Following the April 11 release of Bija, an alleged Libyan trafficker who has been accused of crimes against humanity by the UN, several migrants told InfoMigrants about their experiences at the hands of this feared boss of the Libyan coast guard in Zaouia.
"A monster." "(C)apable of shooting a human being as he would shoot an animal."
Three days after the release of alleged migrant trafficker Abd al-Rahman Milad, better known by his alias Bija, "for lack of evidence", those who had dealings with him draw a chilling picture.
"In Libya, there is not one migrant who does not know Bija," says Mamadou, who fled Libya to return to his home country, Guinea. "He is worse than the devil," he says.
"Even the Libyans don't dare contradict him because he is known to be very violent with them too," comments Ali, another Guinean who spent three months in Zaouia prison, run by Bija and his cousin Osama, also a notorious torturer.
30-year-old Bija has been described as one of the world’s most wanted human traffickers, who was placed under sanctions by the UN security council for being directly involved in the sinking of migrant boats.
He was released from a Libyan prison on April 11, six months after being incarcerated for human trafficking in a judicial decision that has left several international organizations stunned.
'He took pleasure in seeing the terror in our eyes'
Abdullah, a Sudanese migrant, remembers the day the boat he was on was intercepted at sea and he was taken back to Tripoli. During the whole journey, he says he was beaten by "Bija's men". "In Tripoli, we were insulted and punched, then Bija's men fired shots over our heads. Bija was present. He took pleasure in seeing the terror in our eyes."
The strongman of Zaouia -- who, according to the Italian press, double jobs as both coast guards and human smugglers -- has ensured that he has been personally present during interceptions of migrant boats at sea in recent years. These arrests are often a living nightmare for those who are then sent back to the country they want to flee at all costs and are then imprisoned there.
"In 2018, I was on board a boat heading to Europe and the Libyan coast guard chased us," says Jamal, also from Sudan. Bija was behind the wheel of the coast guard boat. "They started circling our boat, we almost fell into the water, and all of a sudden they started shooting at us," he continues. "Many were injured and fell into the sea. It was awful."
'The militias control the court decisions'
Several migrants, however, confide that, as cruel as he is, Bija is just another trafficker in Libya. This means that he is just as bad as all the rest of them. "He is like the others, savage," says Mamadou.
The release of Bija did not come as a surprise for Omar, a Syrian migrant who has become bitter after years in Libya. For him, this release only attests, once again, to the "power of the militias" in this country given over to the law of the strongest.
"The militias are able to control the decisions of justice," Omar said, protesting against the impunity enjoyed by those who torture, for example, migrants in the town of Bani Walid, located a hundred kilometers south of Tripoli, in full view of everyone.
In a Facebook post on Tuesday, Bija attacked the Libyan and international press: "When I was arrested last October, the press wrote fake news about me … I know that the arrest was ordered by some politicians who forgot that Abd al-Rahman Milad had protected for years the coasts of our homeland."
Bija was reportedly released in exchange for his militia's help in an operation to liberate the capital Tripoli. While still in prison, the former UN-supported government in Tripoli in March actually promoted Bija for his participation in the fighting to repel an attack on the capital by eastern Libya forces.