SABRATHA, Libya — The first time the young mother tried to flee to Europe on a rickety boat of fellow migrants from Africa, the overcrowded vessel quickly broke down and filled with water, forcing it to return to the Libyan coast. The second time, she was arrested and placed in a mosquito-infested Libyan detention center, where she has languished for months.
She says she lives on bread and water, with only milk for her 8-month-old girl, and is beaten by guards with a hose if she complains.
"They beat us like goats," said Beauty Osaha, 23, who headed north from her native Nigeria in hopes of a better life. She said the guards at the facility in the ancient city of Sabratha search migrants' bodies, including their private parts, looking for money or smuggled phones.
Libya's chaos in the two years following the overthrow of dictator Moammar Gadhafi has turned the country into a prime springboard for tens of thousands of migrants, mainly from Africa, trying to reach Europe in rickety, crowded boats. With police and the military in disarray, human smuggling has reached the level of a mafia-style organized industry in which Libya's militias have gotten involved, according to activists and police.
The danger of the sea journey became particularly clear this month, with three deadly wrecks of migrant boats coming from Libya. At least 365 people, mostly Eritreans fleeing repression in their homeland, died on Oct. 3 when their boat from Libya sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa — one of the worst verified migrant tragedies in the Mediterranean.
Detention by Libyan militias is the migrants' other potential ordeal. Activists say militias hold migrants in stores, schools and abandoned buildings as well as detention centers, abusing them and holding them hostage until they receive money from the migrants' families. Then the migrants are freed, only to try again.
"In these prisons, the principles of the Feb. 17 Revolution are being toppled down. The Libyan authorities must put an end to those pirates," a Libyan rights group called Beladi, or My Nation, said on its website, referring to the "revolution" that led to Gadhafi's ouster and death in 2011.
But Libya's government is weak, virtually hostage to the militias, which originated as rebel brigades fighting Gadhafi but have grown in size and power.
The government has put some militias on the Interior and Defense Ministries' payrolls in an effort to control them, but the militias still do whatever they want. Militiamen this month even briefly kidnapped Prime Minister Ali Zidan, who has frequently spoken of the need to rein in the armed groups.
An official with one militia in Tripoli connected to the Interior Ministry that runs a migrant detention center acknowledged abuses take place but blamed them on lack of training for the young guards. "They only get about two months of training, this is not enough," said Abdel-Hakim al-Balazi, spokesman for the Anti-Crime Department, a militia umbrella group that keeps security in the capital.
He said that migrants detained by his group are sent to larger detention centers in cities in Libya's southern deserts, run by other militias. Soon after, "we just see them free again on the streets," he said. He added that the southern borders are "wide open" with no government control.
After the latest migrant deaths, Zidan said his government was "determined" to stem the migrant flow. He asked the European Union for training and equipment to help patrol Libya's coast and desert borders, including access to satellite imagery.
In the first six months of this year, 8,400 migrants reached Malta and Italy by sea, almost all from Libya, nearly twice the number in the first six months of 2012, according to the U.N. refugee agency.
Cities along Libya's 1,000-mile, largely unpatrolled Mediterranean coastline have become collection points where Africans mass, scrounging up the cash for boat to take them the 200 miles to Malta or Lampedusa. Sabratha, a coastal city of about 110,000 people, is now home to some 10,000 migrants, officials here say.
The true number of migrant deaths at sea is impossible to tell, given the secrecy of the boat journeys. A half hour drive into the desert by a garbage hear outside Sabratha is a makeshift graveyard, marked only with a few stones painted white — with no names — where migrant bodies found washed ashore have been buried.
"Bodies are not buried separately, just all next to each other with no marks to tell who is where," said activist Essam Karar, who documented the burials, taking pictures of the bodies.
Under Gadhafi, Libya's policies shifted depending on his whims. At times, illegal migration was encouraged as a tool to pressure European countries; at other times, security forces carried out wide-scale arrests of migrants.
Now officials and activists say trafficking became more organized and that militias collaborate in the profitable business.
"It's a multinational mafia," said Gamal al-Gharabili, head of Sabratha-based Association for Peace, Care and Relief. Boat owners are mostly Libyans connected with Sudanese smugglers bringing in migrants from Horn of Africa countries, he said.
Abdel-Salam al-Kerit, another Sabratha activist involved in aiding migrants, said the migrants used to have to pay multiple smugglers across the land route through Libya. "Now you pay once and for all," he said. "The network extends from the southern borders of Libya to the shores."
Bassem al-Gharabili, a police officer at the anti-trafficking body in the city, said smugglers have become more professional, using larger boats, and are expert at eluding security forces.
"Traffickers monitor us as much as we monitor them. They have spies in the sea. They could be fishermen," he said.
Ramadan, a 25-year-old Eritrean detained at the Sabratha facility, said he first tried to flee Africa along the Egyptian-Israeli border but was caught by smugglers who tortured him with electric shocks and chopped off some of his fingers.
He then tried crossing to Europe from Libya twice. The first time, he survived a rickety boat packed with 50 people that partially broke down after four hours at sea. Three people on board died. The second time, he was detained in Sabratha. There, he said, he was beaten by guards.Comment on this story
"Better to die. I have nothing," said Ramadan, who spoke on condition his full name not be used, fearing further trouble from officials.
In a dark cell at a detention center in the town of Sorman, near Sabratha, Israel Koja said he ran away from his hometown in Nigeria after militants from the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram stormed his house, tied him up and stabbed him.
Koja, 33, paid $1,200 for traffickers to cross the desert into Libya, but has spent more than a year in the jail.
"I escaped a hell to fall in another hell," Koja said.