When Mbengue Nyimbilo Crepin regained consciousness after collapsing in the desert, the sun had already set. Tunisian authorities had violently forced him, his wife and their 6-year-old daughter across the border to Libya by foot without water, in the blazing heat, he said. Nyimbilo crumpled to the ground, exhausted and dehydrated, but urged his wife to carry on with little Marie and catch up to dozens of other migrants ahead.
“God willing, we will meet again in Libya,” he told them.
Nyimbilo eventually made it there — only to find out days later that his wife and daughter almost certainly did not.
A graphic photo widely shared on social media shows the lifeless body of a Black woman with braided hair next to a little girl, their faces down in the sand. The child is curled up next to the woman, her bare feet red and swollen, likely from walking on blistering hot sand.
Nyimbilo said he immediately recognized his wife's yellow dress, pulled up on her body, and his daughter's black sandals, sitting beside them. He shared recent photographs with The Associated Press showing them in the same clothing. He said he hasn't heard from his wife, Matyla Dosso, who also went by Fatima, or their daughter since that day in the desert, July 16.
Nyimbilo believes Matyla and Marie are among more than a dozen Black migrants Libyan border guards say they've found dead in the desert border area of the North African nations since Tunisian authorities began conducting mass expulsions in early July. Nyimbilo is from Cameroon; his wife, Ivory Coast. They lived for years in Libya but hoped to finally make it to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea from Tunisia.
The Libyan police border guard in al-Assa, near the Tunisian border, found the woman and child in the July 19 photo dead, spokesperson Maj. Shawky al-Masry said. He declined to provide further details or say where the bodies are now.
Different border units have found at least 10 bodies on the Libyan side since last week, including that of another small child.
Black Africans in Tunisia have faced increasing discrimination and violence since President Kais Saied's February remarks that sub-Saharan migrants are part of a plot to alter the country's identity and demographics. He said “hordes of irregular migrants” bring “violence, crime and unacceptable practices." The speech to his security council inflamed longstanding tensions throughout the region and country, but particularly between Tunisians and migrants in the port city of Sfax and other eastern coastal towns.
Tunisia has replaced Libya as the main point of departure for people attempting the deadly Mediterranean crossing to Italy, according to United Nations and other figures. Through July 20, more than 15,000 foreign migrants were intercepted by Tunisian authorities — more than double that period last year, Interior Minister Kamel Fekih told Parliament this week. He blasted the influx of sub-Saharan migrants and said Tunisia can't accept becoming “a transit country.”
Tunisian authorities have responded to rising tensions with a crackdown on Black migrants and refugees, and some have been rounded up from coastal cities and sent to Libya or Algeria — countries with their own long track records of grave human rights violations, abuses against migrants and collective deportations.
Human rights organizations, Libyan authorities and migrants themselves have accused Tunisia of violating international law with the mass expulsions across its borders. Tunisian authorities long skirted a direct response to those accusations, but on Thursday, the Interior Ministry rejected any responsibility about “Africans outside its borders,” a clear reference to those in the desert. The ministry stressed Tunisia's right to protect borders and insisted it carries out its “humanitarian duty.”
Officials also issued a warning against publication of content from social networks and in news outlets, and made a veiled reference in a recent statement to prison sentences of up to 10 years for anyone circulating information it deems incorrect.
This week, hundreds of people — including pregnant women and children — remain trapped in the border area between Tunisia, Libya and the Mediterranean Sea, while others are stranded on the Algeria side, U.N. agencies said, urging their immediate rescue.
Libyan authorities have stepped up security near Tunisia and found hundreds of migrants stranded in temperatures that surpassed 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit). They've shared dramatic photos and videos on social media of their desert encounters with exhausted migrants desperate for water, as well as graphic images of the deceased.
Libyan guard Ali Wali said his team has seen through binoculars Tunisian security forcing migrants toward Libya. He said his unit finds more than 100 daily: “Some migrants spent up to three days with no food and water in the desert.”
Without elaborating, Wali said those found are handed to relevant authorities. U.N. agencies and the Libyan Red Crescent say they’ve provided food, water and other assistance.
But according to another security official, migrants were taken to detention centers run by Libya’s Directorate for Combatting Illegal Migration, notorious for abuse. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.
Despite the growing evidence of abuse against some migrants in Tunisia and issues at the border, European leaders have doubled up their show of support for Saied, offering hundreds of millions of euros to stabilize the country with hopes it will also reduce migration.
That didn’t deter Nyimbilo and his family.
Nyimbilo and his wife had already tried to get to Europe. Their previous five attempts to cross the Mediterranean, from Libya to Italy, all failed. Each time, they were intercepted by EU-equipped Libyan forces and imprisoned. Nyimbilo told AP his wife was raped twice in front of their child in detention.
“We had no more hope,” Nyimbilo said of their time in Libya, where Marie couldn't even attend school because she's the child of immigrants. “This country has traumatized us so much.”
So, on July 13, they left the coastal city of Zuwara and trekked through the desert with other migrants, making it to the border in the early hours of July 15. They continued to the town of Ben Guerdane, about 30 kilometers (18 miles) into Tunisia.
The group split up to avoid attracting attention. But they grew desperate for water. Nyimbilo and his family walked to a main road in search of help. That's when a police car stopped and detained them, he said, and officers found their registration papers.
“When they saw it and realized we had left Libya, they beat us,” Nyimbilo said. The next day, he said, they were loaded onto a truck with other migrants and dropped at the border, without water.
Today, he said, he struggles to cope with his loss and to realize he'll never see his wife or daughter again. They'd survived so much — failed voyages to Europe, assaults, even the 2019 bombing of the Tajoura detention center. He can hardly accept that Matyla and Marie died in the desert.
"A bottle of water could have saved my family," he said.
Brito reported from Barcelona, Spain; Ganley from Paris; and Magdy from Cairo. Sarah El Deeb contributed from Beirut.