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The Stories

Juniò’s mother’s choice

New arrivals wait to get processed. Ifo section, Dadaab camp.
Dadaab camp is the largest refugee ...
02 December 2023

Nothing else illustrates the fate of migrant women like the words of the girl who one day, while in a Libyan concentration camp, said, “I want to be ugly, uglier every day. Then they will stop it”. Nothing more is needed to explain what is happening there. Her unkempt hair, the ungainly manner, the gaze lost in some nightmare experienced as real life. This was in September 2017. A few months earlier, a Libyan delegation had travelled secretly to Italy to negotiate the price of those words; holding migrants in prison camps, the ones Pope Francis referred to as “lagers”.

As that girl swept away the mush of sand and oil, she told a story. That of Rodha, who left Nigeria as a teenager, from where the dunes become weeds and stones and Boko Haram militias fight over what lies beneath, to give us what we need, for example, to tell this story and push the speed of our processors with which our communications travel. Rhoda was fed up with those nights given as a trophy to the soldiers of the smugglers. She took her own life before they could do so again.

At another latitude, the chronicle took us to other routes and other stories. The Balkan trap for fugitives from the wars in the East. If Rhoda’s friend wanted to forget that she was a woman, here there were those who, on the contrary, saw in femininity the foothold not to let bad luck prevail. Like Aisha, 25 years old and with a law degree from Damascus. It was a hazy morning, somewhere between Serbia and Hungary.  “There are too many of us, they cannot keep us here. It’s a matter of time”, she said, making sure every word was written down in the journalists’ notebooks. She would have liked to smoke, but had traded her last packet of cigarettes for some powder-colored nail polish and a lipstick she did not want to pass up. “The ones I had are on its last legs and I’m not giving up on my looks”, she said. Amidst people who had not showered in days, Aisha’s did not sound like the whim of a spoilt girl. Every time her lips turned red again, every time her left hand went back to taking care of her face, quick and agile without even needing a mirror, Aisha reminded everyone and everyone, including the boys, that this odyssey was just a parenthesis. That nothing could make her into what she was not.

Since the day the girl said she wanted to be uglier, things have not changed in Libya.  The blasphemous jihad of the Libyan rapists is carried out every night, after the smugglers’ trucks turn back. “Allah Akbar”, they shout as they torture the men and assault the women. They place a telephone next to their victims as they beat them harder, so that the unfortunate ones beg for mercy and receive more money from relatives back in the villages. Sometimes the children force their mothers. Women who make choices that many do not approve of. However, one has to put oneself in the broken sandals of a migrant with children in tow to at least try to understand.

They separate to try to save themselves. Like Juniò’s mother, the seven-year-old twin who had to make herself strong in Libya. She was every time she had to pose for a photo to send to her mother who had in the meantime arrived in Italy by boat. Juniò smiled and reassured her. At seven years old, he had to prove that he could keep his promises. The first: he would not let himself be overcome by the most heartbreaking abandonment. Mama had never given up hope. She said she knew that boy of hers, that though a child, Juni was not the type to give in to the bad guys. There in Zawyah, the international authorities were doing all they could to help him and get him out. UNHCR-Acnur, Oim, had finally managed to track him down to a cottage not far from the official detention centre, that of the coast guard-trafficker 'Bija' and his cousin Osama, the masters of life and death of the interned migrants. In fact, at the height of the armed clashes, with violent feuds within the militias, Juniò had disappeared.

Juniò had realised he was no longer a child the afternoon his father was killed in Libya. He had understood that he had to be a man one spring evening, when his mother and his seven-year-old twin sister had left him with an Ivorian acquaintance in a dignified hovel. They were leaving for Europe, on a rubber dinghy. Perhaps they would never see each other again. In their hearts was the abyss of a pain that the mother had to hide from the little girl, as the boatman threw them forcefully into the dinghy on Zawyah beach.

Her friend had promised her that she would not get on a barge, and that she would never take Juniò, 'junior' but pronounced in French, there.  Weeks later from the Sea Watch humanitarian ship, a migrant managed to get in touch with Juniò's mother. “We are safe; they say they will take us to Italy”.

After surviving the Libyan prison camps, the mother and the twins had managed to gain their freedom by going to live with an Ivorian woman in makeshift accommodation. No hope in Libya for black women, who are attacked on the streets, raped, and forcibly imprisoned. But she did not want to return to the hell of one of the 'Osama prisons', as the migrants call the hell run by the al Nasr militia, that of Abd al-Rahman Salem Ibrahim al-Milad known as 'Bija' and his cousin Osama, also considered by the Italian justice system as the chief torturer.

In addition, the girl had to keep the promise she and her husband had made to each other. To go to Europe, and cry, but finally with joy, away from the hunger and weapons that had forced them to seek shelter elsewhere in Côte d'Ivoire as well. To Europe then, to teach children that they can live without having to fear the machete blade or having to lie about the sound of guns coming from the neighboring village.

“Without my husband I had to choose, we could no longer stay in Libya and I did not want my whole family to die at sea. Some of us had to survive”. Moreover, Juniò, an almost seven-year-old boy, was the only one of the three who she thought could perhaps survive. Not the baby girl, who would not have made it there in time to become a girl, ending up in who knows whose hands. Not the mother too, who had already seen too many end up like that. “But if my daughter and I had died in the sea, Juniò staying in Libya would at least survive and grow up, and a boy can face those difficulties better, and something would have remained of our family in this world”.

And such words only a woman and a mother can utter without fear of being judged for being a woman and a mother. And migrant.

by Nello Scavo

In the mind and heart of the reporter

“One has to put oneself in the broken sandals of a migrant with children in tow to at least try to understand”, writes Nello Scavo, a special correspondent of Avvenire, a Catholic-inspired Italian newspaper. The journalist has penned reports from the world’s hot spots such as the former Yugoslavia, Cambodia and South-East Asia, the former USSR countries, Latin America, the most hostile borders in Turkey, Syria, the Balkan Route, the Horn of Africa and the Maghreb. In September 2017, he managed to break into a clandestine prison of Libyan smugglers, and reveal first-hand the conditions of the trapped migrants. Here he recounts the stories of the migrant women who “stuck with me”.