Jewel looks like a frightened bird who has finally found shelter from a storm as she steps on board the Aquarius. She shivers from cold and fear after having survived a dreadful nine-hour journey across the sea from Libya, in a small rubber boat crammed with over 100 people. Her clothes are still soaking wet when she bursts into tears in the arms of the MSF midwife who is welcoming women on board.
Jewel and her two sisters, who come from Gambia, are among the 333 women saved from the sea since the beginning of the year by the team on the M.V. Aquarius, a search-and-rescue vessel operated in the Central Mediterranean by Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) and partner organization SOS Mediterranee. Twenty-year old Jewel and her younger sister are also among the 46 pregnant women MSF has assisted on board the vessel in the same time period.
“Almost all of them have suffered violence either at home or in Libya,” our midwife Elizabeth Ramlow tells me. “Many were kidnapped and raped.”
Once these women get to Libya, Elizabeth says, often after a long journey marked by violence and pain, they have no other way out than across the sea. “They really have no choice and this is why they keep coming,” she says.
“It was better at night,” Jewel tells me, “because I could not see where I was. When the sun started rising I looked around us and there was only water. It was very scary.”
As the Aquarius moves toward another boat in distress, Jewel says she wants to help assist the new women who will come on board. She can’t wait for the next group of people to be rescued because she hopes her husband will be among them. They had traveled to the Libyan shore together, but while Jewel and her sisters were able to get into the same rubber boat, Jewel’s husband was forced into another one.
Before then, while they were still in Libya – where they spent more than a year – Jewel and her sisters were kidnapped and detained several times. “The last time we were in a prison for six days,” she recalls. “Four girlfriends were with us but they died after two days because they would give us no food and no water. Their corpses were left with us in the cell. They were rotting and they smelled. We could not sleep at night because our dead friends were next to us. We were crying. We wanted to leave and we begged for food and water. They didn’t give us any, but in the end they let us go.”
Whenever they were detained, Jewel and her sisters were separated from Jewel’s husband, who, like other male prisoners, was assigned to forced labor.
“They did bad things to the women,” Jewel says. “They would make us take our clothes off to search for money and they searched even inside there,” she adds, pointing down at her groin. “They can do what they want because they have guns and if you say no they shoot you. We, the black, are not humans to them, we are slaves. If you are a woman, it’s even worse. They make you pregnant and they don’t care.”
In prison, Jewel met a mother who had given birth in captivity. An older child was with her too and the guards threw boiling water on her for no reason. The little girl was badly injured. Jewel says she thinks they are still in the prison.
Jewel’s husband was not among the next group of people rescued by the Aquarius. As she disembarked in Sicily along with her sisters, ready for yet another journey – this time to a migrant center – she was crying.
Hope and her husband were, in some ways, luckier. They were on the same rubber boat and got rescued together by the Aquarius. Not the whole family, though, was on board. “We have a seven-year-old son,” Hope says. “He had to stay back in Cameroon with a cousin of mine.”
Hope and Steve fought for their love back home, where Hope lost both her parents as a child and Steve’s stepmother was against their relationship. “She didn’t want him to support me financially, but we married anyway. Just the traditional ceremony. Then we left.”
Hope, 23, and Steve, 24, had no idea how hard their journey to Libya was going to be. “But we did realize it in the first three days,” says Hope. “We were stuck in Niger for one week and we had to cross the desert to Algeria.”
There, the couple stayed in an abandoned house for three months, working to pay for the rest of the journey. But they often went hungry. Once they got to Libya, they were kidnapped and thrown in a prison where the men were separated from the women.
“They would force male prisoners to work with no food or water and when there was water, it was salty water from the sea,” says Steve.
Women were treated even worse. “They would ask us for money and if we had none they would rape us and do all sorts of things to us,” says Hope. “Sometimes they would even sell the girls.”
Hope had no money to pay for her freedom. She looks down as she admits having been both a victim and a witness of rape. Once they were finally freed, the couple tried to embark on a rubber boat but they were taken again. Same prison, same horrific abuses. They were told they had to pay more if they wanted to leave Libya, so Hope called her cousin, who sent her the money they needed.
“She saved us, and she is also taking care of my son,” Hope says. “Maybe one day we will be able to see him again.”