There is a Madonna at the bottom of the crystalline waters off the coast of Lampedusa, Italy, standing guard near a gap where two rocks curve in an unfinished embrace. Dead leaves and fish float above her like drifting feathers, shimmering in the swatch of sunlight that drapes across the mossy cement foundation where she rests. She is alone except for the child she holds, a hand protectively across his chest. She is called Madonna di Porto Salvo and she is the protector of the island, the saint that watches over all those who cross her turquoise waters and comforts those who do not make it to land.

The island of Lampedusa was once known as a quiet holiday getaway, the place to go for tranquil rest on a lovely beach. Geographically, Lampedusa is closer to Tunisia (113 kilometres) than it is to Sicily (205 kilometres) and it is 295 kilometres from Tripoli. Since the early 1980s, migrants from Africa and the Middle East have used the island as an entry point to Europe, paying hundreds of dollars to make the dangerous journey on fragile, overcrowded boats. The numbers have steadily increased over the last decades, and the onset of the Arab Spring has brought an overwhelming spike in those figures. The day I arrived on Lampedusa to learn more about its history with migration, there was a ceremony to commemorate migrants who had drowned trying to reach the island. Italian Coast Guard divers secured a wooden cross and a bouquet of flowers at the feet of the Madonna di Porto Salvo, their breaths bubbling through the Mediterranean Sea like shards of glass. Soon after the ceremony was finished, I learned that by chance, there was a boat arriving that day from Libya; their slow, perilous approach detected by the Coast Guard.

A few hours later, I stood at the edge of the coastline, watching as the boat full of men, women and children arrived. Around me were journalists and photographers, members of the Italian Red Cross and other humanitarian aid organizations. There were also residents of the island grimly observing this latest spectacle. They stared, resentment tinged with disinterest, at these dark-skinned foreigners stepping gingerly, shakily, on to Italian soil. It was hard for me to watch with the same detachment. I looked for Ethiopian and Eritrean faces instead, waving at all those who waved at me, trying to smile as some form of encouragement before they were whisked away to begin the tortuous task of establishing their right to be in the place they risked everything – including their lives – to reach. It was difficult to imagine what they would face, but nearly impossible to comprehend the many roads they had taken to arrive at this point. I thought of my friend in Rome, Dagmawi Yimer, who tells his story freely, but cannot seem to speak it without a subdued voice, as if the terror has left a permanent scar.

Dagmawi was a law student in Addis Ababa in 2005. A soft-spoken man with penetrating eyes and fine features, he planned to spend his life in Ethiopia, working to make a difference. But then political unrest engulfed the country as a result of contested election results. Then came the government’s crackdown on demonstrators, then a paralyzing list of repressive measures, then the killings of unarmed protestors, and his life in his homeland felt like a dead end. A close childhood friend, Yonas, had already left the country. So Dagmawi, along with Yonas’s brother, Daniel, and a few others from his neighbourhood, made the decision to leave. He packed carefully, slipping a few of his favourite books into a bag, and prepared himself for a long trip filled with hours of boredom. He would take a bus to the border of Sudan. From there, guides would lead him further into the country then to Tripoli, Libya. Once there, he would board a boat to Lampedusa.

On a map, it is a straight line from Addis Ababa to Tripoli. Just over 3000 kilometres along a path that crosses Khartoum, chews through the Sahara desert, then spills out onto the Libyan coastline along the Mediterranean Sea. But a map is deceptive and the straight line hovers above another route that branches out in all directions, traversed by people as invisible as ghosts. Even under normal circumstances, it would not be an easy trip: three countries, at least five languages, numerous checkpoints, and a terrain that includes the treacherous, seemingly endless Sahara. It is nearly impossible to make a journey like this without knowledgeable guides who also understand the veiled transactions that must take place at every stop. Migrants trying to reach Europe from sub-Saharan Africa become as undetectable as the hidden roads, rendered even more invisible by numerous bribes paid to police and border officials to look the other way. Traffickers bandy frightened people back and forth between designated cities, human flesh becoming its own form of contraband. Dagmawi had no idea what awaited him and his friends once they got passed Ethiopia. He could not have known that he would be bought and sold like a slave, shuttled from one place to another, and beaten and arrested by men who continually raised their asking prices.

The day Dagmawi left, he and Daniel simply boarded a bus heading to the Sudanese border. It all seemed so easy at first. At the border, he was met by traffickers with Land Rovers, men from Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Libya who offered to take him to Gedarif, just south of Khartoum, for a price. From there, he progressed to Khartoum then Umdurman. Intermediaries appeared at every stop, more money exchanged hands and he was led deeper into Sudan, closer to Libya. He was not alone; along with Daniel and friends from his neighbourhood, each leg of the journey included others just as desperate to get to Europe. They drove for days across an overwhelming landscape of sand, rolling dunes dissected by the tracks of other vehicles that had gone on before them, all of it blanketed by a scorching, deadly heat.

The Sahara reaches temperatures as high as 57.7 Celsius, making it the hottest place in the world. It is vast and unforgiving; a swath of land more suitable for scorpions, camels and lizards than human beings. As Dagmawi travelled towards Libya, the guides who took over became progressively less sympathetic, gruffer and cruel. During the interminable waits and delays in the Sahara, during the constant changeovers from one contrabbandiere to another, there were the skyrocketing demands for more money, the random beatings, the humiliation of being packed into crowded spaces like animals, the insults and racial slurs. Dagmawi began to realize he had entered a twisted, dark labyrinth manned by those who saw him as nothing more than a source of cash, a commodity made more valuable as the threats and dangers increased. Along the truck routes in the Sahara were the discarded bodies of those who had run out of money, those physically unable to withstand the hunger and thirst, and those who had simply surrendered to the fear. But there was nothing to do except keep moving forward, hiding what money he could in his clothes, praying along the way. Twenty days, hundreds of dollars, and more than 1300 kilometres later, he was in Benghazi, Libya. It didn’t matter that he’d thought he was heading to Tripoli. He went where he was taken.

Dagmawi and his friends found shelter in a Benghazi house with other migrants, hiding until relatives sent more money to pay for their boat ride to Italy, an average of 800 to 1200 dollars per person. Every day was spent waiting. Dagmawi struggled to remember all the reasons he had started the journey, while trying his best to forget everything he’d experienced along the way. He tried not to despair, to keep hoping, but regularly, he asked himself how he’d ended up in that cramped house with eighteen other men, frightened to step outside and risk arrest. The house was its own kind of prison and the waiting a form of punishment. One morning, he woke up and wrote the following on the wall, a reminder that nothing, not even a nightmare, lasts forever: If you can survive, all of this will pass. He had barely finished when there was a knock at the door. It was the Libyan police.

Dagmawi and his friends were forced to leave the house immediately, marched out at gunpoint without being given the time to put on their shoes or gather much of their belongings. If they had been afraid before, they were terrified now. In the hands of police, they were illegal migrants who could disappear without any trace. They were shoved into a truck then taken to jail. At the prison in Benghazi, they found a hundred others, including women and children. Almost right away, they were crammed into a stifling metal container. And it was here, in this claustrophobic box without water or food, without a toilet, that Dagmawi met the equally traumatized gaze of a four-year-old boy named Adam. It was a moment he would never forget: the sight of this young boy enduring what was breaking so many grown men and women. In the container, travelling once more across the desert, Dagmawi’s odyssey was just beginning. He was going back over the hundreds of kilometres he’d already crossed, back towards more smugglers but this time without any more money, not even his shoes.

In Arabic, kufra means ‘to hide the truth’; it represents a sin, a heresy against the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed. A kafir is one who hides this truth, an unbeliever. This was the name given to the town of Kufra, or al-Kufrah, because of the non-Muslim people who inhabited the area long ago, as if those who came from there, or entered there, were complicit in an act of betrayal by their very existence. Surrounded on three sides by depressions, it has been an important part of trade routes crossing the desert and has become an almost mandatory stop for migrants travelling between East Africa and the Libyan coast. It is the pulsing centre of an underground world comprised of human traffickers, police and organized crime groups.

The prison at Kufra, where Dagmawi was taken, is a hulking slab of concrete in the middle of the Sahara desert. It loomed above the prisoners as they were unloaded at gunpoint and pushed through its gates. Immediately, the women were separated from the men; Eritreans and Ethiopians were separated from those from other countries, then they were herded into filthy, small cells with one toilet and a few bug-infested mattresses. It was difficult for Dagmawi not to curse himself, not to rail against the situation in his country that had forced him and so many others to abandon all they loved. And he loved many things: his hardworking father whom he hadn’t told goodbye when he left; his mother, who expected his help in her kiosk; his books by Dostoyevsky; Bob Marley; and country music. He liked films and was interested in law. He was a normal young man. How did he get here, stuck amongst the screams and the stench, eating off the ground the meager rice guards threw his way, drinking water that smelled of benzene?

The days bled into each other, the sun a slow drag across the sky. There was the constant presence of heat, the beatings, the abuse of children, the solitary confinement, the agonizing knowledge that women were suffering their own kind of hell. Dagmawi was caught in the helpless cycle of witnessing violence and falling victim to it. Even if he could have escaped, he would have been three hundred kilometres from the nearest water well. He would have been further trapped by his dark skin, easily identifiable as a non-Libyan. By now, all the migrants were black; all traffickers, Libyan. It was easy to tell who was who, who was at the mercy of whom.

Among the many belongings that Dagmawi had to leave behind when he was arrested was Henri Charrieré’s autobiography, Papillon. It is the suspenseful story of Charrieré’s wrongful murder conviction in a French court system in 1931, and his eventual escape – thirteen years and nine attempts later – from what had been considered an inescapable prison, Devil’s Island. Papillon became an instant hit when it was released in France in 1971, and it is easy to see why. It is a classic tale of perseverance and survival. Stories like this confirm what we want to believe about the world: that eventually, justice prevails, evil slinks away and good triumphs. But for people like Dagmawi, the underworld follows its own storyline. Cruelty has a place, fear belongs and the foundation of everything is humiliation.

One day, Dagmawi and the other prisoners, both men and women, were paraded out of their cells and told to form a single line in front of a man they had never seen before. Soon, this man separated them into two groups, and simply pointed to the one that included Dagmawi and said, ‘I’ll take these.’ They were loaded into a truck and driven to a house owned by this contrabbandiere and there, the man informed them that he’d paid thirty dinars for each of them: less than twenty-five US dollars, just over fifteen pounds, and a bit more than eighteen euros. They were ordered to call their relatives to reimburse their buyer and pay for their way to Tripoli. Dagmawi had no choice but to make the call; he had seen what happened to those who couldn’t pay. The desert was littered with their remains, bodies fading back to ghosts.

It was a three-day ride to Tripoli, packed in a truck covered with a tarp. There were too many people for the small truck and there was not enough room for everyone to sit down. Dagmawi stood, barefoot in the space that forced everyone to relieve themselves where they were. They were hungry and thirsty, collapsing under a tremendous fatigue, and it was only by puncturing the tarp overhead that they could get enough air to breathe. There were women amongst them and every day, the men had to fight against the smugglers’ attempts to rape them. Dagmawi thought again of the degradation of the prisons, the screams of other prisoners, the futility of escape, and wasn’t sure how he would make it. But somehow, he and his friend Daniel stepped out of the truck, in Tripoli. Somehow, they found a neighbourhood of Ethiopians and Eritreans. Somehow, they managed to find a place to stay until they could buy their way to Lampedusa.

It was in a Tripoli café that Dagmawi saw a photo of his friend and Daniel’s brother, Yonas, the one who had left Ethiopia before them. Below the photograph was the address of the Eritrean Consulate. He and Daniel went to the consulate to find out what happened. There, the official gave them Yonas’s wallet and informed the grieving men that he was the only ‘lucky’ one on board a sinking ship heading to Italy. He was the only one who could be identified from the more than thirty migrants dead. As if this weren’t enough to bear, a few days later, Daniel was caught by police and sent back to Kufra to begin his own odyssey all over again, shouldering the knowledge of his brother’s death. It would be a year before he would be able to leave Libya, aided by money sent by Dagmawi from Italy. Yonas and Daniel’s parents still do not know what happened to their son, the telephone an impersonal, inadequate method for communicating news that can shatter a parent’s heart.

Thirty-two migrants, including Dagmawi, boarded a boat bound for Italy on a hot July day in 2006, more than a year after he left Addis Ababa. The passengers included a ten-year-old Eritrean boy travelling alone. All they had with them was what they wore, their clothes caked in the filth of the prisons and containers, smelling of fear and human waste. At some point on the trip, the Italian Coast Guard put them onboard their ship and gave them safe passage to Lampedusa. The crowds that greeted Dagmawi were much the same as those I found myself standing amongst, five years later. By chance, a news crew recorded this moment without understanding who it was they’d captured on camera. There is Dagmawi, next to two friends. He looks thin, stunned and exhausted. He is dressed in a clean green shirt, sitting with his knees up, his hands crossed, staring quietly at the country unfolding before him.

I asked him recently about this shirt, its newness jarring, the colour almost too vivid for all I know he’d been through. It was a gift from a friend who had managed to save one item of clothing for Italy. Dagmawi had put it on as land appeared on the horizon. It was a gesture, however small, of his fight to regain his humanity, to step on to Italian soil as if he belonged. Once in Italy, Dagmawi Yimer made a vow to himself to tell the story of all those still left behind, and of those, like Yonas, who would never arrive. He learned Italian and began work in a film collective call ZaLab, making documentaries such as ‘Come un uomo sulla terra’ (Like a Man on Earth), that describe his journey as well as that of others. He has championed the cause of immigrants and co-founded the Archive of Migrant Memories in Rome. Using his camera as a voice, Dagmawi Yimer is now helping others share what had once been unspeakable.

I could not help thinking of him that day in Lampedusa as I watched buses drive away with new immigrants. Less than three hundred kilometres from where I stood was Libya, and in her cities were others like Dagmawi, caught in the deadly consequences of a civil war, easy targets identified by their skin colour. The Arab Spring has intensified their horrors. In desperation, they will continue to embark for Europe; they will continue to drown; they will continue to step off sinking boats and find a way to live. And far below the sea, will be the Madonna di Porto Salvo, gazing up.

Story on Granta.