Search and rescue: "Into the lungs of Hell"
On board the MV Aquarius, a search and rescue vessel operated jointly by MSF and SOS MEDITERRANEE, cultural mediator Oussama meets two women who shared their story of friendship, courage and escape.
We rescued four rubber boats yesterday. Despite the tiredness and the endless waiting between a rescue and the other, we were happy because our "guests" were in good condition.
The 394 people we have on board come from different countries, everyone has his or her own personal story, their own unforgettable, sad and beautiful memories.
I thought I had seen everything, I thought I had heard the most horrific stories that one can hear.
My past and current experiences with Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) have given me a broad idea of what people fleeing from Libya are enduring, but I never thought I would hear a story so gruesome and painful as the one I heard today.
As usual, once back on the ship, I started my tour amongst our "guests". That's when I met Fatima and Zohra.
The two women were North African: Zohra from Libya, and Fatima from Morocco. They were happy to find in me someone who speaks their language, able to listen to and understand them.
Zohra and Fatima are two women who share the same fate, a fate that led them to be friends and to embark on a journey full of both danger and hope.
Oussama on board the MV Aquarius. Photo: MSF.
Zohra is 25-year-old Libyan woman. She comes from a large family, including her parents, three brothers and three sisters.
She used to attend university.
"I only had a few exams left before I could graduate," she says. "I love the university and my studies."
However, Libya's increasing problems didn't spare her family.
A notorious criminal from Zohra's area (a warlord surrounded by his henchmen), set fire to her family's house. That was the beginning of all of her trouble.
"One day I when was at university, this criminal broke into the classroom and his men began to look for me," she remembers. "Neither my colleagues nor my teachers could do something to protect me, so I was kidnapped.
"Fortunately I was able to launch an SOS from my phone.
"My kidnapping lasted a few hours ... A few hours where my poor body suffered the violence of the men working for that criminal.
"They beat me to a pulp and then they threw me on a street."
My dreams were shattered, fear had won
Even after this horrible experience, Zohra continued to receive death threats. Her life had become a hell.
Her family decided to leave the city, preventing their daughter from continuing her studies.
She recalls that moment and with a voice full of emotion.
"That decision has destroyed me, my dreams were shattered, fear had won," she says.
I want to build my life with my sweat. I want it without anyone's help
Zohra spoke to me with a very determined look. Her eyes communicated for her: she is a woman who knows what she wants.
She knows that she wants to be independent.
"I don't want to be a burden to anyone," she says. "I want to build my life with my sweat. I want it without anyone's help."
Zohra worked as a secretary at a medical tests laboratory for four years, until her parents decided to give her in marriage to someone they knew.
This is when her professional career and her life as an independent woman suffered an abrupt halt: and the beginning of one of the worst periods of her life.
My parents told me that it was my duty to obey my husband, and if he beat me up I just had to be patient.
Zohra's husband, who was much older than her, would often beat her. Once they were married, her husband did nothing to hide his real nature.
He tried to force her into sexual practices she didn’t consent to, but Zohra refused and she got beaten harder and harder at every rejection.
The woman sought refuge in her family, but instead of protection she found indifference and silence.
"My parents told me that it was my duty to obey my husband, and if he beat me up I just had to be patient," she says.
In Libya, as in most Arab countries, sex is still a taboo and talking about it is an act of courage in itself. The victims of sexual abuses are many, and they often remain buried in their silence.
Not having found the help she was looking for, Zohra was forced to make a sad decision and go back to her husband.
"I thought, naively, that my husband would calm down," she says. "Instead, he had become more perverse than before. "Not only did he keep on pushing me to do things I didn’t want to do, but he continued to beat me and that was not even enough for him, nothing was enough for him!"
Zohra continues to talk, her look always proud. Maybe she wanted to cry but her pride would not allow her.
He had no mercy for me, no pity for my tears, nor for my honour, and neither for his honour!
Zohra takes a break for a few moments. Her hand looks for that of her friend Fatima - who attended our meeting.
She finds it and holds her tight like a frightened child holds her mother’s loving hand.
She sighs deeply and continues her story.
"About five months ago, my husband arrived home with a group of six friends," she remembers. "This beast, who should have be a husband to me and who was supposed to protect me, served me on a silver platter to these criminals.
"I was forced to have sex with all six of them, while he watched.
"He had no mercy for me, no pity for my tears, nor for my honor, and neither for his honor!
"I still feel the stench of sweat and dirt of those pigs on my body. Their screams, laughs and moans still ringing in my ears "
Zohra was subject to these sort of abuses for almost five months.
From that moment the two women became inseparable
Zohra’s story is tough to listen to, too tough, but she seems so proud. She doesn't show any sign of breakdown.
Continuing her story, she explains that one day she managed to escape her husband and return to her family.
Their reaction was not different from before.
"I had only one choice left: escaping, and I managed to escape," she says. "My husband and his friends continued to threaten me by phone."She shows me some threatening text messages and other voice messages.
"Now I have been far from that beast for three months, three months hidden and protected by my friend."
At that friend's house Zohra meets Fatima.
From that moment the two women became inseparable.
Zhora and Fatima look out towards the horizon. Photo: Oussama Omrane/MSF.
Fatima is a 32-year old Moroccan woman. She had lived most of her life in Morocco. Her parents are separated, and each of them has remarried.
Bounced like a tennis ball between the two, Fatima felt increasingly abandoned.
"I couldn't stand it anymore," she says. "I felt like a homeless person.
"The only hope for me was to leave Morocco and go far away."
It was 2009 when Fatima took a plane to Libya, where she has a sister. She could not stay at her sister’s place, but she helped her settle in and find a job.
"I started working as a caregiver in a house and I have to say that things were going very well for me," remembers Fatima.
However, when chaos in Libya grew out of control, Fatima's life and those of other women like her turned into a living hell.
They shot people, they beat people, and they kidnapped me
"In 2013 I was working in a bar," says Fatima. "I was being discreet and trying not be noticed.
"One night, an armed group of 20 raided the bar.
"They shot people, they beat people, and they kidnapped me. They brought me to a farm in the outskirts of the city."
Fatima shows the pride of a strong, but fragile person.
She continues the relate of her journey into the lungs of Libya’s hell.
"For seven days and seven nights I was raped repeatedly by those 20 men," she recalls. "Imagine, 20 animals, crazy and drugged, they are worse than beasts, they beat you and rape you non-stop for seven days, a whole week!
"In the end I was more shattered than a rag, bleeding everywhere.
"I was more dead than alive."
Her kidnappers, fearing that she would die, decided to bring Fatima back to the city, where they abandoned her on a street.
Fatima was lucky because some kindhearted person found her and took her to the hospital. There she was treated for a vaginal haemorrhage.
With the little lucidity she had left, Fatima wanted to press charges - but what for and against whom?
The doctors told her that she would get nowhere as Libya had become a house without owners, where the State no longer existed.
For seven months Fatima did not leave home, not even to take a breath of fresh air. She was in shock. Her sister took care of her.
The men behind me ran too, and then shot a few bullets in the air. I stopped, and lay down on my knees with my hands up.
Spring came, and Fatima decided to go out for a short walk.
After seven months she felt more comfortable. She smiles as she remembers her desire to live again and and to leave her bad experiences behind.
Her smile, frank and honest, lasted only a few seconds.
"I wanted to start to live again," she remembers. "I did not want to bury myself inside the walls of the house.
"So I decide to go out, I start walking, I was happy in some way.
"Suddenly I hear someone following me. I turn and realise that was not a good day to go out.
"I start to run away.
"Those behind me ran too, and then shot a few bullets in the air. I stopped, and lay down on my knees with my hands up."
Fatima remembers every moment of that bloody day.
I could not run away, I had no one, I did not know where to go
The 12 men who kidnapped her were armed and "junkies" - they had taken drugs and were in a very, very altered state.
Fatima was taken to a farm far from town.
With a smile full of irony she tells me: "You know, these groups here are different, sometimes they are enemies but they have two things in common: drugs and a farm in the outskirts of the city."
For a whole month Fatima remained in the hands of those thugs.
"Every day I was raped by three or four men, day, night, dawn," she recalls. "For them it makes no difference.
"I was forced to take their bodies full of lard on top of me, their breath stinking of alcohol, their heavy hands when they beat me or strangled.
"For a month they took my soul, my femininity.
"I had become just a body without a soul, a source of pleasure for those beasts.
"I did not want anything but death."
Close to death, Fatima was taken away and thrown on a street back in the city.
I was two months pregnant, I was happy
One year passed - a year in which Fatima shut down, not only within the walls of her home, but in her world of horrors and nightmares.
She was terrified and began talking to herself.
Some Moroccan friends helped her to retrieve her will to live, or at least the strength to carry on.
In 2015 she met her husband.
"I met him at a wedding, but then I refused to see him again," she remembers. "I was still afraid of men.
"Our relationship started very slowly, we talked every day on the phone and only after many months I realised that he could be the right person for me."
The two got married. Fatima’s husband's behaviour was very good in the beginning, but changed quickly.
The man, who worked as a hydraulic, was no longer what he once was. He began to beat her.
"I was two months pregnant, I was happy," says Fatima. "A child who would have brought me joy, but my husband had a different opinion. He did not want it and so one day he beat me hard on my belly until he made me bleed and lose my baby.
"Unfortunately I could not run away, I had no one, I did not know where to go."
The sun sets on the Mediterranean Sea. Photo: Kevin McElvaney/MSF.
United more than ever by the hope to start over
Soon Fatima discovered she was pregnant again.
This time, she didn't say anything to her husband. She packed her things and ran away, to hide at a friend’s house.
There Fatima met Zohra, and from that moment the two women became inseparable.
They lived different but sadly similar experiences.
Now they are united more than ever by the hope to start over, and feel the breeze of life without fear and terror.