Meet Mustapha

Outside the gates of Piazza Vittorio. Rome, Italy; 1 March 2019. ©Pamela Kerpius

Outside the gates of Piazza Vittorio. Rome, Italy; 1 March 2019. ©Pamela Kerpius



Meet Mustapha.

29 years old and from Farafenni, Gambia.

To reach Italy he crossed five countries: The Gambia, Senegal, Mali, Algeria and Libya.

His journey took one year and six months, departing Gambia in May 2015.

After passing through Senegal he arrived in Bamako, Mali, where he remained for one month searching for work, but found violence and capture instead. He was moved to an area south of Bamako.

“Were you free?”

“Free? You can’t––,” he stopped himself. “If you have money you can pay to be free. If you cannot pay you stay there. I stay[ed] in that place for two months. I work[ed] by force.”

They held him for ransom requesting he call family in Gambia to send money for his release. 

“I don’t have anybody to call,” said Mustapha.

He was held for ransom for two months in a closed compound with sixty or 70 people. There was scant or no food, “Sometimes you stay there all the day and there is nothing to eat.”

The traffickers carried AK-47s. His front tooth was knocked out. Traffickers tortured him by melting plastic and dripping it over his chest. “My body has different marks from that place,” said Mustapha.

He traveled by car to Tamanrasset, a southern city of Algeria about 240 kilometers from the border with Mali. He was held in a compound there before moving further north to the border town, Debdeb, Algeria.

Mustapha crossed the Sahara desert in the back of a pickup truck with 25 people, traveling for two weeks before arriving in Bani Walid, Libya. He arrived at midnight among a caravan of trucks and pickups, some that had more than 80 people on board.

Passengers were beaten if they got off the trucks without permission. Libyans were shooting AK-47s at the ground to frighten them. Mustapha was beaten with a pipe across his chest, “They beat me like an animal,” he said.


He left for Tripoli, where he stayed for two months. He met Pazi there. They shared a room together while he tried to secure work, which was interrupted by kidnapping on three different occasions:

  1. He was held for an unknown period of time, then released on the promise he would pay his captor ransom at a later date.

  2. He was brought to a compound and taken for slave labor. He was strung by his ankles, beaten on the bottom of his feet, and tortured by having melted plastic dripped over his skin; he escaped after five days.

  3. He was held for one day and released.

He finally deemed it too dangerous to keep going out during the day looking for work when the threat of kidnapping was consistently so strong. He locked himself inside, then left for Zuwara, Libya, a coastal town established as a hub for seaside departures by traffickers.

He spent one day on the coast; he was sick. It was 2 November 2016.

On 3 November 2016 Mustapha crossed the Mediterranean Sea on a rubber dinghy with 136 people, including about 15 women, an unspecified number of children, and two babies, one two months old, the other 4 days old.

You can only see water when you are out at sea, Mustapha said, “solo acqua.” But then, he remembered, there were bodies floating in the water, too.

He was rescued by the Guardia Costiera, the Italian coast guard; he cried when he entered the ship. He landed in Trapani, Sicily on 5 November 2016. For days he would wake and feel the motion of the sea.

Mustapha is an amazing human being.