Meet Ebrima

Ebrima in Agrigento, Sicily; 12 February 2019. ©Pamela Kerpius

Ebrima in Agrigento, Sicily; 12 February 2019. ©Pamela Kerpius



Meet Ebrima.

18 years old and from Brikama, Gambia.

To reach Italy he crossed five countries: The Gambia, Senegal, Mali, Algeria, and the most dangerous of all, Libya.

Ebrima departed The Gambia on 3 April 2015. He was fourteen years old.

He spent a few days crossing Senegal before he arrived in Bamako, Mali, a stopping point before he took a bus for Algeria. He arrived in a small city in the south of Algeria (name unverified), where rebels were kidnapping migrants.

He was kidnapped twice and held for ransom for two months and 15 days total. The first time he was taken, a man moved him to his personal home where he was put under forced labor, from which he eventually escaped.

He was kidnapped again. Then, by a group of Malian men who took him to Tamanrasset, Algeria. There was a mobile phone the captors used to dial Ebrima’s family. They placed electrical attachments on Ebrima’s hand and legs, dialed the number, and turned on a current so his family would hear him scream. His family had no money to send, however.

He was held in Tamanrasset for one month and 12 days, before he escaped with two other migrants to a bus station. He met a Gambian there who gave him some food and a bit of medical care, then put him on a bus to Adrar, Algeria.

Ebrima was afraid in Adrar. He remembered a Barcelona v. Madrid football match on television one afternoon. There was a rivalry between the two sides; one side scored and the opposing fans began firing guns into the air.

He left Adrar for Debdeb, Algeria after an unknown period of time.

Debdeb is a border town with Libya where migrants regularly pass. It is not easy to accomplish because there is border security, so Ebrima had to regroup to plan a successful crossing.

He stayed in Debdeb working as a baker to raise money for travel. There are holding compounds where migrants stay there, and traffickers who facilitate the crossings. In the end, he crossed the border to Libya on foot with the guidance of a trafficker; it was midnight when he departed. He would duck out of the beam of headlights to not be spotted when cars passed.

Every day you hear,
‘two people died here or there...’

The trafficker had promised to escort him directly to Tripoli, but stole the remainder of his money and left him in Bani Waled, Libya. For three months and 15 days he was in Bani Waled in a detention compound that held more than 1,000 people.

He was tortured and starved, and witnessed a great deal of death.

“Every day you hear, ‘Two people died here or there…’”

He and the prisoners were stripped of their clothes, doused with water and set before a high-powered fan to freeze. There was no clean water to drink; he took salty tap water that made his stomach sick. There was little food. Daily, for three months he ate a small piece of bread that he soaked in water and sprinkled with sugar. Some days there was no food, “some days, there was only water.”

He was transferred from Bani Waled to Tripoli, Libya in a caravan of about five pickup trucks. In the back of each, roughly fifty people where stacked sitting on top of one another for transit. The weight was crushing, especially in the desert heat, and “people were lost.” Many people died, he said.

In Tripoli Ebrima stayed at a connection house. He was transferred after about one week to Zuwarah, Libya, a coastal camp that many use as a departure point for the sea. He was in Zuwarah for three months working to earn enough money to make the boat passage.

When he did, he attempted to cross the Mediterranean in a rubber dinghy with 120 people, including about 15 women, 5 children, and one baby that was two days old. The newborn fell in the water, but it was pulled out and it survived.

The Libyan police intercepted their boat before they reached international waters, tugged it to the coast and moved everyone by truck to prison. “Pakistan Prison,” Ebrima said was its name. The guard at the prison took pity on him for his age and moved him to his own home where he stayed safe and worked to earn enough money to attempt the sea passage again.

Ebrima pushed off the coast of Zuwarah and crossed the Mediterranean Sea on a rubber dinghy on 19 March 2017 at 4:30am, with 110 passengers, including 5 women and about four teenagers between the ages of thirteen and sixteen. This boat was able to depart because the traffickers paid the Libyan police, which also avoided its interception at sea, he says.

He traveled on the edge of the boat, one foot slung over the side and dangling into the sea.

The boat was leaking, water was streaming inside.

At 9:30am they reached international waters. A rescue helicopter appeared overhead telling everyone to stay seated and calm.

The navigator of the boat, a Gambian at the helm of the motor, and one Malian boy fell into the sea. His friend Amidou (Gambia; now in Palermo, Sicily) dove into the water save them but the sea was too strong. Ebrima looked down and saw Amidou’s eyes bulging, turning red from gulping so much water; he clamored back aboard, but wasn’t able to save the Gambian or Malian who finally drowned before him; he was thirteen years old.

It was a German rescue vessel that arrived tossing life vests to the passengers. They remained on the rescue ship for one day before being transferred to the Guardia Costiera ship, which landed in Lampedusa on 20 March 2017.

Exactly two years to the day, 3 April 2017, I met Ebrima on the tiny port beach, Cala Palme, in Lampedusa, where he was flanked by his companions Musa and Lamin (both Gambia). We said hi and chatted and planned to meet the next day for an interview that would yield the journey story you just read, but the next morning Ebrima was transferred from the island to Agrigento, Sicily, where he still resides. We stayed in touch via WhatsApp for nearly two years before we reunited in Agrigento on 12 February 2019 and finally had that interview.

Ebrima is an amazing human being.

Ebrima (L) at Cala Palme with his friends, 13 days after being rescued on the Mediterranean Sea. Lampedusa, Italy; 3 April 2017. ©Pamela Kerpius

Ebrima (L) at Cala Palme with his friends, 13 days after being rescued on the Mediterranean Sea.
Lampedusa, Italy; 3 April 2017. ©Pamela Kerpius