"The two 8-year-old Eritrean boys had ridden for days across the deserts of Ethiopia, Sudan and Libya packed in the back of a truck with two other children and a dozen adults,"David D. Kirkpatrick wrote April 27 for the New York Times from Zawiyah, Libya.
"Then they spent another month trapped in a crowded farmhouse that the smugglers used as a pen to store their human cargo.
"Finally, in the dark of night, a rubber dinghy ferried the two boys, Hermon Angosom and Efrem Fitwi, out to a creaking fishing boat jammed with more than 200 others, including 39 children — the youngest a 2-year-old in the arms of his mother.
"Both cried. 'We were afraid of the boat,' Hermon recounted impassively.
"The boys had joined the unceasing flow of Arab and African migrants who are churned through the lawlessness of post-Qaddafi Libya and spewed out into the Mediterranean — more than 170,000 last year and at least as many expected this year.
"It is a journey through a failed state in which border security is all but nonexistent, corruption is rampant, the coast guard rarely leaves port, and the proliferating human smuggling operations are growing ever more callous and brazen. . . ."
On Thursday, Kirkpatrick returned to the subject for the "Times Insider" section, in which reporters discuss their stories.
"How did three dozen Eritrean boys find their way into an overcrowded detention center in the town of Zawiyah, Libya?" Kirkpatrick wrote. "They ranged in age from 8 to 18. All had been picked up in the same fishing boat crammed with more than 200 other African migrants. None were accompanied by a parent or any other adult. All said they had left their parents at home in Eritrea.
"A few hours before I met the boys in Zawiyah, I had visited a fetid detention facility crowded with hundreds of desperate African migrants in the gritty Abu Salim neighborhood of Tripoli. I tried to tiptoe in my hiking boots among listless migrants lying on the thin mats on the floor of a dimly lit bunker. I watched guards force dozens of African migrants to kneel on the dirt and state their nationalities — Nigerian, Senegalese, Gambian, Ghanaian, Eritrean. I felt a twinge of conscience, but it was manageable.
"The plight of the children was much harder to set aside. I have two sons, 9 and 6. My wife and I do not even let them cross the street alone.
"The Eritrean boys were living in a concrete grade school that had been converted into a makeshift prison. The facility's director had turned the entrance hall into a macabre gallery of framed photographs of African migrants who had set out for Europe but failed to make it — photos depicted corpses in the sands of the Libyan deserts, bloated bodies floating in the Libyan surf, inflatable rafts packed with desperate migrants baking in the sun. The tile floors of the school's former classrooms were covered with the same thin mats, where hundreds of men and dozens of boys slept at night and languished for most of each day. . . ."