Inside Zuwara, the heart of Libya's people-smuggling trade

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Migrants' belongings on the beach at Zuwara
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The beaches of Zuwara are littered with the belongings of those who attempted the dangerous journey to Europe

The walk along the beach in Zuwara was short, but in just 50 yards I found three dead bodies in the sand. They were all adult men, their corpses baking in the brilliant heat of the afternoon.

They had been there for some time. One appeared to be African, but the other two were so swollen and decomposed it was impossible to tell where they came from.

But they may have been Syrian. Or Palestinian. Or Iraqi. These are the people who flock here in their thousands, paying $1,000-$2,000 (£660-£1320) to get on tiny fishing boats they hope will make it across the Mediterranean to Italian waters.

Zuwara is the dark heart of Libya's smuggling trade. At the jetty of a former chemical plant about 20km (12 miles) from the town, people smugglers operate freely.

A week ago, two of the boats that set off from here ran into trouble. Two hours into their journey, they sank.

Nearly 200 people drowned. Bad weather or a dispute between rival smuggling gangs may have caused these deaths.

[Warning: This story contains a graphic image.]

Mohammed Alawi from Egypt was on one of the boats.

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"Less than two hours into the journey we sank... there was a kid lying on my lap, but he died too" - Egyptian Mohammed Alawi was on a boat from Libya to Europe

"We were sailing and all of a sudden the boat sank, everyone on board died except three or four people who were on top of the boat," he said. "The ones on top had life vests, but the waves took them in different directions, some people lived… some people died."

He was being held in a detention centre in Zuwara. As soon as he was freed, he said, he would head home.

"When I came, they told me there was no risk, they said it was a big ship, it had a captain and two assistants. They said the ships don't sink, if there's any trouble we will be rescued and helped. But none of this was true," he said.

"I will not try again, this route only leads to death. Your sell your soul and those of your children taking this journey," he added.

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The bodies of migrants recently lost at sea are gathered on a beach

A people smuggler, who wished to remain anonymous, told me that it does not take much to get started in the business: $10,000 to buy a boat - demand has driven up prices - and the contacts to have refugees and migrants directed your way.

"There's no one person in control, it's an open market. If you have boats setting off earlier you may pass people between smugglers," he said.

Those making the journey are held overnight at safe houses, then transferred after dark in trucks to the beaches.

"We sometimes teach one of the migrants how to operate the boat," the smuggler explained. "If he does it, he pays less to travel."

Three people were detained after last week's disaster, but no formal charges have been brought yet. In Libya's chaos, the smuggling business is largely unchecked.

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Flimsy boats - such as this one - are used to smuggle migrants

Despite the deaths of the week before, boats were still heading out from Zuwara under the cover of darkness.

"This business won't be stopped," the smuggler added.

The clothes of the dead, and those who escaped, litter the beaches here for hundreds of miles. There are shoes of all sizes, children's too, and makeshift life vests.

This Mediterranean summer nightmare may soon ease though. By October, the colder weather arrives and the seas become rougher, meaning fewer will attempt to cross these waters.