Outside his two bedroom house made of tin in the heart of Hargeisa, capital of the breakaway Somaliland region, Kosar Dhool cuts an exhausted figure burdened with events far heavier than his slim frame can bear.
The father of five has been receiving phone calls from his son, Hamza, who has been captured and held for ransom by human smugglers in an unknown location in Libya.
“He called to say they are going to take out his kidneys and sell them for money if I don’t pay the $2,100 ransom,” Dhool told Al Jazeera, sitting on a plastic chair under a tree that barely provided shade from the boiling midday sun.
Hamza, 18, is a bright high school student with much promise ahead of him. He is well-liked in his neighbourhood and everyone here is in a state of shock at his capture.
For the past two years, Dhool had been working extra shifts to save up enough money to send Hamza to university in the hope he would then be able to help the family support his younger siblings.
“He was my best hope, very intelligent,” Dhool said, rubbing sweat from his receding greying hairline, as four of his other children sat around him.
“I still don’t know what got to him to risk his life.”
Departure of a beloved son
Two months ago, Dhool paid $4,000 to human traffickers in Sudan, who had also held Hamza for ransom. He received calls and was forced to listen to the cries of his son being tortured every morning until he paid up.
“I have no words to describe how I felt. Only a parent can imagine how listening to your son getting tortured feels.”
Dhool, who works as a security guard, asked Hamza to return home. But Hamza had other plans and his father’s pleas fell on deaf ears. Hamza continued on to Libya hoping this time luck would be on his side.
He was planning to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe on one of the overcrowded smuggling boats, where rough seas have claimed the lives of thousands of African migrants in recent years.
Hamza never made it to the vessel, however. For the second time he fell into the hands of kidnappers, and the painful ordeal of being held captive and tortured was repeated.
Receiving ransom calls and listening to the cries of his son are the norm every morning, Dhool said.
Risking life to escape poverty
Hamza is not the only one to try his luck attempting to reach Europe’s shores. Dozens are missing from his neighbourhood in Hargeisa.
The risk of kidnapping and torture doesn’t sway young people from attempting to cross the harsh Sahara desert and inhospitable Mediterranean Sea.
Almost everyone in this city knows someone or has heard of someone who attempted the arduous journey.
Many say there is no choice. Unemployment is sky-high among young people who make up more than 70 percent of the population in Somalia.
Of those, 67 percent under the age of 29 are currently unemployed, according to the UN, one of the highest jobless rates in the world.
Eid Mohamed Diriye has tried to go abroad twice and is in the process of trying again.
As most youth are penniless, smugglers don’t ask for any money until they reach the Sahara desert.
In the desert, far away from the authorities, the smugglers turn the migrants into a commodity that changes hands many times between smugglers and kidnappers, who hold them captive and release them only after ransoms in thousands of dollars are paid.
In late 2007, Diriye – who looks younger than his 23 years – left Somaliland and headed for Saudi Arabia. He was arrested, jailed for more than six months, and deported back.
A month ago he was caught in Ethiopia attempting to reach Italy through the Mediterranean Sea, and was recently deported.
Now, he sits waiting for a call signalling the start of his next journey. “I have nothing here. I have tried many times to get a job. I don’t know where my next meal will come from,” Diriye told Al Jazeera.
“I know the dangers, but there is nothing for me here. It is better I try my chance somewhere else.”
Route to torture and death
With Yemen in turmoil and too dangerous, and thousands fleeing to Somalia, the only direction left to travel to the Mediterranean is through the Sahara desert, though thousands perish along the route.
Those who know the path well say no human being should ever consider it.
Abdirahman Mohamed Nuur once owned a small kiosk in Hargeisa. He was not among the well-off in the city but had enough to live on. Seeking to earn more, he sold the kiosk to finance a trip abroad.
He nearly died trying to reach a more prosperous life on more than one occasion, he said. Twice he fell into the hands of ruthless smugglers who tortured him.
“They are butchers who trade in destroying human souls. They are not human beings. They are worse than anything that walks on this Earth,” Nuur told Al Jazeera, recalling a lucky escape from his captors who tried to shoot him.
“My mum paid a $7,000 ransom. They held me in Libya for a month-and-half,” Nuur recalled. “Every morning I prayed for death … to end my suffering.”
Many of his companions were not so lucky. Women were raped and left on the streets when they became pregnant.
Others were killed in cold blood in front of other migrants as a message.
“Some were shot dead by smugglers so they could prove they were serious and would kill anyone whose family did not pay up. Others were killed by militia men who thought they were mercenaries who fought in the Libya war for Gaddafi,” Nuur said.
In Somaliland, billboards warning about the dangers of migration can be seen in all border towns.
Now back in his home country, Nuur, 27, doesn’t need such reminders. The three years he spent in Libya were the worst in his life, he said.
He is trying to restart his life and put behind the nightmare of the failed attempt to get to Italy behind him.
“I just got married. My wife is pregnant and there is no better place than home,” Nuur said.