When Muna, an Eritrean refugee, left Sudan with her husband and children four years ago, they believed they were leaving their troubles behind, but it proved to be just the beginning. Driving through the desert in Libya, they were kidnapped by bandits, and held for nearly two years by different traffickers, a period Muna recalls with horror. “Beatings, murder, rape, and starvation,” she says. “They make you hate your life. They make you lose your will to live.”
For Muna, like so many others, the dream of a new life turned into a nightmare.
Muna joined the thousands from the East and Horn of Africa who embark every year on the dangerous route north in search of safety and opportunity in Europe. Along the way, they run the risk of physical and psychological abuse, gender-based violence, kidnapping for ransom, extortion, abandonment in the desert, and drowning at sea. Traveling as a refugee woman with children heightens vulnerability to abuse and forced labour alongside the many other dangers.
As a child, Muna had been taken to Sudan from Eritrea and, when her mother died a few years afterwards, she was forced into domestic servitude. When she later married a fellow Eritrean refugee and had two children she became determined they should not suffer the same fate as she did.
One day, Muna’s husband left in the hope of making it to Europe, but she never saw nor heard from him again. “He left and drowned in the sea,” she says. “He died at sea.”
She remarried, this time to a man from Sudan’s western Darfur region, and they also had a child together, but life remained hard, and money was always short. Muna’s husband convinced her that they might outrun their problems by leaving with the three children for Libya, and then Europe.
“We left and came to the Libyan desert. Then on that desert road we were kidnapped by bandits,” she says. This was no small-time operation: the bandits appeared in a convoy of 11 vehicles, armed and wearing camouflage uniforms. At first, Muna thought they were “government or police”, but as the weeks of detention drew on, and as more and more captives were brought to the same place—under guard beneath a desert mountain—she realised the situation was dire.
After a month, all the new captives were taken to a large warehouse where they were locked up with many more, around 2,000 people in total, Muna says, of different nationalities: “Somalis, Eritreans, Ethiopians, and Syrians, also Sudanese”.
“When we came there we thought that could be the end of it and there would be a solution, but we fell into the fire instead,” she says.
Muna was badly beaten all over her body, but younger women and those who had not yet had children were treated worse: the guards, who were often drunk, would take girls at will and rape them “daily”.
The kidnappers eventually demanded US$16,000 to release Muna and her family—US$4,000 for each child, and a further US$4,000 for Muna and her husband. Their relatives in Darfur sold land and possessions, managing to raise half the amount, enough that the kidnappers let Muna and the children go, but her husband was forced to stay in the desert and work as a servant.
But even once released, Muna was not free. She was taken to the northern town of Bani Walid and forced into slavery. “They sell you for dollars, as if they are selling goods,” Muna says. “It was against my will.” She became a domestic worker at a warehouse full of migrants, doing labour that “can break your back”, and risking beatings and threats of violence.
After a year of forced labour, her captors “softened a little bit because I had kids,” and let her leave, dumping them all outside town. It was a two-and-a-half-day walk westward to the border with Tunisia, which Muna endured with no shoes on her feet, one child strapped to her back, and another holding each hand. During the day, cars drove by but did not stop to give them a lift, and by night the family slept on the roadside, hungry and thirsty.
Today, Muna lives in safety in Tunisia, no longer at risk of kidnapping and violence, but the experiences in Libya have left her and her children traumatized. “I don’t even have the words to describe how bad things are [in Libya]: you live there as a dead person. I only survived for my kids,” she says. “I don’t have any dreams for myself, I just wish for my children to have a good life.”