The story of Ebrima Conneh: “Man must never give up”

Katja Lihtenvalner
18 min readAug 21, 2022

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From Gambia via Libya and Italy to Germany. From the criminal underworld to the philanthropist. A story of a lonely solder in the jungle.

Ebrima Conneh. (Photo: Katja Lihtenvalner)

I met Ebrima Conneh in the summer of 2011. He passed his days aimlessly roaming the streets of Italian port Bari alongside fellow compatriots. Despite being emaciated, ailing, and in dire need of sustenance, they were unwelcomed by locals and harassed by law enforcement. Libya was then in the throes of a civil war. They did not flee, but were pushed into the European Union by the Gaddafi regime. Their pleas went unheard and they were ultimately transferred from Lampedusa Island to a nearby refugee center.

Potsdam, August 2022

Ebrima draws a soft and wide smile on his face today. He sits calmly, his thoughts focused, with incredible precision he embarks on describing his story.

“Throughout my life, I’ve always met people with a big heart,” recounts Ebrima.

I soon realised that this is far from the truth, but today 36-year-old Ebrima sees light in the world above all. He doesn’t naïvely believe that existence is only beautiful and that he can rely on the help of others. He is aware of the pain and hardship that life can bring but he never loses hope: “A man must never give up.”

Ebrima was orphaned from the age of eight, surviving the Liberian and Libyan civil wars, growing up in the poverty of the Gambian Serekunda, crossing the dangerous Sahara, kidnapped twice and escaped twice, embroiled for several years in the brutal Libyan and Italian criminal underworld, exposed to racial prejudices in the Arab and European societies, Ebrima is today sending aid to the Gambia.

His life is written like a suspenseful book, where Ebrima admits throughout the tragic events of his life, when fate could have turned very differently: “I was also lucky.”

Years ago, he was adopted as a grown man by a German couple and today he works for a large construction company. Ebrima has demonstrated to himself and the world that by broadening our perspectives, we can surmount the constraints of prejudice. Despite this, he remains grounded and level-headed: “You have to stay wise and humble. You must never flaunt the success when it happens to you.”

This is not another refugee story because Ebrima Conneh is not a refugee, but a fighter, a “lonely soldier in the jungle” as he refers to himself. He does not consider himself as an orphan, but as a man who walks with his head proudly raised.

An exceptional man in (un)exceptional times.

Liberian Civil War

Ebrima Conneh was born in May 1985 to the family of a wealthy businessman in West African Côte d’Ivoire. He was an only child. His mother, born in Gambia, was a housewife, while father was a businessman. They belonged to the Mandinka tribe.

“Life was carefree at the time. My father traded kola nuts, so when I was only a few months old, we moved to Liberia, the capital of Monrovia,” recalls Ebrima.

Just a few years later, the first civil war began in this unstable African republic between the troops of corrupt dictator Samuel Kanyon Doe and a former ally of Charles Taylor, an army general trained and armed by the Libyan authorities of Muammar Gaddafi. The war, which lasted until 1996, claimed the lives of over 200 thousand people.

“No one can explain to me exactly what happened that day in 1993,” he describes his first life tragedy.

Rebel militias or robbers (or both in one) attacked a residential area in Monrovia where Ebrima’s family had a store and a house. The Liberian capital was already dominated by various guerrilla units, local tribal rebels and war criminals. Members of the Mandinka tribe, who enjoyed the support of Doe, were labeled as “foreigners” in the country, and after the Taylor units took power, they were also undesirable.

The fatal day claimed the lives of everyone who was in the store including Ebrima’s father and mother. His memory of his parents faded almost completely today. He says he was too small to remember anything. At the time of the mass shooting, in which the owners of other shops in the neighbourhood were also killed, Ebrima was hidden in the family home just a stone’s throw away from the massacre.

“There was total chaos in Liberia at the time. There was no control over gun possession,” Ebrima recalls.

He became an orphan, and it was only by chance that none of the guerrilla groups found him at the time otherwise he would have been conscripted as a child soldier. Ebrima says this was a faith of many of his peers.

After the tragedy, Ebrima’s father’s business partner stepped in to provide him temporary care. Due to the war, Ebrima with new family fled to Kankan, the largest and third most populous city in Guinea.

“My father’s business partner had assured me that my aunt from Gambia would come to take me with her in the nearest future,” he remembers.

What happened to his family’s estate and property in Liberia, Ebrima, never found out. His father’s business partner claimed the house burned down in the Civil War.

“I never went back to Liberia and I didn’t want to accuse anyone because I don’t know exactly what happened,” he explains.

It was the first time he has experienced a difficult life in Guinea and realised how important parents are to a child.

“I was an outsider in the family and didn’t go to school,” he recalls. One of his father’s business partner’s wives would often beat him and forced him to scare birds away from rice fields. The task was accomplished by making loud noises with drums and other tools to deter the birds from eating the crops. These memories are painful for Ebrima as he recalls feeling lonely and disconnected from those around him.

Gambian taxis

When his aunt arrived to take him in 1994, Ebrima’s life settled into a tranquil yet humble existence. He belonged again. Together with seven cousins he lived in poverty in the overpopulated Serekunda, in a house without electricity or water. He went to school, played football, and soon after he was 13, his family told him there would be no more money for his tuition. Ebrima started doing various jobs. He sold newspapers, worked as a tour guide, and later worked in the production of the Gambian branch of the multinational Coca-Cola.

“My monthly salary in Coca-Cola production was 37 euros,” he says.

The years passed. Ebrima learned about European culture from the stories of many tourists he guided around Gambia.

“The Germans were reserved, while people from the Netherlands and Scandinavian countries were particularly nice,” he recalls. He used to hang out with a lot of foreigner people and keep in touch with them even after they left. He had to find ways to make ends meet, which he today reflects on and shares as wise advice.

“There were two taxis driving around the city in Serekunda. One was green and the other was yellow. You had to pay more for the green one, but you were safe in it. Yellow was cheaper, but you risked being robbed and you couldn’t complain afterwards. They’d tell you, “Why did you get in the yellow cab in the first place?””, explains Ebrima while admitting he always sat in a yellow cab.

“In life a man has to take risk so he can be ready for anything,” he explains.

In 2006, Ebrima received a call from a friend in Libya, who informed him of a job opportunity at Coca-Cola in Tripoli, paying $400 monthly. Without hesitation, Ebrima made the decision to embark on the journey. He spent two years gathering money to cross the Sahara, resorting to illegal means such as cutting down trees and selling them to the Chinese. With perseverance, he managed to save $1,200, leaving almost half of it to his aunt and her children. After packing his favourite African clothes, he set out for Niger, determined to make it to Tripoli.

A new adventure began.

Meeting with Gaddafi in Libya

Ebrima was 23 when he entered the Sahara.

“People trafficking is completely left to Chad smugglers in the Sahara,” he explains.

He set off with a large group of 30 Gambians. The Chadian smugglers initially rejected them, but Ebrima convinced them with assurances “The Gambians are Muslims, so they are good people.”

The memories of the desert still haunt him.

“Women were raped, people were brutally beaten, kidnapped, and murdered. I witnessed three deaths and two births during my journey. Nigerian women were forced to sell their bodies in order to survive,” he remembers. Moreover, there was vicious tribalism among travelers, traffickers, drug dealers, robbers, and various desert nomads.

In 2009, Ebrima arrived in Tripoli and began working at the Libyan branch of Coca-Cola owned by the Gaddafi family.

“Ten of us lived in unfinished houses without windows and doors, without toilets. We had to buy beds. They have settled workers from India, Bangladesh and us from sub-Saharan Africa together,” he says. Ebrima was determined: “I’ve been thinking about how much more I can earn. I was financially helping relatives in Gambia, so there was no other choice for me.’

After two years of living in Libya life became bearable. Ebrima started to live alone for the first time. He had an apartment with electricity and water. At that time, he began to wander into the world of crime, which will follow him also later. But he made a living also with other work: he helped his friend Nadal from Syria to set up tents for big events.

“You know I shook a hand with Gaddafi once?” he says elatedly.

It was September 2009 and the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Gaddafi’s regime. Ebrima was among the workers setting up tents for a big celebration in Tripoli.

“All the African and Arab political elites arrived there,” he recalls. That’s :when a friend Nadal asked him if he wanted to meet Gaddafi: “I said, “Of course!.””

What impression did the Libyan dictator make?

“I’ve only been thinking about one: how can a poor man like me stand in front of this powerful dictator? I believed that handling such an important man could bring me only luck. Now things can only turn better for me,” smiles Ebrima, recalling an unusual short encounter with the Gaddafi. Ebrima says you couldn’t name Gaddafi on the streets of Tripoli. The former leader of Libya was referred to as an “Arab” in local African dialect.

“If you said the word “Gaddafi,” they could immediately ask you on the street why are you mentioning this name.” The whole society had to obey to the Gaddafi’s leadership.

“People had to paint their houses and mosques green. That was his color,” he recalls. Ebrima’s life in Libya was also affected by the brutal racism of Arabs towards black Africans.

“They called us “dog” in Arabic. The kids were throwing rocks at us until our heads started bleeding. The adults didn’t stop them from doing so. We Africans never went to the hospital because the Arabs would have killed us. I didn’t trust them. I’ve heard they sell organs and get rid of the bodies,” he explains.

He felt he was done with Libya and it would be time for him to go back home. He felt homesick and was waiting for November 2011 parliamentary elections in Gambia. His tribe of Mandinka was in conflict with the then-government. If President Yahya Jammeh was to fall, he would be ready to return home.

But fate had other plans for Ebrima.

In the winter of 2011, he and Nadal drove through the streets of Tripoli.

“Ebrima, do you know that we are about ten days away from the war?”

“What are you talking about? It can’t be true! There is only war in Egypt,” Ebrima replied.

“It will spread here immediately after Egypt,” his friend Nadal predicted.

Life came to a halt in February, when clashes began first in Benghazi and areas that were not loyal to Gaddafi. Libya’s first civil war or the so-called “Libyan revolution” took over.

“When the war begins, everything changes. All of a sudden, everything stops working. Coca-Cola has closed its production. There are not many options left for us migrants. The regime has offered us 100 euros a day to fight on the side of Gaddafi’s forces. I accepted the offer on the condition that I do not have to take the weapon into my hands,” he explains.

He was given a military uniform and was delivering food to the soldiers who fought on the side of the Gaddafi regime. In March of the same year, NATO launched a military operation in Libya. To defy the European Union, authorities had forcefully pushed migrants from Libya on the boats to Europe. The trips ended in many shipwrecks. That’s what Ebrima, the uneasy swimmer, was most afraid of. He, too, landed on the list for a forced trip to Europe. When once he resisted driving in a crowded unstable boat, the soldiers put him in jail for a week. That’s where Nadal visited him.

“Don’t be stubborn and get out of this country. Don’t you understand that everything is failing!?” his friend warned.

The journey back home was too dangerous. A few weeks later, he boarded a boat that was heading for the Italian island of Lampedusa.

The European odyssey began.

Ebrima among the lavender bushes. (Photo: Katja Lihtenvalner)

“In Italy I became a criminal”

A new chapter in Europe began in June 2011 with a collision in the port of Lampedusa because a young and amateur captain from Tunisia who could not navigate the vessel.

“He knew how to drive it, but not to stop it and anchor it,” he laughs today, remembering his first contact with the European ground. The travellers said goodbye (“We never met again!”) and ran across the island. In the following hours, they were arrested and detained in the Southern port city of Bari, where Ebrima then lived in a refugee centre for several months.

‘I’m not a racist, I’m not against any religion or any tribe, but I have to say that we’ve been constantly subjected to xenophobia in Italian refugee centres. The Arabs were receiving asylum, financial support, they could cook on their own and enjoy the support of the European Union. But they have completely forgotten about us who were forced to flee Libya,” he describes an Italian migration policies.

Nobody was listening to his story and his asylum was rejected. He maintained closed ties with certain police officers, which he deemed highly significant.

In the summer of 2011, a refugee center in Bari caught fire. A whole range of African migrants, including Ebrima, have been charged with arson. If convicted, he would be deported to Libya.

“My skin was saved by a policewoman from the refugee center. She claimed I had nothing to do with arson,” he recalls. But the situation has become increasingly unbearable for him. He hung out with English-speaking Africans. The fights between Arabs and Africans were daily. He was looking for alternatives to survive. He refused to be victimized and did not accept the ignorance by the Italian migrant bureaucracy.

He began to delve deeper into the criminal underworld: first he sold small quantities of marijuana on the streets of Bari.

“Not by choice. We didn’t receive any money, we weren’t allowed to work, we couldn’t go back, we weren’t allowed to go to school. My money in Libya was lost. They kept extending our status for three months,” he recalls.

He decided to move to Rome. “I’m better at big cities,” he says. Since he was already trafficking drugs on the street, he followed this path. “I’ve become a big criminal. The Albanian mafia delivered kilograms of marijuana to Italy, we Africans sell it on the streets to local customers,” he says. ‘It becomes a way of life where you always have to be careful. You meet a lot of people, you can’t trust anyone. You’re constantly checking over your shoulder, and every action is calculated,” he recalls.

As he walked the streets of Rome, Ebrima disguised himself as a football player, carrying a ball and boots with him to deceive the police with his appearance.

”I used to get stopped by the police often just because I was a black man. To trick them I would wear the Lazio football club jersey. This way, I would get treated differently and avoid scrutiny. The police loved to talk about football,” he chuckles. He goes on to say, “I’ve never been arrested, but I’ve been in some tight situations.” He emphasizes that the years he spent in the underworld of Libya and Italy taught him to be cautious, confront the hostile world, and have the ability to judge people accurately. He doesn’t reveal any names or contacts and insists that he entered the criminal world out of necessity and adds: “I’ve always sought a way out.”

In that period serious health problems have begun for Ebrima. Bacteria was ulcerating his stomach and causing wounds. The doctors couldn’t help him. He couldn’t eat anymore.

“My stomach started rejecting food, so sometimes for a few days I just chewed chewing gum with sugar to beat hunger,” he recalls. He was also suffering from knee effusion. Ebrima’s physical health was deteriorating slowly. The doctors scheduled scans after a few months or a year but he already made the decision to move to another country in hopes he can seek help for his health.

“I was on the reggae scene at the time and that’s where I met the girl who recommended me come to Berlin,” he describes. She told him to go to the Yaam African Club in central Berlin, where he would find countrymen who might be able to advise him.

In 2013, he made his way back on the road. European policy towards refugees who have forcefully come from Libya has reversed: they have been granted asylum. Ebrima was sick, but now he had refugee status, and the possibilities opened up.

He says, “I gathered all the valuable possessions in my house, sent it to my friends to a refugee center in Bari, and bid farewell to the people who had been a part of my life in Rome.” When he left Italy, he finally also broke up with the dangerous world of drug dealing. He closed this chapter, now he was thinking about his health and a different future.

In Berlin to a new family

Ebrima arrived to Berlin in August 2013.

“I had distant relatives on my mother’s side in the city. ‘Call me, Ebrima, when you arrive!’ they had invited me before I set out on my journey,” he now recalls that summer. When he arrived in Berlin, his phone rang empty. Ebrima was once again left alone in an unknown city. But once more kind strangers proved to be the most reliable help.

“When I arrived to Libya, I didn’t know anyone. The same was true when I arrived in Italy,” he remembers. On the Berlin streets Ebrima stubbornly decided to make on his own, in his own style: he dressed in a Libyan military uniform and set out to the social vibrant Berlin social life. He wanted to enter the African club Yaam when there was a big concert by a Jamaican singer.

Why Libyan military uniform?

“Because I am a lonely soldier in the jungle. The jungle is a world and a life in which I must always fight alone,” Ebrima ponders.

However, ticket sellers in Yaam refused him to entry that night because they deemed his uniform inappropriate.

“I stayed in a hostel for the next few days. My knee was already swollen, so I could barely walk. Every morning, I bought a daily ticket and rode around Berlin to explore the city that I immediately liked,” he describes his first encounter with Berlin.

Life turned into Ebrima’s favour: a German girl noticed him lost in the hostel where he had been staying for several days and invited him to the apartment where she lived with other friends. They understood his plight and decided to let him stay with them for free for a year. When he said he urgently needed medical help, they referred him to a social clinic run by Dr. Albrecht Grimmer.

“When I came for a check-up, he told me that they could cure me within a year. The doctor’s secretary, who was also his wife, Ute, gave me 50 euros as a travel allowance,” he remembers. He declined the money and said he only needed medical help.

He visited the doctor every Thursday until he completely recovered within a year. The German couple in the clinic grew more attached to him. A close friendship developed and later grew into a family bond. Albrecht and Ute decided to adopt Ebrima and provide him with a decent living in Berlin. Ute’s elderly father bought him an apartment in Griebnitzsee, a district of Berlin.

“As you sow, so shall you reap,” Ebrima explains today simply and adds, “If you are good, good things will happen to you. I can’t say I’ve always been good, but I’ve tried my best.”

Ebrima fully recovered in 2015. After more than ten years, he returned to school. First, he learned German, and then he joined a vocational school, where he learned construction engineering. “I don’t want people to think I’m lazy and incapable of finding solutions. You will never see me asking for help or causing trouble. I always look for solutions myself, but I am loyal to people when I get to know them,” he describes.

Ebrima and Ute outside the summer house in Potsdam. (Photo: Katja Lihtenvalner)

Last year, he completed vocational school, and he is now employed at Karl Weiss Technologies, a reputable German company that has been involved in infrastructure and water system installation worldwide for many years.

Potsdam, August 2022

The family sits around a wooden table in their dark red summer house located in the prominent Neu Fahrland area of Potsdam. Ebrima invites his friends over, and his parents are delighted to welcome and host them. They are both extremely proud of Ebrima, whom they refer to as “our child.”

“Dad, you’ve made a delicious seafood pasta!” Ebrima compliments Albrecht in perfect German. “Really? Is it any good?” laughs Albrecht. He fixes his glasses and he complains that spaghetti are to tick.

Ute twirls spaghetti onto her fork and smiles. She’s happy with the scene she’s watching. The idyllic family seems to have lived together for years.

Ute tells me she’d like to visit Gambia with Ebrima, but she is afraid everyone there will think she’s a millionaire. She doesn’t want to make a false impression on his adopted son’s relatives. “Mom, don’t worry. We’ll go together, no one’s going to ask you any questions,” Ebrima laughs.

Today, Ebrima travels by plane and comfortable trains, sleeps in hotels and on a soft bed and gets a decent wage. “Sometimes my parents call me on the phone, and when I say ‘Hi, Mom!’ my co-workers are confused,” says Ebrima.

Ebrima is the only black person employed in the construction of the water system project. He says that specially workers from Germany and Poland have different comments on this. He’s trying to ignore them. “They don’t travel, they don’t know the world,” he justifies their responses.

“Let’s be realistic and honest. Skin color is important to people. For example, if I travel by train, no one will sit next to me. That’s what happened today when I was driving here. White people were avoiding me on the train. When I look at them, I find them ignorant, but I laugh at them,” he explains. He describes the problem of racism as “the perception of colour diversity.”

“Human rights are only for white people. Not for us. For black Africans, human rights and democracy do not exist. This was most clearly seen when Syrian refugees were coming to Europe or now that the Ukrainians were coming. That’s why some of my African brothers are turning against the Ukrainians, even if they’re not for Russia. We Africans do not exist in Europe, but even in Africa we have a terrible tribal dissolution among our own people,” he describes.

When I spend time with Ebrima, I realised that many of his acquaintances don’t know his story, nor how his life in Germany has changed drastically for the better.

“People are jealous when they see you’re doing well. At the same time, I don’t want to brag about anything. That’s how I was raised. Modest,” he says.

Today, Ebrima sends help back to where “his heart belongs”: in his mother’s village of Kaiaf in the east of Gambia. He pays tuition to 12 kids. Some are relatives, others are acquaintances. He also builds a house for himself, and he’s already bought several properties.

“My father closed his office in Berlin in 2018 and he didn’t know what to do with all the medical material that was still completely usable. I decided to send everything to my people in Kaiaf,” he explains. He sought out Nigerian and Gambian companies that trade in Europe and paid them to transport them. The new equipment has turned a Gambian clinic into a modern medical facility.

“Two years ago, I was called from Berlin’s Neukölln General Hospital because of renovation going on there. They asked me if I wanted to send some of their old equipment to Gambia. There were nine hospital beds, 15 wheelchairs and several crutches, all well preserved,” he says. The equipment was already sailing towards Gambia a few weeks later at Ebrima’s expenses.

Today Ebrima is sending aid to Africa. (Photo: Katja Lihtenvalner)

Reconciled

Ebrima has found peace with the world after decades of wandering, but he acknowledges that the fight isn’t over yet: “While it seems like I am winning, the battle won’t end until life is over.”

The roof of the summer house is caressed by the last rays of sunshine. Slowly, the atmosphere is cooling. The bees are heading for a well-deserved rest. Albrecht, Ute and Ebrima sit at a table, eat vanilla ice cream with freshly picked blackberries and talk about everyday things. They’re laughing.

Ebrima returned to Berlin this weekend after a few weeks of work in the Netherlands. He always stops first with those two who have been selflessly in his greatest support for nearly a decade.

An African-German family stands out in a row of summer houses of Potsdam. The pure sight of an idyllic humanism.

The story of Ebrima Conneh was originally published in Slovenian language 20th of August, 2022: Zgodba o Ebrimu Connehu: “Človek ne sme nikoli obupati” (vecer.com)

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Katja Lihtenvalner

Journalist. Greece, Western Balkans #PoliticalExtremism #HateSpeech #FakeNews Head of Research at RusaalkaFilms Monitored #GDtrial I train #MuayThai