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'Hold the compass or die': jailed migrants recount ordeal

(From l) Ivorian Fofana Lamine, 25, Gambian Cherno Jallow, 22 and Senegalese Cheikhaya Dieng, 26, are due to be released from an Italian jail
(From l) Ivorian Fofana Lamine, 25, Gambian Cherno Jallow, 22 and Senegalese Cheikhaya Dieng, 26, are due to be released from an Italian jail AFP
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Trapani (Italy) (AFP)

Gambian Cherno Jallow, Senegalese Cheikhaya Dieng, and Ivorian Fofana Lamine, are finishing 44-month jail sentences in Italy after people smugglers forced them to navigate boats across the Mediterranean.

Shortly before they were due to be released, the three men told AFP about their ordeals from their prison in Trapani, Sicily.

All three left their respective countries in 2015 in search of work, and all three hoped to find it in Libya.

But once there, 22-year-old Jallow was kidnapped and his family forced to pay a ransom.

The chaos and threats to their safety meanwhile pushed Dieng, 22, and Lamine, 25, to contact people smugglers to try to reach Italy.

"On the day of my departure, they gave me a compass and told me: 'Someone will steer the boat and you will hold the compass.'" said Lamine.

"Me, I said I don't have any experience. But they have weapons! I didn't use the compass. I'm Ivorian, the other was Gambian, we didn't speak the same language!"

Dieng was on another boat.

"When he found out I was a fisherman for years, the intermediary gave me back my money and made me take the rudder," he said.

"I did it to save my life, because if I refused, they could kill me, for nothing."

Jallow's unfinished teacher training drew the people smugglers' attention.

"On the same day we were going to leave for Italy, a man told me: you are the one who is going to hold the compass," he said during the interview in the prison's theatre.

"'You have studied, you know how to use a compass.' He said: 'If you don't use this compass, we will kill you because you will have destroyed our business.'

"They put the gun, literally, on my head... And then the Arab took the boat up to the middle of the sea and threw the compass to me. I had no other choice," he said.

The three men and their boats were rescued off Libya by a Norwegian vessel before being transferred to the Italian coastguard and disembarked in Trapani in January 2016.

There, police asked the migrants who had steered and navigated the vessels, and they identified the three men now in prison.

They were sentenced to three years and eight months in prison, and with some time off for good behaviour, they will soon be released.

But they have also just heard that Italy has rejected their asylum applications.

"The real people responsible, they're still over there," said Dieng.

"There are Africans like me who work with the Libyans, they're the traffickers. They stay in Libya because they make lots of money," he lamented.

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