Reportage. The once welcoming doors to Europe are closing, but the number of refugees streaming across the Tunisian border from Libya are increasing. They bring tales of horror.

Between life and death: for Miriama Kamara and other refugees, the doors are closed

For 50 days, Libyan soldiers, policemen and businessmen abused her alongside other young female African migrants. They were kidnapped and held captive in Zuwara, the Libyan coastal town midway between Tripoli and the Tunisian border, inside an abandoned building, but with doors and windows secured in place to prevent them from escaping.

Crowded in small rooms, forced to sit on the floor like animals, they were raped at least four to five times per day: “Those who refused were beaten and tortured,” said Mariama Kamara, 28, of Sierra Leone. “I saw at least a couple of girls die right next to me, worn out by weeks of violence. I was able to endure the horror and go on, hoping that I would survive. I said to myself, ‘This couldn’t be how my life ends, after all I’ve been through.’”

Kamara escaped from her birth country in 2016. She has big eyes and an incredible inner strength. On Oct. 8, she was kidnapped in Zuwara by a local gang, just as she was trying, for the third time, to get on a boat or a raft to reach Italy. The first two times, the Tripoli Coast Guard picked up the survivors, including her, and brought them back.

Then came the darkest day of her life: “I was kidnapped on the outskirts of Zuwara by men from a gang called the Asma Boys, who specialize in kidnapping girls for prostitution. I was in that hole for several weeks, along with dozens of other girls. I was their slave, and had to suffer all their violence. They gave me food once a day. I was forced to have violent unprotected sex, they kicked me, they put out cigarettes on my body. These are scars that I will carry with me for life. 

“Then, on Nov. 26, a guard at that prison took pity on us and opened the door for us, and I fled together with other girls. It was too dangerous to stay in Libya, so we set out on the road through the desert, and we crossed the border with Tunisia a few days later, where the National Guard found us and took us to a Red Crescent center.”

This is where we found her, in Medenine, the capital of the governorate of the same name, 600 km south of Tunis. Things have changed since those terrible days in the autumn of 2018, and there is something new in her life.

“Because of those sexual relations, I got pregnant, and on July 1 I gave birth to twins,” Kamara said. “I called them Mongi and Wael, the names of two people who have helped me very much in recent months. [One of them, Mongi Slim, is the director of the Red Crescent Society in Medenine.] I had no doubt that I wanted to keep them, even after many advised me to give them up into foster care or for adoption, because of how everything happened and the difficulty in which I find myself. I finally decided that, after all, they are my children. 

“The problem now is figure out how to move forward. I could stay in this center—they are welcoming—but for how long? My goal is to reach Europe, Germany, Sweden, or, why not, Italy, in order to ensure a better future for my children. Unfortunately, it is not easy, and so far, in spite of my situation, I have not gotten any answers from the institutions. They want to force me to risk my life and the lives of Mongi and Wael out at sea, sailing illegally from Tunisia to Italy.”

For her, the choices are limited, and they all have serious downsides. Not being from among the seven nationalities (Somalian, Eritrean, Ethiopian, Sudanese, Yemeni, Palestinian and Syrian) that allow one to enter into the system of the UNHCR humanitarian corridors to Europe, she can only choose to be transferred to the Agadez transit center in Niger by the IOM (the other UN agency for migration, very active in north Africa); or, in the worst case scenario, return to Sierra Leone.

She tells us why she left: “I ran away from a village in the Kono district, on the border with Guinea Conakry, in order to avoid ending up caught in the net of the Bondo Society,” she says, referring to a cult-like society that forces women to follow sexual practices including female genital mutilation. “I ran away because of that group, in which my grandmother was a leader. They wanted to subject me to genital mutilation a second time, after the first one when I was still a child.”

Life has not been very kind to Kamara, especially during the last three years. Like thousands of other women, she has become a victim of forced migration twice over. In most cases, they arrive in Tunisia after having been turned into nothing more than objects for rape in Libya, that hellhole of a country that some—including our government and a large part of Italian public opinion—still dare to say it should be considered a “safe haven.”

At least Kamara is alive, and she is thinking about her future together with the two children she is raising. Despite all her hardships, many have been much less fortunate than her. For instance, Rose Marie was more or less the same age as her when she started off from Niger. At the end of May 2016, in Libya, in the same city of Zuwara, she got into a boat going to Italy.

Everything went wrong: “The boat started to take on water, and it sank. An SOS was immediately put out. When one of the ships from Zarzis arrived at the scene, only some migrants were still alive, who were rescued. Unfortunately, the lifeless body of Rose Marie was floating on the water. She had died just before the ship arrived.”

Chamseddine Marzoug works for the Red Crescent Society in Zarzis, and for five years now, in his “free time,” he has been taking care to give a decent burial to the unidentified victims of the shipwrecks of migrant vessels in southern Tunisia. He was responsible for setting up the “Cemetery of the Unknown” on the outskirts of Zarzis: an arid patch of land which today houses the remains of over 400 people.

It also houses the remains of Rose Marie. “We know about her name and origin from one of the survivors of the shipwreck. Her lifeless body was recovered at sea on May 27, 2016 and taken to the morgue of the hospital in Zarzis. Since they were not able to find her family, as she had no documents, to keep her from ending up in a common ossuary, I buried her in my graveyard. She was young, beautiful and she just missed the chance to be rescued.”

The Red Crescent has filed requests with local authorities to be granted a more suitable area for burials, within an official project. Until that happens, Chamseddine is doing everything by his own efforts, with the most pure volunteer spirit.

And he is running out of space: “I had to dig graves on two levels, because I cannot expand further. A few days ago, there was another terrible shipwreck [in early July, 82 bodies were recovered off the Tunisian coast], many dead bodies are waiting to be buried, but there is no more space here. Why do I do it? These people deserve at least a decent burial, and they deserve respect.”


The crossings over the Tunisian border have tripled

Over the last six months, the number of people crossing the land border between Libya and Tunisia in order to try to reach Europe by sea from there has tripled. This is according to a report released on Thursday by the NGO Tunisian Forum for Social and Economic Rights. From 417 people in the first half of 2018, the numbers have gone up to 1,008 over the same period this year.

“Most of those who have arrived want to embark on the journey by sea to Europe, but some are fleeing the conditions of insecurity in Libya,” the report says, originally in Arabic. The Medenine border point is the most important crossing point, through which 84% of arrivals take place.

However, people keep trying the sea route: on Wednesday, the Tunisian coast guard seized a vessel with 90 sub-Saharan migrants coming from Libya. In the first six months of the year, around 1,266 migrants were intercepted in the territorial waters of Tunisia, and the Tunisian Red Crescent collected 82 bodies from the southern beaches of the Tunisian coast after the sinking of a rubber dinghy with migrants which left from the Libyan port of Zuwara on July 4.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Your weekly briefing of progressive news.

You have Successfully Subscribed!