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By the time his Libyan captors branded his face, Sunday Iabarot had already run away twice and had been sold three times. The gnarled scar that covers most of the left side of his face appears to show a crude number 3.
His jailer carved it into his cheek with a fire-heated knife, cutting and cauterizing at the same time. The journey of more than 2, miles would take him across the trackless desert plains of Niger and through the lawless tribal lands of southern Libya before depositing him at the southern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. He never made it. Instead, he was captured the moment he arrived in Libya, then sold to armed men who kept a stable of African migrants they exploited for labor and ransom.
The brand on his face, he says, was both punishment and a mark of identification. Fourteen other men who attempted to escape the fetid warehouse where they had been held as captive labor in Bani Walid, Libya, for several months in were similarly scarred, though the symbols differed. Iabarot is among an estimated , men and women who have crossed the Sahara over the past five years dreaming of a better life in Europe.
Some are fleeing war and persecution. Others, like Iabarot, are leaving villages where economic dysfunction and erratic rainfall make it impossible to find work or even enough to eat. To make the harrowing journey, they enlist the services of trans-Saharan smugglers who profit by augmenting their truckloads of weapons, drugs and other contraband goods with human cargo. But along the way, tens of thousands like Iabarot are finding themselves treated not just as cargo but as chattel and trapped in a terrifying cycle of extortion, imprisonment, forced labor and prostitution, according to estimates by the International Organization for Migration IOM and the U.
Office on Drugs and Crime. Essentially, they are slaves: Slavery may seem like a relic of history. But according to the U. As conflict, climate change and lack of opportunity push increasing numbers of people across borders, draconian E. The trade might be most visible in Libya, where aid organizations and journalists have documented actual slave auctions. But now it is seeping into southern Europe too—in particular Italy, where vulnerable migrants are being forced to toil unpaid in the fields picking tomatoes, olives and citrus fruits and trafficked into prostitution rings.