Illustrations : Baptiste Condominas

Illustrations : Baptiste Condominas

'She was in an underground prison with me, I proposed to her'

Love in exile (2/3)

Kinda Youssef
By Published on : 2020/02/18 Latest update : 2020/02/26
They come from all over the world and have recently arrived in Europe in search of a better life. On the road to exile, some have found love, others have just missed it. Some say they were able to overcome a daily reality of hunger, beatings and humiliations with the help of their loved one. Others discovered that their relationships exacerbated the pain of leaving home. InfoMigrants met some of them. Here is the story of Jalal, a Somali migrant abducted by traffickers in southern Libya. The 24-year-old spent several months in an underground prison. It was in this hellhole with no daylight that he met Leila, the woman of his life.
In 2017, Abdulkarim was thrown into an underground prison in Libya
Imprisoned underground
In 2017, Abdulkarim was thrown into an underground prison in Libya

My name is Jalal.* I’m 24 years old. I arrived in Libya in 2017 with the help of smugglers. I was sent to the southeastern Libyan city of Kufra before being sent to Tazirbu village, about 205 kilometers northwest of Kufra.

There, I was kidnapped and locked up in a prison. Underground.

There were three other people with me. I had no idea how long we were going to be there. At first, I didn't talk to anyone. I stayed in my corner, it was dark, we were cut off from the world, we never saw the light of day. Fardous was there, but I didn't notice her right away. The underground prison gradually filled up. In a few days, the number of inmates climbed to more than 100 people, both men and women.

We had difficulty breathing. The atmosphere was stifling. We were never allowed to go outdoors, to surface from our underground cell.

We were in danger of losing track of time. Fortunately some of us had mobile phones with a bit of battery power and we somehow managed to hang on to our dwindling sense of time. We just knew that above our heads, there were three or four guards. We never went up, but they would come down to see us. They beat us, they raped some women, they insulted us all the time. We didn't know why they kept us there.

For six months, we ate the same thing: pasta. We never had anything else. People started dying. Twenty people, I think, died there.

We had no choice but to adapt to survive. Here, we were all looking for a reason to hold on to life, each of us had a story. But we were getting weaker by the day.

Leila…she seemed untouchable.

I spotted her because no one could get approach her, neither the smugglers nor the guards. It was as if she impressed them. Where did she get her strength from? We didn't know. She was very pious, she was fasting -- despite the little food we had. She managed to stay positive, yet death surrounded us.

Jalal and Leila married in prison with the help of a fellow inmate
‘I didn't need the sun, I had one near me’
Jalal and Leila married in prison with the help of a fellow inmate

I liked the energy she radiated in that hellhole. I wanted to get to know her better. So I started talking to her. She was Somali, too.

She was different from the others. She made me feel good. She told me about her dreams, about her life before she landed in this hellhole. She said she was sure we'd get out of here. I tried to believe her. I fell in love with her. I felt like I was somewhere else. She kept me from collapsing.

After two months underground with her, I talked to her about marriage.

I told her I wanted to spend my life with her. She agreed to marry me. But we had two problems: how to seal a union underground? And of course, how to tell her parents?

Our marriage occupied the minds of the other inmates. It was all we talked about. It's like we represented hope for everyone. Using one of the inmate’s phones, we finally managed to get a signal and reach her mother.

Now we had to find someone to marry us. Among the inmates was a Muslim cleric, a sheikh, I asked him to unite us. It was a surreal request. But he agreed, so we were married underground.

In the days that followed, we talked about what we would do once we got out, about our plans for the future. She wanted to be a nurse, I wanted to finish my engineering degree. We figured we'd have kids and a house of our own. I didn't need the sun, I had one near me.

A few weeks later, a group of traffickers came. They took several people with them. They beat those who resisted; they hit me with an iron bar and I collapsed.

They took Leila with them.

After fleeing, the couple was finally reunited in Tripoli
‘We emerged from the ground like zombies’
After fleeing, the couple was finally reunited in Tripoli

It took me ten days to get over it. I had to get away, to find Leila. I told the other prisoners that we had to rebel. Most of the men agreed to follow me. We had a plan to escape, it was quite simple, but we were afraid: we had to go after all the guards at the same time to neutralize them and escape.

We emerged from the ground like zombies. We walked and came to a village. There, the population and the local authorities helped us.

They sent us to Tripoli. In the Libyan capital, we were put under the charge of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). We were granted refugee status. Behind the center where I was living, there was another building, a place reserved for women.

She was sitting there, as if she was waiting for me. It was the first time I saw Leila in daylight, above ground. We ran towards each other. I had found her.

Leila had escaped. Along the way, there was a problem with the smugglers' trucks. When they stopped, she was able to get away. Thanks to the help of the local population, she was able to reach Tripoli and the UNHCR center. She had put my name on a list of "disappeared".

We stayed in Libya for some time. We only saw each other twice a week, she was in the center of Triq al Sika, where there was a women's building. We were doing well. As we were married, we were both sent to Niger and then to France -- through the UN resettlement programme.

We have been in a reception center in the eastern French city of Alsace for the past three months. Our life is off to a good start. We have projects, we still have to realize them. The most beautiful one is coming in six months: Leila is three months pregnant.

* Names have been changed to protect identities

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Original text: Kinda Youssef, adapted by Leela Jacinto
Illustrations: Baptiste Condominas
Editor-in-chief: Amara Makhoul