Desperation, Fear, Facebook and Hope, Always Hope

In the early spring of 2011, the militaries of nineteen nations under the command of NATO bombarded the countryside of Libya. The US and British navies fired over Tomahawk cruise missiles from their ships while French, British and Canadian warplanes attacked across Libya, killing hundreds. The operation was celebrated in those nations’ capitols, with then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton unable to contain her glee, especially after the murder of Libyan ruler Muammar Qaddafi was announced. After the NATO forces had performed their bloody mission, the people of Libya found themselves in the middle of a civil war that flares on and off to this day.

One result of the NATO destruction of Libya was the further transformation of Libya into a transfer point by refugees from other war-torn lands in Africa on their hopeful journey to Europe. This influx of refugees was quickly taken advantage of by human traffickers and others willing to profit from the refugees’ misery. In response to the upsurge in refugees heading to Europe, the European Union (EU) increased its funding to the Libyan Coast Guard. The rationale behind this move was to give the coast guard a greater ability to capture refugees and detain them, thereby preventing them from reaching sanctuary. In addition, spotters in the open seas employed by EU member nations inform the Coast Guard of the refugees whereabouts.

In short, the actions of the EU have enabled the activities of the traffickers and helped them fill their bank accounts. Furthermore, the unstable governmental situation in Libya which continues at this writing, means that major trafficking operations are occasionally part of the governing forces. Even when this isn’t the case, the level of corruption on all levels of the Libyan bureaucracy means the trading in human beings is sustained by hundreds and hundreds of individuals eager to make a few Euros.

The situation mentioned above is the context that journalist Sally Hayden’s book My Fourth Time, We Drowned: Seeking Refuge on the World’s Deadliest Migration Route was written in. It is a book filled with descriptions of imprisonment, torture, abuse and even murder in the detention centers thousands of refugees have found themselves in since 2011. These detention centers are run by men whose primary intention seems to be profiting from human misery. Although they seem to mostly operate independent of oversight, Hayden implicates the United Nations High Commission of Refugees (UNHCR) in her tale of misery, despair and death. Her narrative does include various individuals with that and other UN agencies who bucked the culture on the commission and actually tried to change the refugees’ plight for the better. More often, however, are the stories of individuals who collected their paychecks from the UN and considered their stationing overseas as most of a vacation then a humanitarian operation that involved them. The few aid workers mentioned in the text who actually did their job eventually left after understanding that was not expected.

Hayden began writing on this particular subject after being contacted via Facebook by a young man held in one of the most notorious detention centers in Libya. The man, an Eritrean called Kaleb was escaping from the enforced conscription in his country. Eritrea, which has been at war for much of the last fifty years (beginning with its secession from Ethiopia), forcibly drafted teenage boys into the army, often for life. This practice only added to the fear and desperation of much of the population, already poor and often hungry. From this beginning exchange via the internet, Hayden’s worked evolved from writing stories about the plight of these refugees into being an advocate for them.

My Fourth Time, We Drowned is quite often a difficult read. The acts described in its pages remind the reader just how diabolically cruel humans can be to one another. The pursuit of profit underlying these acts—from the torture and abuse by individual guards up to and including the bureaucratic decisions and rationales of the EU and UN—similarly reminds the reader of the role that pursuit plays in so much of humanity’s dark side. Hayden’s descriptions are often graphic in their telling and leave the reader with little hope for humanity. Yet, at the same time, many of these stories and the people they are about are testament to the goodness that still resides in many, if not most, humans.

This text is a vivid reminder of the racism and arrogance found in the immigration policies of all too many nations, especially those in the Global North. This fact is being proven in real time as the world watches European and US reaction to the millions of white-skinned refugees leaving the war-engulfed nation of Ukraine. Doors that were barely if ever opened for refugees from African and Middle Eastern countries have been opened wide for the Ukrainian refugees; unless they happened to be workers and students from different African nations, apparently.

My Fourth Time, We Drowned is thoughtful, compassionate and harshly realistic journalism. Good journalism of this sort should, at the very least, make the reader angry. Excellent journalism should not only make one angry, it should make the reader feel the pain and the fear intrinsic to the reportage. It should make the reader want to act, to yell, to raise their fist, to do anything but throw up one’s hands in despair. In My Fourth Time, We Drowned, Hayden does all that and more.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: