Sub-Saharan Africans on their way from Misrata to Benghazi in 2011. An Eritrean priest has reported dire conditions in one Benghazi detention centre. Photograph: Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images
An African asylum seeker detained in a Libyan detention camp after a failed attempt to enter Europe has told the Guardian about the harsh – sometimes terrifying – fate that awaits those who fail in their attempts to flee the continent north across the Mediterranean.
"Kibrom", whose name has been changed to protect him from reprisals, said he and others like him had been powerless to defend themselves from armed and leaderless former rebel militiamen in the camp where they were dumped. One of their number had been shot and wounded, he said.
His account echoed horrifying claims from an asylum seeker at another detention centre near the coastal city of Benghazi, where about 400 Eritreans, Ethiopians and Somalis were held. That detainee, whose allegations were relayed to the Guardian by a Roman Catholic Eritrean priest, Father Moses Zerai, said female asylum seekers had been raped there and about 20 men removed by an armed group for use as slaves. Their whereabouts are unknown.
Zerai, who runs an agency from Rome that tracks and assists asylum seekers, said: "The management of refugees in Libya today is out of the control of the government." A request for comment from the Libyan authorities went unanswered.
Kibrom, a 31-year-old Eritrean, said 26 hours after leaving the Libyan coast the overloaded rigid inflatable boat in which he was trying to reach Italy began to lose air. It was 2am on 29 June.
The migrant traffickers who had arranged the voyage had given them a pay-as-you-go satellite phone, but they had already used what little credit was on it.
"We had seen a ship earlier, so we turned around – it was our only hope of getting help," said Kibrom. Astonishingly, at night and lost in the Mediterranean, they located the vessel. He described it as "a very big ship" flying the Italian flag and with the word "Napoli" painted on the side. At first, according to Kibrom, the crew did not help.
"They saw us and did nothing. We stayed alongside for an hour or more. And it was only when they could see we were in danger of falling into the sea that they helped us," he said.
Kibrom and another 75 people were taken aboard. He said none of the crew were wearing uniforms. He could not tell if, at the time, the ship was in Libyan or international waters.
The captain decided to hand over his unwanted passengers to the Libyan authorities. The asylum seekers were fetched from the ship and taken to a camp at Sabratha, about 25 miles west of Tripoli, which is also used by the army.
For Kibrom, it was the latest of several confinements in an ordeal lasting more than three years. A teacher from Mendefera, south of the Eritrean capital of Asmara, he decided to flee his native land in 2009.
He cited as his reason the "very hard regime" of Isaias Afewerki and the People's Front for Democracy and Justice. Eritrea is a one-party state with no free media and a sorry history of human rights abuses.
Kibrom crossed the border into Sudan. "There was a man and we paid him to guide us. We walked for 200 kilometres [125 miles]. It took four or five days," he said.
In Kassala, they were put on a lorry that carried them across the Sahara into Libya. "Within a few weeks, though, I was caught and put in prison," said Kibrom, who makes no distinction between jails and detention camps for migrants.
Eight months later, he escaped and fled to Egypt. "But I was caught by the police and spent about three months in prison there," he said.
Learning he was to be deported and aware it was an offence to leave Eritrea, "I told them I was Ethiopian, so they deported me to Ethiopia." From there, he returned to Sudan and then Libya.
Quite how he managed to fund his journey back is not entirely clear. "Friends supported me," he said. "Maybe they thought I could help them."
If they too were dreaming of a future in Europe, they will dismayed – and perhaps deterred – by Kibrom's misadventures after he was transferred to Sabratha.
"At the beginning, they were giving us only one piece of bread a day," he said. "It was very, very hard. There was not even any proper drinking water. It was very, very salty."
He said they received a visit from a representative of the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR. "One person came. They [sic] gave us food and soap. And then they went away," he said.
Conditions in the camp, where about 350 people were being held, were dangerous, Kibrom said. He and fellow-detainees lived in fear of the irregulars who last year ousted Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and his regime. "They can do whatever they like," he said. "They are armed and there is no leader."
According to Kibrom, a boy – aged 16 or 17 – was wounded during a rampage by drunken troops. "They were shooting, sometimes in the air, but sometimes into the walls. We had bullets come through the door of our room twice," he said.
Christopher Hein, director of the Italian Council for Refugees, one of whose aid workers in Libya visited the camp at Sabratha, confirmed that a teenage asylum-seeker had been shot. But he gave a different account of events leading up to the incident, which he said took place on 22 July.
"Two days earlier, Ramadan began and they stopped giving food and water to the detainees," said Hein. "The people protested and the guards intervened with firearms." He said the boy was taken to hospital. "Three days later, he returned to the centre."
Kibrom and about 45 others from the party whose vessel had almost sunk were later moved to Homs, east of Tripoli, which is where he was contacted by the Guardian. Conditions were better there, Kibrom said, but added: "It really is a prison."
Asked what he thought might happen now, Kibrom replied: "They have been saying 'You will go back to your country.' "