ABOARD THE OCEAN VIKING (AFP) – A young Ivorian mother endured a string of hardships before finally boarding the Ocean Viking rescue ship, but she said she would rather have died at sea than have to return to a Libyan detention centre where beatings were routine.
The 28-year-old, who would give only her first name Bintu, was rescued last Friday along with two of her children, aged one and three, and is now recovering aboard the charity ship Ocean Viking.
“With the Libyans, it was pain. Just beatings, and beatings,” she told AFP aboard the ship operated by the French charities SOS Mediterranean and Doctors without Borders (MSF).
Well-rested and washed, holding her baby in her arms, she took in the sea breeze. “It’s been a long time since I have slept so well, without fear, without hearing gunfire.”
Libya has been mired in chaos since a NATO-backed uprising that toppled and killed dictator Moamer Kadhafi in 2011, with rival administrations operating in the west and east of the oil-rich country.
More than 1,000 people have been killed since April when military strongman Khalifa Haftar launched an offensive on Tripoli, seat of Libya’s UN-recognised government.
Bintu recounted how she went to sleep and woke up to the sound of gunfire in Tripoli.
And sub-Saharan Africans who come to the country in search of work live in constant dread of violence against them, she said.
The mother of six had left Ivory Coast in March to flee a violent husband – she has welts on her arms from his belt lashings – whom she was forced to marry when she was 16.
She wanted to work in Libya, where many West African women find jobs as domestic servants for wealthy families.
Bintu left her four older children in Ivory Coast and headed north with one-year-old Usman and three-year-old Mohamed.
The six-week trek that took them through the deserts of Mali, Niger and Algeria, on foot, by bus and hidden in a truck for the last leg to Tripoli, was hard enough.
So was the Mediterranean voyage with 84 other West African men, women and children crammed into a rubber dinghy for three days.
But the stay in Libya was Bintu’s worst ordeal.
Bintu made a first attempt to cross the Mediterranean in May, but the Libyan coastguard intercepted her group and she landed in the Tajoura detention centre – which she refers to as “prison”.
The fact that she was nursing her baby “protected me,” she said, though adding that a pregnant co-detainee was beaten every day.
Bintu said the only food the detainees received was provided by MSF and the Red Cross.
One day, an EU mission visited the Tajoura detention centre, she recalled.
“The police chief asked us to clean everything up so that the whites would not know that we were suffering,” Bintu said, adding that she was terrified of reprisals.
“A guard whispered to me that I would be able to tell my story. But (the EU delegation) was escorted by the director… so I smiled, they took pictures, and left.”
Europe is increasingly counting on strife-torn Libya to stop migrants from leaving its shores.
On July 3, more than 50 refugees and migrants were killed during an airstrike on the Tajoura detention centre blamed on Haftar’s forces.
Bintu described the horror, “The men’s building was hit. We had to walk over the bodies to flee, and the guards fired on us.”
After that, Bintu stayed with a Sudanese immigrant until last Tuesday, when she boarded the rubber dinghy, unable to swim.
“We left just like that!” she exclaimed, barely aware of her luck that the boat was spotted.
“We would prefer to die at sea than return to Libya,” Bintu said.