Inside Libya: Where Are Our Boats?

The August 2008 accord between Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi and the late Muammar Gaddafi must feel like a very distant piece of history to most Libyans. People are just too busy making sense of the chaos that ensued after the 2011 revolution that rid them of the Libyan dictator.

That deal was meant to end “40 years of misunderstandings” between the two countries. Italy paid €5 billion and in return got poll position in the race for investment opportunities in the new Libya. It also secured a sought after deal on immigration.

Rome donated six patrol boats and took part in a joint programme with the Libyan coastguard which patrolled the North African neighbour’s waters to stop migrants in their tracks. They also controversially agreed that Italy could send back to Libya any migrants it rescued.

To sweeten the deal, the Italians returned the Venus of Cyrene, an ancient headless statue which was taken by Italian troops during the occupation from the town of Cyrene, an ancient Greek Colony near present-day Shahhat in eastern Libya.

It worked like a charm for Italy, the number of migrants landings from the central Mediterranean route dropped dramatically, from 67,000 in 2008 to about 20,000 in 2009, and a record 6,000 in 2008.

What’s more, the Italian military was engaged in a fruitful relationship with their Libyan counterparts. But all that went up in smoke with the revolution and the numbers were up again in unprecedented numbers.

One of the people who remembers the 2008 agreement vividly is Libyan army commander and chief of the Misurata coastguard Ridda Eassa. Seven years ago, he was one of the military men executing that programme.

Much of what is happening now, with the temperature rising in Brussels over migration, is one big déjà vu for him. Just as it did then, Europe is pointing the finger at Libya and discussing ways to halt migration on Libya’s shores.

His does not argue much against this, even though he too points out that Libya cannot just be told to shut its Northern border without getting help to police the desert, where migrants come from. But he says that Europe is not even clear on its priorities for the Mediterranean.

“We are willing to cooperate just as we did then but while Europeans say they want to see us do more they offer no help even though they know we don’t have the resources… All we get from the outsiders are promises some time ago we were visited by a UN official… they gave us cleaning materials. That’s not what we need.”

Coast Guard Vessel

Always ready ‘with their finger on the trigger’, the Libyan Coast Guard in Misurata is simultaneously handling immigration, illegal fishing and the ISIS threat in neighbouring Sirte. Photo: Robert Young Pelton/ Migrant Report

Not only is Europe of no help but they actually hinder, he continues, pointing out Italy will not give them back four patrol boats from the 2008 deal which were sent for maintenance in 2012.

He wants his equivalent of the Venus statue back.

“They are ready but they will not return them because Italy does not recognise the Tripoli government, which is now in control of Misurata. This is something to save people we are talking about… these are not used for fighting,” he says, exasperated.

Bigliani Class V patrol boat with a maximum speed of 35 knots,  135 tonnes displacement and overall length of 35.50 m with a beam of 7.55 m.

Bigliani Class V patrol boat with a maximum speed of 35 knots, 135 tonnes displacement and overall length of 35.50 m with a beam of 7.55 m.

The other two boats, which were part of the protocol agreement, broke down so what the coastguard is left with are two ageing 25-metre tug boats and a few small fast boats.

“I am technically in charge of places like Garabulli near Tripoli, and Zuwara so we would like to do more but we just don’t have the means,” he says.

And immigration is not Col. Eassa’s only concern. On May 24, his men scrambled to reach the Anwaar Afriqya, an oil tanker that was bombed by a fighter jet of the internationally-recognised Tobruk government off ISIS-controlled Sirte, while unloading some 30,000 tons of gasoil.

The Tobruk government claimed the vessel was actually carrying weapons and fighters but in comments to Migrant Report, the Georgian shipmaster Selman Dzhabnize insisted all his his cargo was gasoil, as stated in the documents stamped by Greece, from where they had left.

Dzhabnize was blasted off the ship’s bridge when the missile tore through his navigation deck and exploded two floors down. He counts his lucky stars that he is still alive.

The coastguard crew helped with the fire fighting before towing the tanker to a nearby military port, averting an environmental disaster as well as a human one.

A about a week after that, the same men had to abort a planned raid on a smuggling operation to head out and chase two vessels used by ISIS to ferry wounded fighters from Sirte to Tawergha, a town outside of the terrorists’ control and which sits in the middle of the stretch of coast that separates them from their enemies in Misurata.

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The blasted bridge of the Anwar Afriqya, which was carrying 30,000 tons of gasoil when it got bombed by a fighter jet. Photo: Robert Young Pelton/ Migrant Report

The reality, Col. Eassa underscores, is that the 1000 men under his command perform miracles, spread thin over a vast coastline reaching from the oil town of Brega, in the East of the country, to the Tunisian border. It’s so big, the ratio is about one soldier per kilometre.

On top of that they are badly paid and and not very well organised. A soldier with the coastguard can expect less than 1,000 Libyan dinars at the end of the month. That’s less than €500. Many of them told us they double up as part-time fishermen to be able to make a decent salary.

Still, the Commander insists their professionalism is not in question. A good portion of them joined after the revolution. “They can do anything and are prepared to learn and deliver. They do what they do for their country. As we say in Libya, we are always with our finger on the trigger,” he says.

When asked to comment on the EU’s mooted plan to clamp down on people-smugglers, which at one point included talk of targeted bombing of the coast, he smiles.

“I was at a meeting at the Canary Islands with colleagues from the US, Italy and Spain when I first heard of this talk of targeting the boats at sea. The first thing I would like to say is when they do this, we can stop talking about human rights… And if they target these boats out at sea, how are they going to know which one is a smugglers boat and which is a fisherman’s boat? The only solution I see as a Colonel and as a Libyan is for Europe to cooperate with the Salvation Government in Tripoli because that is where most of the migrants ultimately leave from.”

See Also: 2009: The Age of Refoulemant