Refugees find safe haven after escape from Libyan hell

22 November 2017 - 12:05
A man holds a placard reading
Image: GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT A man holds a placard reading "No to slavery in Libya" during a march against "slavery in Libya" on November 18, 2017 in Paris.

After months on the road into exile and inside the hell of Libyan jails, migrants rescued by the UN refugee agency have found safety and shelter in Niger's capital before leaving for Europe.

The refugees from three distant Horn of Africa nations breathe easy for a while at a comfortable transit centre in Niamey, a city on the broad Niger river south of the daunting Sahara desert.

"Since we left Libya, things have been OK," says Amina, a 20-year-old Ethiopian sitting on the terrace with her husband. Like those of her companions, her name has been changed.

Amina says she is "in a hurry to leave" for France, which will take in the 25 people from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan flown to Niger on November 11 by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The young woman fled her homeland in 2016 with a gunshot wound sustained as the regime in Addis Ababa stepped up repression on her ethnic group, the Oromo people.

The worst was yet to come in Libya.

"In prison they beat you, they give you just one plate of food for 12 people. I was seven months' pregnant, I lost my baby," Amina says.

The east Africans are expected to travel to France by January, after security screening.

 - 'Keys to life in France' -

"This is above all a way to save people who have come out of real hell, with torture, rape and child kidnapping," Pascal Brice, the head of the French Office of Protection for Refugees and Stateless Persons (OFPRA), told AFP after visiting Niamey.

The trip came as a CNN report on vulnerable migrants being sold off at slave auctions in Libya raised protests around Africa and at the UN last week.

Brice noted that members of the group, which includes 15 women and four children, were "almost all victims of sexual violence".

Amina says she has "no idea at all" what to expect in France, but she is making an effort.

"Merci beaucoup, bonjour, enchante, je t'aime," she laughs, reeling off French words learned since she arrived in the building, which is protected by guards and barbed wire.

 - Steady meals and pocket money -

The refugees get three meals a day, daily visits from a psychologist and a little spending money. "They have the right to go out, but they don't venture very far," says the manager of the centre.

"For more than four months we were together in the reception centre" in Libya, says Samia, an Eritrean accompanied by her husband and their four children. "And we hope to remain together once we're in France."

The youngest of Samia's children is a baby girl less than two months old, who seems at ease in everyone's arms within the tight-knit group. The family has been given a room with three beds that is kept very tidy.

Pairs of shoes are lined up on the white tiles outside the door. Inside the room, they have two suitcases and a few toys. "It's not big, but it's just for sleeping," Samia says.

Otherwise, life goes on in common rooms, on the terrace and in front of the television, while the kids play. Samia says that the children are the main reason for leaving, "so that they have a future".

Her husband Mahmud fled from enforced military service in Eritrea, formerly a part of Ethiopia that fought for almost 30 years to win independence, which came in 1993. Conscripts are still liable to potentially unlimited duty.

- 'Leaving the worst behind' -

After 2011, once he took refuge in Libya, Mahmud's life grew unbearable. "I was kidnapped in the open street for a ransom of 500 dinars" (310 euros, $365), he says.

Today he says he has "a feeling of joy" and the certainty of "leaving the worst behind for something better".

But the refugees still harbour dark memories of violence, and for the women, sexual violence, and speak of such deeply painful experiences in veiled terms.

Assaulted by a taxi driver "with no reaction from the people around", Gebere, 35, says that her sisters have suffered similar episodes. "Sometimes we can't even talk about it among ourselves."

"To forget what I went through, I have to leave again for elsewhere, to go to school," says Fanous, a 20-year-old Eritrean who was jailed in Libya and today fiddles with the wooden cross round her neck as she speaks. "I'd like to work in a hairdresser's or a beauty salon."

Finding a job will entail learning French and adapting to cultural standards sometimes very different from what they have known, but members of the group say they're ready. "Nothing is difficult when you have the will," Mahmud declares.

On the terrace where she told her story, Amina is equally confident. "I've heard gunfire since I was born. In Libya I almost died. I am not afraid."