Testimony by Dominique*, 35 years old
Josephine, 7, and her sister Catherine, 5, spend their two days on the Aquarius singing, shouting, playing word games, running around, and, in the words of one MSF team member, “generally charming the socks out of everyone they meet.”
Meanwhile, their mother, Dominique, 35, slowly unravels the painful story of why they are there in the first place.
“I have four children. Actually, five, because I’m pregnant. Josephine and Catherine are the youngest. My older girls are 16 and 15. When I was 18, my family took me out of high school to marry me off to a man who was over 60 and already had four wives. Their father’s family has already married my girls off to older men, and I hope one day I’ll be able to get them out of there.”
She fled the country with the help of friends and met her current husband, Patric, at a safe house in Côte d’Ivoire. Last year, with the two girls in tow, Patric and Dominique fled Côte d’Ivoire after Patric was threatened for his political activities.
They paid smugglers to help them reach the Libyan coast, but they were abandoned at the border between Libya and Niger. They were quickly kidnapped and subjected to forced labour on a farm. “I was beaten, although l was lucky enough not to be raped like some other women. We had five minutes, on the clock, to eat lunch, when we were given lunch at all. They brought us to the desert, to a town called Ben Ouali, to a former prison, where they separated the men from the women. They organized fights between the men, where the winner was forced to kill the loser, no matter if the loser was his friend or a member of his own family. We watched through holes in the walls. They filmed the fights on their phones. It was their favourite pastime.”
“After some time, I got lucky. One of the men wanted me to come with him and be his cleaning woman. I begged him to let me bring the girls and he finally accepted. One day, I ran away from his house. A Chadian man helped us get to Tripoli. and since I had no money I worked to reimburse the transportation costs. My husband joined us two weeks later; he escaped when the men at the prison organized a riot. We worked for two months for the Chadian, and he was the one who made sure we got on the Zodiac.
Dominique is horrified by what she has seen in Libya. “Kidnappings happen every day, people are held for ransom every day, people are killed every day. Women are raped in front of their husbands, sometimes by eight or nine men at once. I’ve seen people die because when they’re no longer useful in the fields or as sex slaves, the Libyans let them die.”
“When the Europeans try to prevent people from crossing the Mediterranean, they aren’t accomplishing anything. Because when people have sunk that low in life, they are willing to drown in the sea if there’s any hope of reaching a boat.”
Josephine and Catherine, who are rays of sunshine on the Aquarius, have been privy to some very dark things. “Some nights they don’t sleep, some nights they wake in a panic, some nights they cry. I hope someday they’ll forget everything they’ve seen, everything they’ve heard, everything they’ve seen me do.”
By the time Dominique has finished her story, the girls have fallen asleep, one with her head in her father’s lap and the other snuggled against her sister.
“My girls are intelligent. They know how to read, they know how to count. I want them to go to school, I want them to grow up somewhere where people are free.”
*Names changed by editorial staff
Interview: Yann Merlin & Ruby Irene Pratka
Text & Translation: Ruby Irene Pratka