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‘I’d rather die than be sent back to Libya’

The piercing stare that was published worldwide and, below, Mohammed Ilmi Adam in the detention centre. Photos: Darrin Zammit Lupi

The piercing stare that was published worldwide and, below, Mohammed Ilmi Adam in the detention centre. Photos: Darrin Zammit Lupi

Mohammed Ilmi Adam left Somalia to find his parents but arrived in Malta in the middle of a political storm. Christian Peregin learns why his timing could work in his favour.

There was a glint in the photographer’s eyes when he said he had tracked down the African migrant whose face was published worldwide.

The young man reached Malta’s shores in the middle of an unfolding political drama: Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s plans to fly a group of would-be asylum seekers back to Libya had just been quashed by the European Court of Human Rights.

When he was photographed staring out of a police bus, the 17-year-old Somali had no way of understanding the significance of his group’s arrival.

But his piercing, apprehensive gaze told the story of the uncertain future awaiting him and others like him.

I was cautious about interviewing him, conscious of the fact that many readers have long grown wary of the dramatic stories of asylum seekers journeying on rickety boats.

What used to be called a human tragedy is now, more often than not, seen as an issue of numbers, not people.

I wanted to ask this Somali migrant why should Malta consent to give him shelter?

How many of Somalia’s more than 10 million natives did he think should be accommodated on this already densely populated 316 square kilometre rock?

And what was so bad about sending migrants back to Libya, where they had been living for months after escaping their home countries?

But when “13i38” (as the soldiers referred to him) was helped off a detention services van, slouching like a submissive prisoner, I was immediately taken aback by how much younger he appeared than in the photo.

Offering a handshake, his only response was to lift his wrist limply, almost as if he expected me to grab it and lead him to a cell.

Taking a seat in a small office at the Safi detention centre, it seemed like he had no idea why we were there.

“Your photo has been published in Time magazine, New York Times, BBC and Reuters. We are here to interview you and get your perspective of the immigration crisis.”

As the words were translated by the Somali translator, he returned a blank stare. He was completely indifferent to our presence.

Ironically, the young man who had garnered so much attention because of his piercing gaze would not even look me in the eyes.

“Mohammed,” he mumbled, when asked his name.

“Is there a surname that goes with that?”

“Ilmi Adam. Mohammed Ilmi Ad...”

It was silly to think that a man born in 1996 would have any answers about immigration. He did not. He had never even heard about Malta before arriving on July 10.

Painstakingly responding to one translated question at a time, he began to fill in the blanks and tell his life story.

Mohammed was born in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia. Aged four – when the rest of the world was celebrating the start of the new millennium – his father went missing.

“My mother left to look for him and she went missing too,” he says, staring at the floor and barely opening his mouth to talk.

Without any parents or siblings, Mohammed was being raised by “relatives” until last January, when he decided to follow in the footsteps of his cousins and leave Somalia for a better life.

“I wanted to come to Europe because I thought I would get help to find my missing parents and build a stable life for myself.

“In Europe, everybody has protection. Wherever you go, someone will be looking out for you,” he says.

His journey took him through Ethiopia and Sudan before ending up in Libya, where he lived for three months. This, he says, was the hardest part of his gruelling, six-month expedition.

“In Libya we used to get beaten a lot. People would steal from us. They would take us hostage and make us pay them money,” he says, referring to armed militia who have taken advantage of the country’s lawlessness since the revolution.

The deep scars etched all over his face suddenly become visible, especially the one dividing his right cheek, which ends at the point one would expect to see a youthful dimple.

This boy already has more scars on his face than most people could get in a lifetime.

In Tripoli, Mohammed met Somali brokers who advised him how to reach Europe.

“The brokers act as middlemen with the smugglers,” he says, recalling how he was asked to pay $400 for the journey to Italy.

“I was told it would be an easy ride and I thought we would go on a big ship.

“But when we got to the beach I realised it would be a plastic boat.”

At that point, Mohammed wanted to turn back.

“I did not want to go on board but I was forced... they beat me with wooden bats and iron rods. That’s how I was forced,” he says.

“When I was thrown on the boat, most of the other people were bigger than me so they pushed me around until I was in a very small, crammed place. I was confused, nauseated and very dizzy, until someone gave me some water.”

The journey across the Mediterranean Sea took three days, during which he witnessed several people agonising over petrol burns and one woman giving birth on board.

I wanted to come to Europe because I thought I would get help to find my missing parents

On the third day, they encountered a Maltese patrol boat.

“The boat first told us to continue with our journey but some of us did not want to because they were injured or exhausted.

“When the patrol boat started to leave, some people jumped into the sea to make sure they were rescued.”

The rescue was being negotiated at the same time that the Government was talking tough on migration, saying it was considering all options, including sending migrants back to Libya.

Luckily, and perhaps thanks to the ECHR’s intervention, Mohammed’s group was not threatened with immediate deportation and was placed in detention.

He is pending early release since he is a minor. Freedom, as he calls it, cannot come quickly enough.

A week into his stay, a huge fight broke out at the Safi detention centre where around 20 migrants were hospitalised.

“I stayed away when they were fighting. They were throwing things at each other but I don’t know how it started.

“I’m always watching my back over here because people pick fights over nothing; especially at night. I’m more careful at night.”

Almost a month into his stay in detention, Mohammed still knows nothing about the controversy that has been on the lips of every Maltese for the past few weeks.

When asked how he would feel if he were to be sent back to Libya, he finally looks me straight into the eye, visibly consumed by fear.

“I would rather die,” he says with distur-bing certainty.

Attempting to lighten the mood, he is shown screenshots of his photo as it appeared on several international news websites. A half-smile finally slips on to his face.

“I had no idea my photo was even being taken but I’m glad... maybe my parents or someone who knows them will see me and recognise me. Maybe they will help me find them.”

Mohammed remembers the sense of accomplishment when he was on the police bus staring outside the window.

“I felt happy. Like I had achieved something. I managed to escape a place in which I suffered a lot... Libya.”

How did he feel now, after a few weeks in detention? His answer is heartbreaking and explains his sullen attitude.

“When they took me out of the warehouse this morning, I thought I was going to be released, so I was happy. Now I realised I was brought here for a different reason.”

“It’s OK,” he reassures us, stiffening up his face in an attempt not to cry. There was not much else to say.

After we spoke, we decided to accompany the young man back to his living quarters. As he guided us to his bunk bed, he had a spring in his step.

Photographer Darrin Zammit Lupi had given him a print of the photograph that made him ‘famous’ and he squeezed it tightly as he weaved through the throngs of men standing idly in the warehouse.

I did not want to go on board but I was forced... they beat me with wooden bats and iron rods

When we reached his bed, he posed for the camera and his friends gathered around to see what was going on, taking the opportunity to question our conspicuously well-dressed translator.

Eventually they got hold of the photograph and each took turns to pull it out of the holder’s hands and examine it closely.

Watching silently, my thoughts took me back to the original intention of this interview.

This traumatised 17-year-old was not the right person to grill about immigration. But as we were swarmed by dozens of wide-eyed, scruffy men, the questions lingered.

Why should all these people find refuge in tiny Malta? How many can the island integrate?

It is difficult to be in a detention centre and not ask yourself these questions. The atmosphere is unnerving and even the most open-minded people can feel uncomfortable being so outnumbered.

After all, we were the only two Maltese men in a warehouse populated by more than 200 African asylum seekers.

To be so literally one in a hundred makes you feel insignificant.

You feel vulnerable, like everyone is watching you.

But then it hit me. These are the same emotions these migrants must feel when they eventually get out of this warehouse and end up on the streets of Malta, their skin colour so exposed.

The numbers amount to the same thing. Of the 18,000 migrants arriving on these shores since 1998, only 5,000 are estimated to have remained in the country.

The vast majority were either deported, because they did not qualify for protection, or continued on their journey to continental Europe.

Those who remained account for just one per cent of Malta’s population.

Strange then, that we are the ones to feel so threatened. Perhaps it is not numbers that threaten us but something else altogether.

My thoughts were disrupted by a hard handshake. It was the young man telling me goodbye.

He was transformed, like life had once again been breathed into him.

I realised hope was rekindled. Maybe his parents would see his face in the media.

The chances were slim, but when you live on a diet of despair, a little bit of hope cannot be a bad thing.

As we left, I wondered what all the fuss of the past weeks was about and why we were made to feel that we were on the brink of disaster.

Why is this suddenly a huge problem warranting human rights violations? Why are we so desperate to send these men back to Libya to earn more scars?

Is it because one per cent is too many? If so, what is the acceptable number?

Because there must be a number, unless it’s not numbers we are afraid of but colour. In that case, even one can be too many.

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