ABOARD THE AQUARIUS ON THE MEDITERRANEAN SEA – The young Liberian man went through hell, but when he reached Libya he hoped that there he'd be able to make a living and get an education. Instead, he entered another hell of imprisonment, then near death at sea.
The ordeal of Laye Donzo is a cautionary story for the tens of thousands of Africans each year who take the migrant road to Libya, seeing it as the gateway to life and prosperity in Europe. Instead, for many the war-torn country has meant only torture, imprisonment, rape or death.
It also illustrates the problem for European countries trying to stop the stream of migrants to their shores. By trying to prevent them from taking the dangerous sea journey across the Mediterranean, they are dooming the migrants to prolonged abuse in Libya at the hands of authorities and the country's many militias, rights groups warn.
Donzo was among dozens of Italy-bound, would-be migrants rescued off the coast of Libya on June 23 by the Aquarius, a boat chartered by the charity Doctors Without Borders and the rescue group SOS Mediterranee.
On that day, the Aquarius rescued two boats, one of them after nightfall when the captain happened to spy it in the spotlight just as he was giving up the search. Then it took on hundreds more from an Italian navy ship so it could deliver them to shore while the navy vessel continued the search.
So as it headed back to Sicily, the Aquarius was swelling with more than 650 migrants, well over its official capacity of 400. The exhausted migrants — men, women and young children — crowded on the ship's decks and in the halls, wearing white overalls distributed by the aid group and wrapping themselves in gray blankets.
After the initial shock from days on open water subsided, the tales of trauma and torture they endured in Libya poured out.
Donzo and his family had fled the civil war in his homeland Liberia to neighboring Sierra Leone. There, many in his family died in an Ebola outbreak. So Donzo made his way to Libya, where he did various jobs, mostly construction.
Early this year, he was detained by armed men at a checkpoint.
He spent the next five months imprisoned in a house with hundreds of other Africans, eating a single meal every three days. He's not even sure who detained him. In lawless Libya, the lines between criminal gangs, militias and the security forces of rival governments are often blurry.
"They beat you like animals," he said. "As long as you're in prison they would beat you. I don't know how many times they beat me. They beat everyone." He showed scars running along his back, legs and arms from being bound and hit with rubber tubes.
Then one day they blindfolded him, took him to the coast and forced him into a boat. He has no idea why.
After the fall of Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, Libya was plunged into chaos, with rebel groups evolving into militias loosely aligned with various competing governments or operating on their own and carving out fiefdoms around the country. The collapse of state control and enforcement of borders proved a draw for migrants. Some militias use smuggling as a revenue source.
But the chaos has also made Africans vulnerable to abuse, whether they are working in Libya or seeking to head on to Europe. Armed groups often detain Africans, ostensibly claiming to be enforcing the laws but really just to extort money or labor. Various factions run detention centers largely on their own without answering to central authorities.
On the Aquarius, Baba Ali, from Mali, said he was detained by local fighters in the town of Bani Walid, east of Tripoli. He was held captive in a factory-turned-prison along with 1,500 other Africans. He sat down and hugged his knees to show how tightly they were squeezed in.
"It was packed," he said. "We couldn't sleep, we had to sleep sitting down."
Ali said he and the others were forced to work in construction and menial labor and were beaten regularly. Their captors fired in the air to intimidate them. Ali escaped during the holy month of Ramadan. Others had to pay to get out.
"We were looking for a job and got kidnapped by people with police uniforms," says Mostafa Dumbia, a native of the Ivory Coast. He said he was held in a prison for six weeks. His captors only released him and piled him onto a boat after his family sent payment of $1,000.
Erna Rijnierse of Doctors Without Borders says the accounts are consistent from dozens of survivors who passed through Libya. The scars on many survivors, including the combination of fresh and older scars, amount to evidence of "long-term torturing."
"I see a lot of bruises on places it's impossible to bruise yourself," she told The Associated Press.
For the past year, EU naval vessels in the Mediterranean have been working to intercept smuggling boats in a program called Operation Sophia. In June, the operation was extended for another year and expanded, with the EU now training the Libyan coast guard and navy in stopping smuggling. The EU also asked NATO to get involved, a request that will be discussed at the alliance's summit in Warsaw that began Friday.
The aim is in part to save lives. In 2015, at least 3,771 would-be migrants died in the Mediterranean, according to the International Organization for Migration. So far, 2016 is looking as bad if not worse. The IOM has so far documented nearly 2,920 deaths, the vast majority of them from African nations.
Operation Sophia is also aimed at deterring migrants from coming by shutting down the smuggling routes. Europe absorbed more than a million irregular migrants in 2015, a five-fold increase compared to 2014.
But in a report released Wednesday, Human Rights Watch said the effort "risks condemning migrants and asylum-seekers to violent abuse."
"It's unacceptable to save or intercept people at sea and then send them back for abuse on land," said Judith Sunderland, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The EU — soon perhaps with NATO's help — is basically outsourcing the dirty work and deputizing Libyan forces to help seal Europe's border."
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told NATO leaders meeting in Warsaw that the organization had decided to launch a new security operation in the Mediterranean, Operation Sea Guardian, which will have a broad range of missions including counterterrorism.
"We intend to work closely with the European Union's Operation Sophia in the central Mediterranean, building on our swift and effective cooperation with the EU to cut the lines of international human smuggling in the Aegean," Stoltenberg said Saturday.
The Human Rights Watch report and another issued in June by Amnesty International include accounts from dozens of migrants that document rampant torture, beatings and sexual abuse in Libya. Human Rights Watch special adviser Fred Abrahams noted that Sudanese women migrants take contraceptives before reaching Libya because the problem has become so well-known.
A 26-year-old Ivorian woman interviewed by Human Rights Watch said she was detained in June and July 2015 at an official facility in the Libyan city of Tajoura. She spoke of being forced to give oral sex to a Libyan guard almost daily. A failed attempt to escape by a group of women only led to further sexual violence.
"Seven girls got away but they caught the rest of us," she said. "The guards stripped one of us, a Nigerian girl, and raped her in front of us in the courtyard."
On the morning of June 26, the Aquarius pulled along the Sicilian coast and into the port of Messina. The migrants are given medical checks and registered and housed in so-called 'hotspot' migration centers so authorities can process their asylum applications. Some, however, leave the centers and head elsewhere in Europe as undocumented migrants.
As the ship cruised past the Sicilian hills, women looked curiously out the portholes as others went up on deck to get a view.
Like others, one man from Mali who gave his name only as Suleiman was weeping.
"I'm thinking about everything I've been through," he said. And he was thinking of his parents and siblings left behind in his homeland. "My brothers and sisters, that's why I'm crying."
Soguel reported from Istanbul. Associated Press writers Lorne Cooke and John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels contributed to this report.