The Importance of Seeing: Putting a Drone Over Libya's Most Notorious Migrant Prison
On the heels of the recent publication of our investigation into Libyan detention centers, I wanted to pass along two things. First is a podcast that Apple News made about the reporting. Please click below and give it a listen.
The second goal of this newsletter is to offer a bit of the backstory about why we put a drone over Libya's most notorious migrant prison.
Libya’s longtime strongman, Muammar Qaddafi, was toppled and killed during an insurrection in 2011, and Libya had been plunged into a decade of civil war. The country had competing governments and was run in large part by an assortment of violent militias. The U.S. State Department lists Libya as the second most dangerous country in the world, behind Iraq. The migrant prison we wanted to get a look at, known as Al Mabani, Arabic for The Building, was operated by men associated with one of those militias, tied to the Zintan region of Libya.
Risk assessment is one of the toughest things to do when reporting in conflict zones. We did not want to be reckless, but telling the story of that migrant prison, and what had become of a young African migrant who had been detained there last spring, was the purpose of our reporting trip. No reporter had ever been allowed into Mabani, and for us to bring the urgency and brutality of the place to life, we needed the global public to actually see it, even if only from the sky.
We had long been interested in investigating the secretive system of migrant detention that the European Union has helped set up in Libya. Migrants have been pouring into Europe since around 2010, spurred by violence and the effects of climate change in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. Many came through Libya and then crossed the Mediterranean Sea in rubber rafts, to Italy — a trend that only accelerated after Qaddafi’s fall.
Desperate to stem the tide, the EU, in 2017, gave Libya, by then a failed state, the task of capturing migrants headed to Europe. The EU had trained and equipped the Libyan Coast Guard, a quasi-military organization with links to militias, to patrol the Mediterranean, intercepting migrants before they were rescued by humanitarian groups and bringing them back to Libya.
As the Coast Guard stepped up its efforts — firing on and capsizing migrant boats, threatening aid groups — the Mediterranean had become both a battleground and graveyard. As the E.U. succeeded in slowing the number of arrivals to European shores, the death rate for those attempting to cross the sea increased.
The partnership had also given rise to a brutal system of migrant prisons in Libya, where the captured were held indefinitely and subjected to a litany of abuses: rape, torture, extortion, forced labor. Tens of thousands of migrants have been held in a network of a dozen or so such prisons since 2017; the largest of the facilities is Al Mabani. It was known to be inhumanely overcrowded, rife with disease and the scene of routine violence.
This past April, we learned of a killing at the prison. Aliou Candé, a 28-year-old migrant from Guinea-Bissau, had been shot dead by one of the facility's guards. There had been calls for investigations, but they went ignored, as others had for years before them. So we set off to investigate his death and to tell the story of the detention center where it happened.
Our journalistic goal, of course, was to get inside Al Mabani. We gained rare visas to Libya with the help of an aid agency. Libyan officials initially indicated that they would let us tour the prison. But from the moment we got to Tripoli, things felt fraught.
After landing at the airport, a battered airfield with hulking carcasses of old airliners parked here and there, we were taken to a hotel different from the one where we'd been told we'd stay. We were assigned a security team of three Libyan men, who worked for a Libyan company. The men obviously meant to keep us safe, but it seemed clear that they were also there to monitor our activities and perhaps to limit our movements.
Over our first week in Tripoli, we had some extraordinary breakthroughs. We obtained audio of Candé's last communication by phone with his family, a desperate call for his father to pay a ransom for his freedom.
We were shown the journal kept by one of his cellmates in Al Mabani, an older Cameroonian man named Tokram Martin Luther, who recorded his days, in longhand, with a mix of alarm and determination. We were able to establish that the Coast Guard boat that captured Candé and others on his raft had been refurbished with money from the European Union.
But over the course of our time in Tripoli, it became increasingly apparent that the promise of a trip to Al Mabani was not going to happen. Two members of our team managed to make their way, unattended, to scout the prison. It had been built in a converted manufacturing site just off a busy highway in the Ghout al-Shaal neighborhood. It didn't look like a formal prison, but it was well guarded, and getting close seemed impossible.
One day, early in our stay, our security team proposed a kind of sightseeing tour. Tripoli, once a prosperous and handsome city on the Mediterranean, had the look of a washed-up boxer, nicked and scarred. After years of civil war and unrest, its tourist sites were limited. Near the end of our tour, the security team took us to a strip of public beach. It was evening, and there were families with their feet in the water, children playing with water guns, amusement park rides. It had the feel of Coney Island, a once magical place down on its luck that still had the power to please.
Pierre Kattar, our videographer, had brought his drone and decided to test it out. He got the drone into the air and sent it sweeping out over Tripoli, as easily as a boy flying a kite. Our security team was aware of what we were doing but seemed more amused than concerned. It felt like a success: The video was lovely, and we hadn't been arrested.
The experience begged the question: Could we repeat the success and get a glimpse into Al Mabani using the drone? A hard call, but we wanted to try if only to get a better visual on the place where so many migrants were recounting such horrific abuses.
One afternoon, we set out in our security team's van. We told our minders that we wanted to film Al Mabani, which was located in a gritty section of the city full of auto repair shops and abandoned warehouses. The prison is run by a powerful Libyan militia, the Zintan Brigade, and its members control not just the detention facility but much of the neighborhood surrounding it.
We'd identified a café near the prison — across the highway but within the drone's range — as a potential launching place. The idea was that we would order a coffee and sit outside while Kattar discreetly found a spot down the block to put the drone in the air. No sooner were we out of the van, though, than our security team ushered us back in. There were young men all around the café, and they feared that any one of them might have been with the militia.
For an hour, we crisscrossed the neighborhood, looking for a better location. “Not safe,” a security guard said as we picked one discreet alley. At last, we found a hidden spot on a sidestreet. You could not see Al Mabani, but it was within reach of the drone. Kattar got out of the van alone, crouched low to the ground, the open passenger side door blocking him from view, and launched. The drone made it to the facility unnoticed, and we used it to capture close-ups of the prison’s open courtyard. We then drove away, unsure exactly what we had captured.
Two hours later, back at our hotel, Kattar sent an edited version of what he had filmed. The prison’s courtyard was divided in two: On one side, women and children were walking about. On the other, there was something mysterious and haunting going on: Some 65 men were huddled together, their heads facing down. When one tried to look up, he was smacked by a guard.
We later learned that we had captured one of the grim routines of Al Mabani: an afternoon feeding. Migrants were forbidden from talking or raising their heads. Bowls of food were put in front of groups of five to share. Afterward, detainees were forced to huddle in preparation to be returned to their cells.
The dangerous effort of getting the drone over prison now seemed worth it: it had provided a ghastly and visual sense of place where before there had only been words and painful testimonials.