· Testimonies ·
Blessing and Fatima are two special women. Blessing and Fatima are two women like so many others. They remain out of sight to most people, they are two of the lowliest women in the world. They fled from war, hunger and poverty. And in their search for a little peace, they met with violence, abuse and incurable wounds.
For us Westerners Blessing and Fatima are two ghosts. They are mere numbers, numbers among the migrants arriving, numbers among those blocked at the borders of Niger, Nigeria, Sudan and Libya, numbers among all the women who are forced to prostitute themselves, to abandon their children in order to give them a better future, working far from home.
Blessing and Fatima are numbers.
And yet these women have within them all the power of the world. The power of being daughters, mothers and wives. Of being women.
They are women who have had the courage to face and overcome the most atrocious forms of violence in order to attain a dignified, better life.
Today Blessing and Fatima live in two protected centres, they are striving to overcome the traumas of violence and loss, they are striving to overcome pain. Meeting the eyes of these young women reminded me, once again, of how important it is to recount their lives and their stories through their own words, as seen through their own eyes. To give the numbers the possibility of becoming living human beings. To give the numbers dignity.
Because all too often, and ever more frequently, violence for these women begins in their countries of origin but continues to erode them even here, in the Europe that rejects them. They are forced to prostitute themselves on the pavements, objects of their European clients’ desire, who are no less guilty than the slave drivers in their brothels.
Interviews by Francesca Mannocchi
Blessing is 17 years old. She was born in 2000 in Benin City, Nigeria. Today, after passing through too many hells for her tender age, Blessing lives in a protected centre in Central Italy. It is a centre for minors, victims of the sex trade.
She has passed through the hell of pain, hunger and the fear of death, the hell of sexual violence and prostitution.
Today she has a bed to sleep in in a room that she shares with another young woman – a Nigerian like herself and also a victim of trafficking – in a safe place, where we met her one summer afternoon.
She has dyed her hair pink, she has plaited it in two long braids, she looks down as if she had not managed to rid herself of shame for the violence she had suffered. When she remembers the days of her abuse, her hands tremble continuously.
“I was born in Benin City”, Blessing says, “the youngest of eight children, and to be exact, in a small village in the countryside. When I was born my father was already an invalid, my mother was very poor and had to take care of us all by herself. As children, I and three of my brothers and sisters would spend our days in the street, we would sell the few vegetables from our kitchen garden and a little water. When we had nothing to sell we would beg for alms. I never went to school, I have learned to read and write a few words only since I have been in Italy”.
In 2015, when Blessing was only 15 years old, a woman, a neighbour who often bought water and vegetables from her or her siblings, visited the girl’s mother advising her that her daughter should move to Europe. Having heard the stories of deaths in the desert Blessing’s mother did not want this but the woman was so convincing that in the end she agreed on the journey.
“The woman said that there were many jobs, that I would work in a hairdresser’s shop in Italy and that I would not have to pay anything for the journey because she would entrust me to a friend of hers to protect me, from Nigeria to Libya. She said that I would have to follow his instructions and that everything would go smoothly”.
The day before her departure the woman took Blessing to a hut in a neighbouring village to meet the baba-loa, a man who would perform a voodoo rite calling on the ancient divinities, as he said, a rite which would guarantee that the agreement made with the girl was good.
“They cut off a lock of my hair, and my pubic hair, they made a small cut on my finger to get a drop of my blood”, Blessing recounts, “and then they told me that if I did not respect the agreement I would be killed and all my relatives with me. Only then did I find out that I would have a debt to settle once I arrived in Italy, but no one told me how much this debt would amount to. The only thing I remember about that night was being afraid, and no longer wanting to leave but not having the courage to say so to my mother, because I knew that the money I would be able to earn would help to feed the family”.
The next night Blessing left, with a man and six other girls. This man was the connection man: this is a fundamental role in mafias and in the trafficking of women destined for prostitution, he is the one responsible for escorting girls to Libya and sometimes even to Italy.
The girls went first to Kano, then to Sokoto on the border with Niger. There they were given fake passports by a group of traffickers who were already in agreement with the connection man. In these fake passports the girls were all of age.
“The journey through the desert was terrible. I was born in poverty and grew up in destitution but I had never suffered thirst, such a thirst that it made me afraid I would die. We travelled through the desert for six days. Two of the girls with whom I was travelling complained, they were ill, they asked the man who had accompanied us for help and it was from that moment that he began to be aggressive and violent”.
Once they had arrived in Libya the girls were allocated to different places, Blessing and two other young women, from Benin City like her, were taken by night to a house in Tripoli.
Blessing did not leave that house for five consecutive months.
“When I entered that dirty house there was a terrifying smell. It was a smell of bodies, of dirtiness and illness. I didn’t know where I was, I asked for explanations, I told the man who was with us that I wanted to leave, that I wanted to go to Italy or to go home. It was then that the man said to me “now you’ll be here for a while, so you’ll learn to work”.
The work that Blessing had to learn was to sell her body.
And that house was not the house that would have taken her in or given her hospitality in Libya until the departure of the inflatable dinghy or the boat, but a connection house, an intermediate stage in the trafficking of women, the stage of their first experiences of violence, of their first abuse, the first torture of their young bodies.
“A woman, the first madam, came to me. She told me that from that time on I would stay there with other girls and would meet men. Every day”.
Blessing lost her innocence, her childhood, her virginity and her dreams on a dirty mattress in a connection house in Tripoli, threatened by a Libyan woman, beaten by her connection man, while all she was hoping for was to reach Italy and find a humble job in order to send a handful of dollars every month to her family.
“There were days when the madam ushered in only one or two men and other days when a group of them came in. There were even five or six men at the same time. When they arrived I was lying on a mattress on the ground, they raped me and when they left I stayed on the same dirty mattress crying for hours. I thought of my mother, I thought of the girls around me, I heard them sobbing and I knew that I would not be able to tell my mother anything, even if I could have spoken to her, she would have been too upset”.
After five months of violence and abuse, the man told Blessing that the time had come for her to leave, by night on an inflatable dinghy from one of the infinite number of Libyan beaches.
Blessing was no longer crying. She had lost her dreams and her purity. All she had left to her was the hope that she would suffer less once she was in Italy.
“I remember the blackness of the waves, I remember that I thought I might die”, the girl said, twisting a handkerchief in her hands, “but I was already dead, because really nothing frightened me any more”.
The man had given her a ticket with a telephone number on it, he told her that she should say she was of age so as to avoid the protection centres, and that she was to call the number as soon as possible.
Thus, after being saved by a rescue ship in the Mediterranean eight months ago, Blessing dialled that number. She was answered by another Nigerian, a boy who escorted her from Sicily to Asti, to the second madam, to new acts of violence on an Italian street in a northern Italian suburb.
“The madam told me that I would have to work as a prostitute until I had repaid her my debt of 45,000 euros. She said that I had to give her at least 800 or 1,000 euros a week without protesting and that, in addition, I would have to pay rent for my bed and for the food I would be given. I remember that I arrived in Asti on a Friday afternoon and on Saturday morning I was already on the street, under a bridge, wearing shorts and a bra, and I was terribly ashamed”.
Blessing didn’t know a word of Italian, the only words she knew were those with a sexual meaning in order for her to comply with the requests of clients – which her madam had taught her in a single evening – and she knew how to count money. That was all.
Blessing spent four months on that pavement, every day, sometimes even with four or five clients a day in order not to be beaten by the madam.
Today – after being saved by a street unit – she lives in a protected community and still feels ashamed every time she telephones her mother in Nigeria. She hides the truth from her and says “Mum, I still can’t send you the money but one day I will”.
The numbers of shame
An ever increasing number of migrants who arrive in Italy, not only refugees, are victims of exploitation, that is, they are destined for the sex market. In recent years, the increase in the numbers of women and unaccompanied minors has been striking: respectively 11,009 and 3,040 in 2016, compared with about 5,000 women and 900 unaccompanied minors who disembarked in 2015. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), in the past three yearsalone their number has increased by 600 per cent. Almost all the women – often young girls and minors between the ages of 13 and 24 (in 2016 a decrease was recorded in the age of the youngest victims of trafficking) — are subjected to violence and abuse during the journey: 80 per cent of the girls who come from Nigeria report abuse and their number has shot up from 1,500 in 2014 to more than 11,000 in 2016.
The data collected by the IOM in the landing places and reception centres for migrants are in some respects surprising. Syria is not among the first 15 countries of provenance of the people who have tried to come to Italy by sea: in 2016 the nationality with the largest number of arrivals in Italy by sea was Nigeria (the number being almost double that of the previous year), not only from Edo State (a very poor area) but also from various regions of the country (Delta, Lagos, Ogun, Anambra and Imo), followed by Eritrea, Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire.
Fatima was born in Eritrea 26 years ago. She and her husband knew each other as children.
They were both very poor and her husband was destined to be enlisted into the army by force, with the risk of spending his whole life in it, suffering injustices and violence, forced to kill or to live in the fear of being killed.
Until she married, Fatima too did military service. Until her first child was born she remained at the army’s disposal; despite the fact that on paper military service lasts only for a year and a half, men and women in fact remain enlisted for an indefinite period, sometimes with no pay, sometimes with a handful of dollars a day.
When their son was four years old Fatima and her husband decided to flee, risking their lives to seek a better future. With great suffering and against everyone’s wishes they left the child with Fatima’s parents and paid traffickers to get to Sudan, then Libya and subsequently to reach Italy by sea.
“My mother would not have wanted it”, Fatima said, “but my husband and I longed for a better future for us all; for this reason, despite the disagreement of our entire families, we decided to take the risk and leave”.
Today Fatima lives in a reception centre in northern Italy. She is alone, her son is in Eritrea and her husband was lost on the journey that brought her to Italy.
“We entrusted ourselves to various groups of traffickers, the first group to get us across Sudan, the second to see that we reached the Libyan coast. We took ten days, days of hunger, efforts and the tears of the people who surrounded us. One day I didn’t manage, we had no more water and I was obliged to drink my urine. The women had nothing to give the children to drink or to eat and the children were wailing in despair”.
In Libya Fatima lost everything.
When the group of Eritreans with whom she was travelling arrived at Beni Walid to be taken to the western part of the country, to Sabratha, a hub for human trafficking and sadly known for the number of departures and the dead on the beaches, the women were separated from the men and taken to a warehouse, a sorting centre. When she remembers that night Fatima trembles, it was the night on which her hopes died, her body was violated and she lost her husband.
A group of Libyan men, traffickers, chose five of the women and took them to a room adjacent to the warehouse.
Fatima was one of these women. When her husband realized what was happening he began to scream, he threw himself on the traffickers with the scant reserves of strength that remained to him, he shouted that they were not to touch his wife, that he would save her, he cried out her name. Fatima.
But a trafficker took a pistol from his pocket and killed him in cold blood. Before the eyes of his wife and the other Eritreans.
Fatima is a young woman with a slender body, her lips endeavoured to hint at a smile but her pain was too great. The effort of remembering was too much for her.
“When they dragged me away I didn’t even have the strength to cry out, I was thinking of my husband’s body, covered in blood, lying on the ground like an animal. The five of them raped me, all night long. And not only me, also at least two other women whom I heard screaming in the neighbouring rooms. I only remember my husband’s body on the ground and waking up the next morning. In between my life ended.
The following morning the traffickers who had raped her were no longer in the warehouse. They had been replaced by other unknown men who were to take the group to Sabratha.
Fatima was suffering from shock, she was neither walking nor speaking. She was only repeating her husband’s name over and over again, his body was no longer there, who knows where it had been flung or when or by whom.
The other women, who like her had survived that hellish night, held her standing upright, their hands trembling, whispering words of comfort in her ear to convince her to leave. For Fatima no longer wanted to go. She wanted to look for her husband’s body. And at least to mourn his death.
“They forcibly loaded me on to the lorry direct for Sabratha, all I remember is screaming. Then I fell asleep and I woke up in another house, by the sea, another warehouse, in the city from which we were later to sail in an inflatable boat”.
Fatima spent a month in the second warehouse, four weeks of hardships. There was not enough food for everyone, so that the women fought each other in order to get a bit of the scant stale bread available to give to their children.
Every day the number of people increased, piled in.
After a week Fatima realized that they would wait in that dirty and infected room until the traffickers had collected the number of men and women they deemed sufficiently profitable.
Thus after a month, when there were at least 400 people in the large room, one night they were woken up and taken to the beach.
“I shall never forget the stench of that place, I shall not forget what beasts they had turned us into. When the hand of one of the traffickers appeared at the grating over the windows with food or water we were no longer human beings. We were less than animals. We were human flesh no use for anything other than to pay the cost of the journey to Italy. Everyone fought with the person beside them in order to grab a hunk of bread and a sip of water. The men were beaten and the women raped”.
One night last September Fatima was saved a few miles off the Libyan coast, she remembers the smile of the person who took her aboard the rescue ship. It was the first smile she’d seen after months of abuse, the first after losing her husband.
Today Fatima has begun her slow battle to obtain asylum, to have beside her her son who does not yet know that he has lost his father.
But it will take years, and who knows whether Fatima will still be strong enough to give the hint of a smile.
St. Peter’s Square
Aug. 24, 2019
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