Without access to education and with limited resources, her sons Ahmed and Mohamed, aged 13 and 14 at the time, were in danger of forced recruitment by the armed group Al-Shabab, like so many boys their age.
Wednesday April 11, 2018
By Louise Donovan
After 15 months of beatings and abuse in captivity by Libyan traffickers, a Somali mother rejoins her teenage sons in Niamey.
Ahmed, 14, and Mohamed, 15, hug their mother Amina* in Niamey, Niger. © UNHCR/Louise Donovan
Somali mother of two Amina* was strong and vigorous before she fell into the hands of Libyan traffickers. After more than a year of relentless beatings and electric shocks, she is now broken and unable to walk.
”When I arrived in Libya, I was walking, nobody had to help me … but look at me now,” she says, holding up her badly broken arms in despair, her legs paralyzed.
The 42-year-old is among thousands of refugees and asylum seekers from across Africa who set out on desperate journeys in search of safety, who all too often end up the captives of ruthless human traffickers in Libya.
Held for ransom for months in dire conditions, many are subjected to abuse and torture that marks them for life.
She was given electric shocks and beaten, she says. “They always tied my hands behind my back, and afterwards, they would leave me outside, tied up in the cold.”
Her ordeal began in 2015 when her home in the capital, Mogadishu, was destroyed by a bomb that killed her husband and brother.
With few options, the brothers set out in secret with a female cousin in 2016 on a quest for safety that would take them to Yemen, Sudan and then Libya.
Once Amina learned they had left, she set out for war-ravaged Yemen to try to find the boys. She eventually caught up with them five months later in Sudan, but little did they know what lay ahead of them in Libya.
After initially negotiating with traffickers, they set off north over the Sahara, with little or no water or food for days, in unyielding heat. Amina grew weak and the traffickers wanted to abandon her in the desert but her sons refused to leave her.
When they reached the western Libyan city of Bani Walid, the real horror began. The traffickers demanded US$10,000 for each of the four family members. Amina did not have the means to pay, or family to ask for help.
“They tortured me so badly. I begged them not to torture my family,” says Amina, who volunteered to take all the abuse to spare her sons and niece.
After seven months her body began to shut down from the abuse. She could no longer stand and her hands did not function. So the smugglers began torturing the children.
After 15 months in captivity, Amina was on the brink of death. The smugglers did not want to deal with a corpse and realized that they would not get the money they demanded, so they finally let them go.
“He knew I would die, and he didn’t want that, so he finally let us go,” recalls Amina. Another niece was also held captive in the same location, so the whole family left together. All five were transported to the coast as part of a larger group. They were among the lucky ones.
They were herded on to an inflatable boat bound for Europe. They knew it was overloaded, with more than 100 people, but were powerless and unable to get away. Panic hit several hours later, when the boat began to sink. However a Libyan Coast Guard vessel brought them back to the coast.
At the harbour, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, was waiting for them. Amina was in a critical state and was rushed to hospital. Authorities took the boys and their cousins to a detention centre, where UNHCR informed them they would be flown to Niger.
Somali mother Amina sits with her nieces after being evacuated to Niger by UNHCR. © UNHCR/Louise Donovan
The move was arranged through UNHCR’s Emergency Evacuation Transit Mechanism (ETM), which was established in November 2017. So far, 1,020 of the most vulnerable refugees — like Amina and her family — have been evacuated to Niger on a temporary basis, while long-term solutions are sought for them, including resettlement.
The boys were first to be offered evacuation. They were delighted with the news, but feared leaving their mother again. UNHCR reassured them that she would be joining them soon.
“We were very anxious, from the minute we landed in Niger, we kept asking about our mother – whether she was alive, when she would be joining us” says Mohamed. To their relief, UNHCR succeeded in flying Amina and her niece to Niger the following week.
When discussing the evacuation, the mood changes completely. Amina begins to cry again, but this time from happiness. “Everything changed in a minute. I was so happy. Instead of feeling depressed, I felt blessed,” she recalls.
“There’s nothing more important for us in our lives than our mother, and we are so grateful that she is okay,” says Ahmed, grinning broadly. “I want to go back [to Somalia] one day” he adds, “I want to bring change to my country … but how can I, when I can’t even protect myself?”
For Amina, the onslaught of blows and shocks has left her confined to a wheelchair and dependent on her nieces as care givers.
The experiences recounted by the family are not unusual amongst those evacuated from Libya, where reports of beatings, torture and rape are common.
A UNHCR report published today - Desperate Journeys - found a deeply worrying deterioration in the health of new arrivals to Italy from Libya in recent months, with more people reaching there extremely weak, thin and in general poor health condition.
UNHCR is appealing for additional resettlement places to enable evacuees to begin to plan a future.
“A total of 2,483 places have so far been pledged for refugees in Niger, but more are needed. This is essential to avoid the same situations for more refugees, still trapped in Libya, where their lives have been suspended,” says Alessandra Morelli, UNHCR’s senior official in Niger.
Of the refugees who have so far been evacuated to Niger, 84 have left the country, most through resettlement, while a small number have been reunited with family in Europe or received humanitarian visas.
“The evacuations out of Libya and the increased resettlement opportunities that we saw last year are very good news," said Pascale Moreau, Director of UNHCR's Europe Bureau.
“Still significant obstacles remain that limit access to safe and legal pathways, including family reunification, for people in need of international protection, and we call for more solidarity.”
* Refugees’ names have been changed for protection reasons.