a colonel, was probably the most sober and responsible commander I ever saw in my whole life. Some days back, two or three times, I had explained to him about our situation and that it was impossible for us to return to our country.
“How did you get ill?” he asked sympathetically.
“He ate expired canned sardines,” Ghirmay replied before I did.
“Why did he have to eat expired food?”
“He got hungry,” it was the Somali.
“How come one gets hungry in Libya?” the colonel repeated the statement I had heard for a number of times since my arrival in Libya.
“We should think of getting him medical care now,” the Somali spoke in his broken but sweat Arabic.
“We will take him to hospital; is there anyone who would like to accompany him?” the colonel asked, but all were dumbstruck and fumbled staring into space.
Going to the hospital would widen the chances of escaping. A prisoner who was hoping for such an opportunity would certainly run for it even without a requested. But the prison house was better for any Eritrean refugee than outside in the then Libya. At least, one could save their lives by staying in the prison.
In addition to the fierce conflict amongst many warring armed forces and clans in Benghazi, the heated hostility of Arab Libyans towards the dark-skinned southerner Libyans who sided with Gaddafi in the conflict was still high. Any dark-skinned person found in the streets could be a target of violence and killing. Not few Sudanese, Chadians and West Africans had lost their lives for that reason. The Libyans of that time would test the trail shots of their newly purchased guns at any dark-skinned person they encountered.
The colonel, seeing their blank stares, just ordered for me to be helped into his Land Cruiser and drove to the main camp. Those Eritreans there were asked if they could accompany me to the hospital. All were willing but Ahmed who was from Ghindae, Eritrea, and had good command of Arabic language was picked out. We headed to one of the largest hospitals in Libya.
Even if I can manage to communicate in Arabic and English with the doctor, Ahmed served as an interpreter to filling in some forms. He also spoke more than me in explaining my illness and symptoms. The medical examination was conducted by the most sophisticated computerised system I ever saw in my whole life. The doctor, who was worried about my condition, ordered that I get two intravenous solutions at a time; she also made sure that I get admitted to the hospital and get some rest. Ahmed wished me well and took leave.
I laid there unconscious with infusions hooked into my veins for five days; I knew that it was Monday only after the doctor told me. On that day, the intravenous therapy was decreased to one. I also began to speak and move.
In the room I was in, there were one Egyptian and two Libyan patients. The Egyptian and one of the Libyans laid down side-by-side; an elderly Libyan and I also held two adjacent beds on the other side of the room. The elderly man next to me was around 80 years old and never rested from reading newspapers.
On the seventh day, after breakfast and before the plates were removed, a military officer with rank insignias on his shoulders, accompanied by two guards and a young woman, came into our room. Following them, two Bangladeshi nurses also came in. Though I didn’t find it difficult to guess his high-ranking from his military insignias, the slender stature of his guards and the scramble of the nurses was another testimony. Standing and looking towards all corners for a little while, he strode towards my bed. The elderly man, laying adjacent to me, putting down his newspaper and sitting up, cushioned by his pillow, gazed at the officer’s eyes expecting him to come to him. His eyes clearly showed that he was waiting with a deep longing.
The officer, unheeding the on looking elderly man, came towards my bed and stood over me. With a frowned face, he cast his eyes on me as if he was looking at abhorrent filth. He turned his face towards the nurses and order that they call the doctor.
The Bangladeshi nurses rushed out and came back followed by the doctor. If I had a chance to wish for a woman, I would have wished for the Libyan doctor. Her composure, self-confidence, and the way she puts her mind into words were so smiting.
“What is happening?” she asked in Arabic.
The officer stared at her, head-to-toe, for a whole minute. My guess is that her self-confidence struck him hard; and he was just pondering over which family she belonged to. If Libyans would dare one another, they first would have to know about the person’s clan and how powerful it is. Let alone killing, just insulting a person would never get them a night’s wink. So casting threats was a way of showing their respect. The doctor’s composure in the face of such an official signalled that she could be from a powerful family. But he would have to know about that later.
“Listen you, how can my father share a room with an abed? Why did we conduct a revolution? How did this abed get admitted here in the first place?” spoke the officer gazing at her with fiery eyes.
“Is that all the problem?” she replied with a belittling look. At this juncture, the hospital guards, who were members of the then Islamic Movement and now known as ISIL, came into the room.
Those days in Benghazi, an encounter between members of the Islamic Movement and other armed forces of Libya meant eminent war. Members of the Islamic Movement, who were sponsored by Arabian countries according to Libya media, had played the upper hand in the fight against Gaddafi’s forces in the eastern part of Libya. In spite of that, they were losing popularity in Benghazi due to their repressive rules. Exploiting this, many armed forces were attempting to annihilate them.
“What is the problem?” asked one of the members of the Islamic Movement. The doctor glimpsed at the official waiting if he could dare to say a word.
“Shall we speak outside,” the official led them without. I don’t know what they talked about. After some minutes passed, the doctor followed by the nurses returned.
“Sir,” she addressed me respectfully. “Take it easy, we are going to transfer you to another room. But it is all the same. Don’t bother about what you just heard. There are some ignorant people in Libya as in all societies. So take it easy,” she reassured me.
After I got transferred to another room, she said, “I’ll give you this mobile phone, and whenever you want anything just call me. As the phone has internet connection, you can also contact your family.” Even if I had a Facebook account at that time, I was not a regular user. I didn’t also call her. After two days, on the seventh day of my stay in the hospital, members of the Islamic Movement came and took me with them.
May God be with you!
Islamic Movement soldiers, cuffing my hands, took me out of the room. I walked flanked by two soldiers, and two more trailed. In the face of hundreds of patients moving about in the hospital, the soldiers seem to march in a spectacle of pride and caution after having captured a well-known dangerous criminal. Those Arab Libyans who were outraged by the blacks gave me a black look. They probably thought that I was one of those who fought for Gaddafi.
We got onto a Hilux Toyota pickup which sped through Benghazi to one of the suburbs of the city.
Arriving in a compound, I look around me and quickly remembered that we were in Hilal Ahmer – the first place I came to after travelling north from Ajdabia. Shortly after my arrival then, I got transferred to Ali Hassan Jaber prison, named after a Libyan patriot. And now I am back; but where would they take me next?
The project signpost outside the compound showed that the biggest high-rising building in Benghazi would have been built in the place. One could see the moment they set their foot that construction halted due to the war after the completion of the basement. Construction site offices, dinning and other facility rooms built from shipping containers lie to the left and right side of the entrance. Those containers on the left were occupied by ethnic Tuareg who were dark-skinned Libyans, and in those to the right side lived many Somalis and Ethiopians, and a few Eritreans and Sudanese.
Over a month ago, I came here unable to pay my way to Tripoli. Our driver from the hiding place of the smuggling network in Ajdabia to Bengazhi dropped us here saying considering our safety until our next move. We were only the Somali young man, who was with me until I fell ill, and I. The guards at the gates, at that time, welcomed us but after a short while transferred us to the prison known Ali Hassan Jaber.
I was now taken to the container I had been in a month ago with my Somali companion. I met a young man alone in there. In our mixed Arabic and Amharic conversation, I learned that he was an Amhara from Gondar, Ethiopia. After his employer refuse to pay him, he went to report to the police which passed him on to the Islamic Movement. He repeatedly asked me if I was a Muslim or Christian; I suspected he had been intimidated by their interrogations. Knowing that I was a Christian, he advised me to say that I was a Muslim if they asked me.
At Salat Almaghrib, dusk prayers, the door to our container room opened. The guards gave us a jerrican of water to perform ablution indicating where we could pray. As my Ethiopian roommate got ready to go for prayer, I told them that I was not going.
“Why not?” asked one of them who was in his early twenties and overzealous.
“I’m a Christian,” I replied. They left without saying a word. After prayers, my roommate tried to convince me that the only way we could join our brothers was to say that we were Muslims. Otherwise, we would be transferred to the worst prisons of eastern and southern Libya known as Ganfuda and Sebha, he tried to instil fear in me. I didn’t reply to him as I had not fully recovered from my illness and had been exhausted. I just returned to my sleep.
At Salat Alisha, the last prayer of the day, again the guards came with the jerrican of water for ablution and took my roommate for prayer. After the prayer, two elderly sheikhs whose beards hanged to their chests visited us. One of them garbed in white Arabian jalabiya while the other wore a green army field jacket with a gun slung from his waist.
With a humble and respectful nod of their heads, they shook our hands warmly in greeting. They asked generally about our health and if we had eaten our dinner. I replied positively and informed them that I had just gotten discharged from the hospital after a week-long treatment and that I had still felt exhausted. They told us that we would be transferred to a place where we could get rest and health care; and they continued by asking if performed our prayers. My roommate replied positively. They casted a questioning stare towards me.
“I don’t do prayers,” I replied clearly. They looked at each other and then gazed at me.
“Why not?” they uttered in unison.
“He said that he was a Christian,” replied, on my behalf, the young hyperactive man who had asked me at the dusk prayers. I had seen so many overzealous people but with this even his hair moved revealing his over boiling blood.
They told my roommate to pack his things. But he had none. They told the young man to take him to the aforementioned resting place. They left me in my room and shut the door behind.
Half an hour later, the door to my room opened; and one of the guards from the day time signalled for me to get out. I had not heard him open his mouth even once the whole day. No feeling could be read on his face. As if he was mute, he pointed which direction I would go. At the place he pointed at, I saw the two sheikhs sitting by a low table of four seats. When I got closer, I saw glasses, two thermoses, a plate of dates, loaves of brioche, and some fruit laid on the table.
Once again, after a courteous greeting, they indicate for me to sit down. It was cold out there that they ordered the young man to get me a blanket. As for them, they had put on very thick jackets and had scarfs around their necks.
They invited me to help myself informing me which one of the thermoses had tea and which had milk tea. They also offered me to eat from what was laid on the table. They also spoke that it would be good to eat dates to withstand the cold. They almost helped one another to give me from all that was available. I was really impressed by their hospitality.
They told me that autumn season could be so cold in Libya, and asked me about my health. I briefly told them about how I fell ill.
“How come one goes hungry in Libya?” they again uttered in unison sympathetically. They gave me their word that I would never go through the same experience again, and that I would be cared for until I fully recovered. They also said that Libya was a blessed land and that Libyans were hospitable people. As they spoke more and I less, they inquired how I ended up in Libya. I told them about how I crossed the Sahara desert to get there.
“You mean illegally?” they asked both at the same time.
“That’s what it seems,” I replied.
They pledged that they would stop that kind of border crossing; and that they would catch and bring the smugglers to justice. They asked me about how much money I had spent to get to Libya and what I could have done with that kind of money in my country. I tried to explain to them that the money would have been enough to do a lot but there was not any opportunity to work.
“Why not?” they exclaimed peering at me.
I had been asked this question a number of times; and it was not difficult to answer it. Citing the name of Eritrean president, Isaias, I reminded them of him and explicated the situation in Eritrea.
“Instead of leaving your country in droves, why didn’t you carry out a revolution?”
This question was the first of its kind for me. I thought of why we didn’t revolt against the ruling party. My thought went deeper into my lack of knowledge about the concept of ‘revolt against the regime’ more than why we didn’t revolt against it when I was in my country. The quick reply that came to my mind was, “We have been in war for quite many years, so war is a distasteful idea for us. If we start a civil war, it will be the worst carnage.”
Without responding in agreement or disagreement, they kept on thinking. Maybe they were thinking about the raging civil war in Libya at the time.
“You speak very well Arabic, where did you learn to speak it?” asked the one in military outfit.
“Eritrea is an Arab country, isn’t it?” it was the one in jalabiya.
“I’m not sure if it is an Arab country or not; but I had lived in the part of Eritrea where Arabic was commonly spoken. When I got to Sudan, I became much better,” I replied.
“How long did you live in Sudan?” the one in a jalabiya asked.
“Mash’Allah!” both intoned together.
“What did you say your name was?” again it was the one in a jalabiya.
“What does Fikrey mean?”
“It means my beloved.”
“But in Arabic ‘feghir’ means poor.”
“You’re right but my name is Fikrey, not ‘feghir’.”
“Ok Fikray, what do you know about Islam?”
“What do you mean what do you know?”
“I mean what do you think of Islam?”
“I respect it the same way I respect those who believe in it.”
“Do you believe that it is true too?”
“I have never thought whether it is true or not.”
“How long has it been since you knew about Islam?”
“Maybe, since I was seven years old.”
“Mash’Allah!” both of them uttered.
“So now, do you believe if we tell you that Islam is the only true religion?”
“Let’s not talk about whether it is true or not. I’m Christian; I was born Christian and will die as one.”
“No!” The one in jalabiya rose from his seat and sat again. The table also shook with his movement. I also got alarmed.
“Don’t say I’ll die like that. You should say Insh’Allah,” he spoke in fury.
“What use does it have to say Insh’Allah for something that wouldn’t happen?”
“Because you have never met any who would tell you about the true religion, you’ve not accepted it. But now, alhamdul’Allah , we will tell you about the true religion and the way to eternal life. We will appoint a person who would clearly show you and teach you. Insh’Allah, you will accept it after you know about it.” His voice and stares were clear evidences that some inner force was churning in him.
“I have not said, it is true or not. I’m a Christian and there is no reason for me to convert.”
“We also believe in and respect Issa (Jesus). Even Issa himself had spoken of the coming of Prophet Mohammed, who is a messenger of Allah, and that he was the only and the last messenger of God and following him will lead to eternal life.”
“I have never read anything like that.”
“We will show you and you can read it now.”
“I don’t have enough command of Arabic to read such big concepts. Basically, I can speak and listen to Arabic language, but I can’t read or write it.”
“Insh’Allah, we will teach you. After we teach you, you can read Quran and know what we are telling you now. Just say insh’Allah and prepare you mind to learn.”
“I’m not into such things now. I have many other things to worry about.”
“More important than this! All you can happen by will of God. Don’t be a fool; the moment you accept Islam, your heart will be filled with happiness; all doors of good luck will open for you; and in heaven an eternal places will be reserved for you. If you become a Muslim, we will give you papers to live in Libya. You can work as you like; you can send the money you lost to your family. To say you have other important things than this is foolishness.”
We discussed at length. I did not have enough command of Arabic to make him understand my ideas; but mainly his temper began, somehow, to instil some fear in me; I tried to be brief in my replies so as to shorten the discussion. But I was not able to.
The one in military attire, who had been an onlooker in this heated discussion, cleared his throat and began, “Listen Fikray, we have a mission from God. Our mission is to tell and preach the messages of Prophet Mohammed, aylhu ‘salatu wesalam, whenever we meet the nonbelievers, and by going where they are. We will never force you to convert. We have met you now, so we have to tell you and explain to you all about our mission. Insh’Allah, by will of God it is also our duty to teach you.”
It was getting late at night. I was so exhausted that I stumbled on my words. Not only I had low Arabic command but also I had so modest knowledge in the subject matter that I was not able to pass my judgement whether Christianity or Islam was the right religion. In addition to that, I had already known the emotion charged controversy that would ensue by saying that Christianity or Islam is the right religion. I thought arguing with such kind of people was hardly safe.
So tired, I got into a deep thought. I remembered my Sudanese friends and acquaintances who always considered me as their brother but never as a stranger or a Christian. I remembered all the places in Sudan where I got into argument; even those soldiers with whom I played card games and on whose faces I threw the cards out of anger; yet all had approached me in a spirit of brotherhood.
What my boss at the wood work shop, where I worked in Port Sudan, said to me rang in my mind. When I got into an argument with a colleague, I summarily vilified the whole Sudanese people. My boss took me out to chat over a cup of coffee.
“It is indecent to vilify the whole people. When you insult all Sudanese people, you are insulting me, Amu Abdu (a man I truly respected), my son (whom I liked and respected so much), and all your friends; those with whom you spend playing cards every evening; these women who respectfully serve you your coffee and others.
“We have never looked at you disapprovingly. We’ve always respected you. I know you’ve self-respect; but the people of Sudan are so hospitable, especially for you Habeshas. What I’m telling you now, except in your country, wherever you go, you will remember and believe how true it is. The farthest you go from your country, the more money you might earn, but the lesser agreeable people you will meet and the more challenges you will encounter.”
I heard him in my memory. He had never raised religion in our chats. Whenever some acquaintances raised and tried to discuss it with me, he would skilfully change the subject.
Generally speaking, no Sudanese had ever tried to discuss religion with me, let alone to preach to me without my consent.
“You’re right. But I lack two basic things to try to preach you or to listen to your preaching. First and for most, I don’t have enough command of Arabic that could enable me compare ideas by reading in it. Second, we’re discussing while you’re in your country and I’m a refugee, worst of all in a prison. I can’t argue with you as much as I wanted,” I said.
“No!” said the one in jalabiya in his usual rage. “The world is for all Muslims; the moment you convert as a Muslim, this will be your country. You won’t be a refugee.” Whether he didn’t listen properly to what I said, or he feigned to have not heard me.
“I think you didn’t understand me,” I said.
“I understand you,” said the one in military outfit. And he continued, “You seem a culture person. You’re right, but we have kept you here for your safety; when things settle down, if you want, you could either join your brothers or go to work. We are telling you this now because it is our mission, but we will never force you. But God gives only one chance; you will probably never get this chance you have gotten now.” He spoke courteously. That also encouraged me to say what was in my mind.
“Believe me, I cannot give you an answer now. God is omnipotent; if I get to understand it by God’s will, I might become a Muslim. If not, I’ll die as a Christian.”
“No! Don’t say that,” the one in jalabiya fumed. I don’t know why but, for a long time, I had gotten used to saying I’ll be dying as a Christian when talks about religion were raised. This also had never crossed my mind in saying it in Tigrigna but Arabic.
“You have to say ‘Insh’Allah’!” he advised me strongly. I felt anxious that the lulling discussion would intensify again.
“Insh’Allah,” said I in a think voice. And I continued, “I am so tired that I don’t think I would be able to talk.” We sat talking from eight o’clock in the evening to four o’clock in the morning. I really felt exhausted and drowsy.
“You go sleep now. We will come back in the morning and talk again,” it was the one in military outfit. He stood up. We also stood to go.
They led me to the container room and left the door open.
I drowned into a deep sleep as soon as they left. I had been sleepy during many part of the discussion. Although the container had been turned into a proper lodging, it gets so hot inside when it is sunny. So, the heat and the sunlight through the windows woke me up.
As if they had been waiting for me, two young soldiers whom I had never seen before signalled to me to come out. They pointed towards one direction without uttering a single word. Turning a corner, they show me the tab water where I could clean up. It seemed that a dark-skinned person had something unhealthy in the eyes of many young Libyans. They would only get closer to a black man to beat him. They spoke far from you showing their disgust at you. Most of the time, they would only communicate with you through signals but never talk to you.
I washed my hands and face, and then I waited for them to give me direction. They pointed towards a container room turned into the commander’s office. When we reached the door, the two sheikhs from the previous night came out. They asked if I had slept well and recovering from my illness. I answered positively.
“Would you like now to join your bothers, or go outside to work?” asked the one in military outfit.
“I would like to go out and work.”
“At this moment, the city is a bit chaotic,” spoke the one in jalabiya with frowned face. I had no idea if his knitted bows were intentional; but his voice was so calm.
“I’ll take my chances,” said I.
“Take this jacket; tiwekel Ale’Allah (may God be with you). If any soldier stops you, tell them that you came from the Red Crescent Association. Then they will bring you back here,” they said. And they told one of the young soldiers, “Take him to Alfendgh (Benghazi’s city centre).”
“Tiwekel Ale’Allah!” they resounded in unison.
“Shikuren (Thank you)!” I replied.
I waved my hand to the group amongst whom were some Eritreans standing and looking at me from a distance of about hundred meters. They probably thought that I was being transferred to Ganfuda or Sebha prison house as anyone who boarded a vehicle in that compound faced that kind of fate.