There is an estimated 48,000 people living in modern slavery in Libya (GSI 2018). Libya is a major transit destination for migrants and refugees hoping to reach Europe by sea. Human trafficking networks have prospered amid lawlessness, created by the warring militias that have been fighting for control of territories since the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Highly organized trafficking and migrants smuggling networks that reach into Libya from Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, and other sub-Saharan states subject migrants to forced labor and forced prostitution through fraudulent recruitment, confiscation of identity and travel documents, withholding or non-payment of wages, debt bondage, and verbal, physical, and sexual abuse. In some cases, migrants reportedly pay smuggling fees to reach Tripoli, but once they cross the Libyan border they are sometimes abandoned in southern cities or the desert where they are susceptible to severe forms of abuse and human trafficking.
In Nigeria, Vanessa struggled to house and feed herself and her three children after being thrown out of their home by her abusive husband. She worked as a hawker, selling fruit, and as a hairdresser, but worried constantly about money. Then a friend mentioned a sister in Italy with a hairdressing salon and recommended Vanessa to work there.
She was told it would be an easy journey through Libya, however after arriving in Tripoli, Vanessa and her fellow travellers were housed in a smuggler’s compound when a fight broke out among neighbourhood gangs. During this time, her baby developed a fever and became critically ill, dying shortly afterward. She set off from Tripoli on a smuggler’s boat headed for Italy, but the boat was captured by bandits who took them back to Libya and held the passengers for ransom.
Vanessa’s friend's sister in Italy paid for her release, but she was unable to make it to Italy. When she tried for a second time, she was caught by the Libyan Coast Guard, brought back, and imprisoned. A Ghanaian man bailed her out of prison only to sell her to a brothel where she had to work as a prostitute to pay off her debt.
I didn’t know the journey was this hard. It was such a long journey and there were so many wars along the way before you reach Italy. If I had known about all this, I wouldn’t have gone with the baby.
I used to live with my husband. Every day we would quarrel and he’d beat me. I had children with him, three children. He kicked me and my children out at around midnight and told us to sleep in the street. I used to sell corn, oranges and many other things so the children could survive. Sometimes I did people's hair. I put a canopy outside the house to do people’s hair. My trade alone was not sufficient. I didn’t get work every day.
It was my girlfriend, whose hair I did, who told me about it. Her sister would help me to go abroad and get a hairdressing job. I know her very well. We go to the same church. We’re like family friends. She said I should be ready to move soon. I asked how come everything had been arranged so quickly. She said, well, her sister had arranged it all. I took my baby along. I left the other two with my mother. My baby was a year and one month, when we crossed the border and went to Agadez (Niger).
When we got to Agadez, we were dropped off at a certain house. It is from that house that people get loaded in the truck to embark on the journey. After we had spent about a week or two there, they brought a truck and told us to get on board. In the desert, there were no houses, not even trees. As we walked, we saw lots of dead people, skeletons and many other things. As well as some trucks full of dead people. The water in the well was quite dirty but we had to drink from it because we were so thirsty and had no water left. The Arab men found out and told us we shouldn’t have taken water from that well because someone had died inside that well. Then they decided to take us away from that place, after two or three days.
We finally reached Tripoli, where we stayed in a private house. There in Tripoli, a fight broke out in the neighbourhood between rival armed gangs. At that time my baby who was already sick became unconscious. He was not well. I had previously met a distant relative, like a cousin, from my village. I called him my cousin brother. I met him in the same house in Tripoli. The boy considered me like his sister and always took care of me and took care of my baby in that place. So, when that fight broke out and shots were fired, we all hid and held our heads to the ground. My baby had a high temperature and his eyes turned white and bulging. On seeing this, the boy decided to go out to get him some medication. The boy was killed by a bullet when he went outside. And as he got shot, my baby’s death followed.
They busted the house after my baby died. As I tried to take my baby’s body with me, it was snatched away from my hands. They pushed us hurriedly into a pickup truck. They said we had to move fast because when the other group would enter the house, we would all be killed. To this day I don’t know what they did with my baby. I don’t know where the body is now. I don’t know if they threw it away. The baby died in my arms. They wouldn’t let me carry the body. They took him from my hands.
My baby is dead. Now I have no choice. Even if it means I have to die, I cannot go back home now.
After this we tried to cross the sea for the first time. When we were out at sea, we were caught by some armed men in a boat. When they caught us, they took us back to Libya. They gave us phones to call home, to ask for money. They told us that if we didn’t get money, they would kill us. They would rape people as they wish. Those that resisted being raped would be beaten and made to lies on the floor, where they would give them electric shocks. Three or four people died instantly as they electrocuted people on the floor.
I thought I’d never see my family again. I didn’t want to disturb my mother, because my children were staying with her. She could have a heart attack and die. So, I decided not to tell her. I didn’t bother to disturb anyone with my troubles. I kept everything that happened to me to myself. I called the lady here (in Italy). I told her I had been kidnapped and couldn’t pay what the kidnappers demanded. The woman said OK, no problem, and called her contact man to get me out of the house.
The next thing I found myself in a private house. I spent over one month in that house before we made the second attempt to cross the sea. This time we were caught by the police at sea and they took us to prison in Libya. Over there we had no food, no water. If you wanted to drink water, they told you to go to the bathroom and drink the water from the bath. They forced us to eat rice, which was never cooked, which they put on a place with tomato seeds and pepper seeds with oil. They would make us eat it. We had no choice but to eat it. If we didn’t, they would beat us. They beat the boys very hard. You could see the boys’ skeletons. They looked like broomsticks.
We all started crying to God, lamenting about our situation. All of us left our homes in search of a better life, but have ended up in prison cells, suffering. The police came to tell us about the impending visit by people from “The Union.” I don’t really know what those people are called that are being sent from Italy. They are often told to come check on the prisoners in Libya. They will come with beds and other items. They warned us not to tell them that we were being mistreated and threatened to kill us if we did. So, we complied.
They took us outside and started to record us on video while they asked us if we were being treated well and we all replied yes, we were treated well. But one of us spoke out and said that wasn’t true. Because of him speaking out, later we were all beaten.
After I spent one month in the cell, a man from Ghana bailed me from that place and took me to a private house. He said if I didn’t agree to sleep with him, he would take me back to the prison again. He then sold me to a Madam in a “Connection House.” She said I needed to stay in that “Connection House” and prostitute myself in order to pay her the money back.
At that time, I started thinking about a lot of things. I was thinking about myself, about my children at home, about my mother. Once I paid off my debt, I had to continue prostituting myself to be able to pay for the sea crossing. I didn’t have a choice because in Libya everyone carries their own cross. That was how we lived in Libya. You cannot get anyone to help you unless you pay with your body or you have money to pay them. If you don’t have money, you will offer your body to settle your debts. That's how it is in Libya.
They lie to us about the types of jobs they have in Italy. Many Madams lie to people, saying they have stores and there are many jobs there. They end up using them as street prostitutes. After the Italians had rescued me and put me in the reception centre, I used someone’s phone. I called my mother back home to let he know that I got to Italy. She was very happy. So, when my friends in Nigeria saw her and asked why she was so happy, mu mum told her that her daughter had finally entered Italy after many months without communication.
So, my friend called her sister to tell her that I was now in Italy. That woman then called her family to harass my mother at home, saying that if I did not go and meet her, she would have my mother arrested. This was my girlfriend’s sister, who had paid for my trip from Nigeria. Because she had paid for my two attempts to cross the sea, when first I was caught by the bandits and the second time by the police, she said that she had wasted too much money.
Many people left Nigeria believing they would come to Italy. Many of them have been swallowed by rivers. Many died at sea. Many were shot dead by bandits. Many of them died on the road. And many of us however did make it, but many people also died.
I shouldn’t have left but no one ever told me the true reality about Libya. I used to think it was just an easy thing to do and that was what gave me the confidence to even take my baby along. The main reason why I regret leaving Nigeria is the loss of my baby as well as the boy who helped get the medication. Because of me, he was shot. I wish the boy hadn’t gone out of the house. Then he wouldn’t have been killed.
Original Narrative can be found at https://www.tellingtherealstory.org/pcm/stories/video/vanessas-story-a-journey-through-hell/