They were brought together by the desert and parted by the sea. Together, the two Eritreans crossed the Sahara, stared down torture and death and finally made it to the Mediterranean.
Now Mohammed Kher is caged in a grim Libyan camp, unable to return home, his ambitions shattered by the coastguard vessel that overtook the flimsy craft he shared with 200 others.
Abdul Salam took another boat and has another life. He made it to Italy, then Norway and is starting afresh.
Captured migrants inside the detention centre at Gherian (DANIEL ETTER)
Their fates show the wheel of 21st century fortune at its crudest. Following yet more disasters in the Mediterranean, with scores more lives lost in two separate sinkings in the past week, there are also new calls for wealthy north European countries such as Britain, where so many are headed, to help in the response.
Libyan officials told The Telegraph that 250,000 illegal immigrants were now queuing there to cross, their paths eased by the collapse of the country’s security.
“The Libyan government has no control at all of the borders in the south,” said Col Ziad Ali Arhuma, the deputy head of the coastguard. He said the numbers arriving, mainly from sub-Saharan Africa, Eritrea and Somalia – and now Syria – was insupportable.
His words were backed by a threat from the interior minister, Salah Mazek, at a press conference at the weekend. “I’m warning the world and Europe in particular – if they do not assume their responsibilities, Libya could facilitate the transit of this flood,” he said.
Stopping the fleet of rubber dinghies and ageing fishing vessels that carry the migrants to Europe is an annual race. More than 25,000 have been picked up by Italian vessels alone this year, compared with 43,000 for all of 2013. Adml Giuseppe De Giorgi, the head of the Italian navy, described it last month as a “biblical exodus”.
Mohammed Kher, left, and other detained migrant from Eritrea in their cell at Gherian (DANIEL ETTER)
Libya says those crossing remain dwarfed by those left behind. “In Italy they took in 30 or 40,000 refugees in a population of 60 million,” Col Arhuma said. “Here we have 1.25 million in a population of 6.25 million.”
Mr Kher languishes behind the barred door to his prefabricated hut in the semi-desert near the town of Gherian, south of Tripoli. His story shows the lengths to which many will go to find a freer, safer or more prosperous life.
Eritrea has been described as one of the world’s worst human rights “black holes”. Like thousands of his countrymen, Mr Kher and Mr Salam had been forcibly conscripted into the army, a fate that can last a lifetime.
“I tried three times to cross the sea,” Mr Kher said. “I was in search of my rights. But each time I was caught. Now my mother has sold everything she has, her gold, her ornaments, our home and our cattle, so there is nothing left. There is nothing more I can do.”
His and Mr Salam’s Saharan crossing traversed countries afflicted by war, coups and harsh terrain. At one point, 32 people were crammed into a Land Cruiser when it crashed into a dune.
Mr Kher paid the gang that took him $4,000 (£2,375) and $2,000 more in bribes to Egyptian soldiers who stopped them and threatened to confiscate their vehicle. He paid $1,600 more for the sea crossing – a sum migrants say is now coming down further. His first attempt ended five hours out, when he was caught by the Libyan coastguard.
His family paid a bribe of $1,300 to release him for a second attempt and the whole process was repeated twice more, first when that ship’s engine failed in a storm and then after the Italian navy caught up with his next boat and put its occupants on a cargo ship back to Africa.
The fourth time Mr Kher paid his $1,600, the dealer ran away with the money. Left alone, he and his companions tried to make their own way to the coast, but were arrested.
Of the Land Cruiser’s original 32 people, though, he said he was the only one not to make it to Italy.
People trafficking is a centuries old trade and grew in Libya under the rule of Col Muammar Gaddafi. He took action following his rapprochement with the West, but he also used it to win more concessions, saying only he stood in the way of a “black Europe”.
When the 2011 Libyan revolution began, he re-opened the floodgates. It took until 2013 for the Libyan navy to be formed again. Now the entire coastline is patrolled by four navy ships helped by a motley collection of coastguard launches and volunteers in old pleasure cruisers.
Smugglers admit they have it easy. “Nowadays there’s no problem smuggling anything in Libya – drugs, weapons or people,” said one, speaking on condition of anonymity. “With the security situation as it is, there will be more people going every year.”
He justified his work, saying he was helping people to achieve their dreams.
But his villa and large car suggest his own dreams are also being realised. His role is to gather clients for the boats from middlemen in southern Libya’s smuggler towns. He reckons to make 100-150 Libyan dinar (£50-75) per person, sending “sometimes a boat with 2-300 people a week, sometimes per month”, he said.
“There are hundreds of people like me,” he added.
The migrants believe life will be better than at home; but then, that is often not hard. Abdulnabi Ismael, 26, and his friend Ibrahim Zakariah, 22, who arrived from Darfur in Sudan last month, described their own plans to cross.
Migrants being rescued by the Italian in the Mediterranean (AFP/GETTY)
Outside a house occupied by migrants in Tripoli’s old town, they said they hoped to go to Norway “because we know they do not send refugees back”.
Asked why they had risked the journey, they looked nonplussed. “There is a war in Darfur,” said Abdulnabi. Their village was burned to the ground last year.
Mr Salam, who made it, looks back on his journey with reawakened fear.
Speaking by telephone, he described how he had been beaten by smugglers with bars, robbed, detained, and lost at sea for three days, before finally his boat caught fire off the Italian coast.
“The Italians were rescuing the women at first, but the boat was catching fire so people started to jump in the sea,” he said.
He travelled via Milan and Germany to Norway, where he was allowed to apply for refugee status.
“I am planning to stay here and start a new life,” he said. “I am studying and I am very happy. At the same time I am very sad because others are still suffering to be where I am now.”
Italian ministers first started using the phrase “biblical exodus” a decade ago. The metaphors do not change, nor the torments of those who undertake it.
“When you go back and see everything that happened, I don’t know if I can say it was worth it,” Mr Salam said. “At the end of the day people have suffered, been tortured and even died. I ask myself why.”
Nevertheless, it seems Europe remains a promised land.