“Mhux problema”, says 19-year-old Kader, smiling. He’s wiping down the kitchen table and I’m in the way. “That’s ‘no problem’ in Maltese”.
It’s a Saturday afternoon and I’m in the spotlessly clean apartment on the outskirts of Valletta that Kader shares with Amara and several other West African youths. Abdalla has just arrived from across town after finishing his shift in a toy warehouse, and Amara prepares coffee for everyone. These three young men are the El Hiblu 3 – and they’re facing years in prison.
It’s three years since Amara, Kader and Abdalla arrived in Malta, having fled Libya with 100 others on a rubber boat. They were 15, 16 and 19 years old respectively. When the boat began to deflate, it was rescued by a cargo ship, the El Hiblu. The captain promised to take them to Europe. Hours later, some of the people on board recognised the lights of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, drawing closer. They weren’t heading towards Europe after all.
Panic set in. People were threatening to jump off the boat – prepared to die before returning to Libya to face more horrific abuses. It’s well-known that Libya isn’t a safe country for migrants. In fact, taking them back there would have been unlawful. The captain needed to restore calm. He asked Amara, Kader and Abdalla to reassure the desperate passengers and to interpret for him into French. Eventually he changed course to Malta.
On arrival, the three youths were arrested and detained. They had no idea why. The charges they face are so severe, some carry a life sentence.
Amara speaks English fluently. He had always hoped his language skills would be the key to a brighter future – and despite everything that’s happened, he still does. “I hope to be a translator one day. I thought my English would help people. We just wanted to help”.
But it’s hard to plan for the future when you’re facing life-changing charges and living under strict bail conditions. All three keep as busy as possible to try to distract themselves from the worry of the case. They work long hours, and Abdalla has his hands full with his 16-month-old daughter. In their free time they play football, cook, and work on their English. Kader waves his phone towards me so I can see his progress on the DuoLingo app. Amara explains the “heavy load” they carry every day:
“We are between life and death. They are playing with our lives… I try to be strong but it’s eating me up…I don’t feel free.”Amara
“We are between life and death. They are playing with our lives. We have no power. I used to be a happy man. Now I can feel myself withdrawing. I try to be strong but it’s eating me up – I just work and sleep. I don’t feel free.”
After a while we switch on the TV to watch some football. It’s clearly very painful for them to talk about their situation. Cameroon are playing Gambia in the African Cup of Nations. Their home teams, Guinea and Cote D’Ivoire, are already out, so everyone’s supporting Gambia. They’re rooting for the underdogs.
A few days later, I meet them again outside the Courts of Justice in Valletta for their latest hearing. They’re all dressed extremely smartly – Abdalla’s gingham suit complete with matching tie and handkerchief. They’re used to these hearings by now, aware that often nothing much happens. They’re still nervous, though. The small court room is full of supporters observing proceedings. One of the migrants on board the El Hiblu is called as a witness. The young man from Ivory Coast describes what happened at sea at length. His testimony is entirely consistent with what the El Hiblu 3 told Amnesty’s researchers. It’s not clear why it took two years for these witnesses to be called – in that time, many of those who were on board the El Hiblu have left Malta. But it prolongs the uncertainty.
After the hearing, we all sit outside in a nearby square. The youths’ lawyer hands them a large bundle of mail. In 2020 the El Hiblu 3 were part of Amnesty’s Write for Rights campaign, and received thousands of letters and cards expressing support from all over the world. And they’re still coming. Abdalla, Amara and Kader open a few and read them carefully. The envelopes bear stamps from Singapore, Ukraine, France, the UK. This particular batch has lots from Quebec too, written in French by school children. “We stand with you”, one letter reads.
“They give us hope, and they give us strength” explains Kader thoughtfully.
One card has a picture of a lilac ‘forget-me-not’ flower. Below, someone has written ‘El Hiblu 3’. These three young men know the world hasn’t forgotten them. Thousands of people around the world stand with them and are demanding justice.