Oumar is Senegalese, raised in Côte d’Ivoire. Anna is from Cameroon. He’s Muslim, she’s Christian. She has a bachelor’s degree in management, he’s a butcher. She is talkative, he doesn’t say much. But since their paths first crossed on the Libyan coast, the two best friends rarely leave each other’s sight. On the Aquarius, they celebrated Oumar’s22nd birthday. “Ever since we met, he’s been like a brother to me,” says Anna, who at 26 fits naturally into the role of big sister.
Both have fled family conflicts in their home countries due to threats on their lives, only to experience far worse treatment in Libya. Oumar would rather not speak about his own experience.
Anna explains, “When my grandfather died, there was a lot of jealousy between my father, his brothers and his half-brothers. People came to my house to shoot me. They confused me with one of my aunts. I wasn’t hurt, but she was shot in the neck and seriously injured. My father sent me to another city, and they attempted to kidnap me. That was when I understood that I needed to leave Cameroon. I had my job, and my life! I never thought I would leave. I’m not leaving for economic reasons but for safety reasons. I don’t feel good about this because I miss my mom and dad, but I’m optimistic about the future.”
She lived four months in Algeria. “As a Christian, I needed to hide my beliefs and to cover myself all the time. We could only rarely go out.” She lived with the relative of a friend, who owned a liquor store that also served as a brothel. She ran away to escape prostitution, and ended up in the back of a pickup, headed to Libya with other migrant workers. But this was no ordinary business trip. “The pickups were covered in tarps so no light could get in. It was hard to breathe and some people suffocated. We didn’t know where we were.”
“In Libya, there’s nowhere to turn if you get in trouble. Everyone thinks they’re a soldier or a police officer. If you are black, you’re nothing. Men are subjected to forced labour and women are raped. You start to lose your grip on what you know, because you’re in the dark with nothing to do all day.”
A Libyan bought her freedom and those of several other prisoners, but they were again subjected to forced labour and forced sex. Anna witnessed several of her friends being raped. A friend helped her pay a smuggler to reach the coast, where she met Oumar. She was again at the mercy of the smugglers in the weeks before her boat left, but she survived and was rescued by the Aquarius along with Oumar on May 24 2016. “Here, on the boat, with all these friendly people around, I wonder if I’m not dreaming, if I’m not going to wake up soon and hear a Libyan saying, ‘Come, come, I want to sleep with you.’ I can’t believe I’m finally safe.”
Interview: Yann Merlin & Ruby Irene Pratka
Text & Translation to English: Ruby Irene Pratka
Photo: Yann Merlin