Desert song of the refugees

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Former News journalist Rory O’Keeffe quit Portsmouth to report on the refugee crisis in Libya and Tunisia. He’s written his first book about his time there and the people whose lives are changing Europe.

Of all the stories, in all the refugee camps that were told to Rory O’Keeffe, it was the one about a tiny coin which will live with him for the rest of his days.

It would come to symbolise a life-changing trip to north Africa which took him from the comfort of life in Portsmouth into the maelstrom and poverty of the civil war in Libya.

That coin belonged to an Ethiopian man who told his story to Rory.

Like so many of his countrymen he had fled war in his own country and headed across the continent to Libya – as we all now know, a traditional point of departure for those seeking sanctuary and a new life across the Mediterranean in Europe.

Rory says: ‘He’d managed to get aboard a boat, but like so many others, it capsized. He never made it but he survived and was returned to Libya where he was thrown into prison.’

But throughout his ordeal he kept in his pocket a coin. ‘It was the first money he had earned in his life, a coin he was thrown for cleaning shoes,’ says Rory.

When he was released, by an amazing stroke of luck, he discovered a relative he thought was dead who was also attempting to get across the Mediterranean.

Rory adds: ‘The two were determined to get to Europe, but which one should attempt it again? So they tossed that coin.

‘My man lost. The boat capsized and everyone drowned. His life was saved by losing the toss of a coin.’

That powerful tale forms the title of Rory’s first book The Toss Of A Coin – Views From A Modern Crisis which has just been published.

It tells in the words of dozens of men, women and children he interviewed the stories of those living in refugee camps in Tunisia and Libya towards the end of the civil war, which to this day continues in Libya.

The political community in Portsmouth will remember 37-year-old Rory, for until September 2011 he covered politics for this paper.

Then, as so often happens, a twist of fate determined the way his life would be shaped.

‘I was waiting for a plane at Gatwick and met a stranger who was flying to Tunisia to work for Save the Children in the refugee camps bursting with people who had fled the civil war in Libya.’

Rory was intrigued. He had been thinking of moving on from The News but was not sure in which direction.

After long thought he quit and joined the charity and within a few weeks found himself at Choucha refugee camp in Tunisia, where he met members of the African and Middle Eastern diaspora.

Later he was based in Sirte, Libya, Colonel Ghaddafi’s birthplace and where he was killed, bringing to an end the bitter war fought to oust him.

He travelled across the vast state visiting towns and cities and meeting the people who fought its war – as well as those who fled its bullets and bombs. Rory adds: ‘Ghaddafi’s Libya was a singular state run by a repressive dictator. Nevertheless it was a haven for people fleeing war and terror in regimes across Africa and the Middle East.

‘Yet four years after the Arab Spring and the Libyan Civil War began, though Ghaddafi and his regime are gone, Libya is still in crisis.

‘In his place are two powerless, illegitimate governments forced to watch from the sidelines as four illegal militias battle one another on Libya’s streets and people drown attempting to cross the sea to Europe.’

For months Rory sat with people and listened to their stories.

‘It was harrowing yet inspiring to see the strength of the human spirit.

‘I know that some of those I spoke to are now dead.’

When he interviewed those people, he took shorthand notes before writing them up on a laptop in a tent in the evenings.

‘It was overwhelmingly powerful. You couldn’t help but be affected, such as the man who told me: ‘‘when I was seven I was playing in the garden when I saw soldiers run into my grandmother’s house, put a gun in her face and kill her’’.

‘I’d been living comfortably in Portsmouth, yet just a relatively short distance away tens of thousands of people were fleeing tyranny and enduring incredible hardship.’

In the book the refugees tell their stories in their words – tales which put into context the current migration crisis on the European Union’s borders and within.

Rory adds: ‘They describe what they left in their homelands, the perilous journey to Libya and beyond, the Arab Spring, the Libyan Civil War and their causes.

‘They are joined by fighters from either side in that civil war and those who fled it. I tried to explain where we are and how we got here.’

Rory’s work touches on almost every conflict in modern African and Middle Eastern history. ‘Yes, it’s a tale of victimisation, murder, torture and terror.

‘But I hope people will also see it as a story of hope, talent, triumph, potential and humanity.

‘I wanted to give people a chance to meet the men, women and childen, the musicians and martial artists, the soldiers, the smugglers, and hear their stories.

‘Those who crossed thousands of miles of desert sand to reach Libya and perhaps Europe beyond and those who were born there and struggled for change, for things to remain the same... or simply to survive.’

*Rory O’Keeffe will give a talk about his time in Libya and Tunisia on Monday, October 26 at Friendship House, Elm Grove, Southsea, from 7pm-9pm. Free admission.

His book The Toss Of A Coin – Views From A Modern Crisis, published by Hygge Media at £14.99, is available from