Daesh has been eliminated from its Libyan stronghold of Sirte, but left behind are dozens of traumatised women, some of whom are pregnant. They are desperate to go home.
Awares gazes at the ground. “In my womb I have the son of one of Daesh fighters who raped me,” she says.
The 16-year-old Eritrean teenager is standing inside a small courtyard – 250 metres squared – imprisoned by a high wall topped with barbed wire. Her hair is covered in a purple veil and she is dressed in a long black jellabiya, a cloth traditionally worn by Libyan women.
She glances over at her 27-year-old friend Audit, also Eritrean. “Thank God I did not get pregnant from them,” Audit says timidly, as she adjusts her bright pink headscarf.
Awares and Audit were “sabaya,” women enslaved and imprisoned by the terrorist group Daesh, whose men routinely raped them.
The women are among the dozens of sabaya who were rescued in the final weeks of war against the self-proclaimed caliphate in Sirte, a small but strategically important coastal town. They are now being held in the prison of the Air Force Academy in Misrata, Libya’s third largest city, which lies 240 kilometres to the north west of Sirte. Affiliated with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), Misrata forces led the Banyan Al Marsoos operation to dislodge Daesh from its Libyan stronghold of Sirte, with the pro-government forces finally achieving victory in early December.
Awares and Audit were squeezed among other Eritrean women whispering on a bench in the middle of the courtyard, while babies were desperately crying. Some 50 women – there are also Libyans, Syrians, Iraqis and Filipinos – are being detained, along with dozens of children. They are under investigation as the last civilians to have remained with Daesh in Sirte. As for the men, the Libyan forces took a take-no-prisoners approach. Most rank-and-file Daesh male combatants were either killed during the fighting or executed, while the group’s leaders have been transferred to Tripoli.
“Three fighters from Daesh married me. The first one was Sudanese,” Awares said. “After a couple of days he handed me over to a comrade who also abused me. The second man died fighting in a few days and I was then taken by a Tunisian man. He is the one who is the father of the child in my womb.”
Despite the Libyan law prohibiting abortion, the 16-year-old woman loudly repeated that she wants to end her pregnancy: “Daesh is disgusting and the father of my child is disgusting. I want to get an abortion.”
Audit grimaces in empathy with her friend’s drama. “Thanks to God I didn’t get pregnant,” she repeats.
A significant number of women and children were released, and some managed to escape, in the last stages of fighting – intense street-by-street fighting in the neighbourhood of Jiza Bahirya, the last holdout where Daesh dug in.
Yet the releases were not without risk. Distinguishing women who had been enslaved by Daesh from women who were themselves voluntary combatants, is no simple task. Daesh also occasionally used the supposed release of women and children as a way to lure the enemy into an ambush.
“Many of [the women] were held hostage by Daesh, but some voluntarily joined Daesh to fight with them,” said an officer of administration in the prison, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Injured, dehydrated and malnourished, some children and women were rescued from the frontline in Sirte. They were taken to the field hospital where volunteer doctors gave them emergency first aid before being transferred to the central hospital in Misrata. But for all of them, the last stop is this detention centre at the Air Force Academy.
Their Husbands Eliminated
In the summer of 2015, the first public executions of civilians staged by Daesh in Sirte led to a gradual exodus of civilians. When the offensive of Banyan Al Marsoos kicked off in May 2016, the mass exodus became much more extensive. Sirte was officially declared a military zone by the Libyan forces.
It was during this period, in June 2015, that Audit crossed into Libya. She passed through Harawa, a village a few kilometres south of Sirte, on her path towards Europe and a better future with a number of other Eritreans, including men, women and children. It was there that a group of Daesh militants captured them. The militants immediately separated the men from the women and their children. They then took all the women and children to Sirte, keeping them in the dark about the fate of their husbands.
“We were all Christian and the Daesh fighters told us as soon as they dropped us off in a house in Sirte that we had to convert to Islam,” Audit said. A few hours later the militants showed up to distribute copies of the Quran.
“One of us asked about the fate of our men. And a militant yelled that they had slaughtered them because they were filthy Christians,” the woman murmured, struggling to hold back her tears.
Audit and her friends stayed for two months in a house without ever seeing the sunlight. The door was blocked, as were the windows.
“After two months spent reading the Quran, a group of fighters came. Each of them picked up whoever he liked,” the woman said.
After this, Audit was taken by a Libyan fighter who transferred her to another location, where he told her: “From now you are a sabaya. And I marry you.” With that, he raped her.
The woman continued to tell her story: “He used to come to visit me once every two weeks. He would give me some food, and then abuse me. I asked him many times to give me birth control, but he said that I had to give birth to his children.”
Audit’s only good fortune was that she didn’t become pregnant during her captivity. She only wants to be released and to return home.
“A woman from the International [Committee of the] Red Cross let me call home. I told my brother everything and now they are waiting for me to come home,” Audit concluded.
A few metres away the Eritrean group, Libyan women were gathered up with a couple of Iraqi and Syrian friends. Their children chased each other around – a glimmer of life in the otherwise bleak courtyard.
“I am from Benghazi. We moved to Sirte about a year ago,” a ten-year-old child said, while putting his hand over his sister’s mouth and telling her to shut up when she tries to speak.
Benghazi, the second largest city in Libya and capital of the eastern province of Cyrenaica, has since May 2014 been the battlefield between forces linked to Operation Dignity. The operation is led by the Egyptian and Emirati-backed General Khalifa Haftar against a loose alliance of religiously conservative armed groups such as the Al Qaeda-allied Ansar al Sharia. A number of the conservatives gradually moved to Sirte to join the stronghold which Daesh had established there.
For military intelligence in Misrata investigating the women rescued on the frontline, the Libyan families who stayed the longest in Sirte are mistrusted. They are viewed as being the most likely to have voluntarily joined Daesh.
“My mother wanted to escape from Daesh when war broke out, but my father stopped her because he was afraid that Daesh would have killed him if we were gone,” the child explained.
“Yes, I saw Daesh fighters in the street, but never in our house,” she added, proudly.
None of the Arab teenagers and women sitting in the courtyard, however, were willing to talk.
Finally, after a long silence, a Syrian woman said, “I am from Aleppo. And my husband is a Libyan from Benghazi.”
“We moved to Sirte in 2015 because of my husband’s job,” the 17-year-old said. “This is how I ended up in Sirte”.
Her friend, an Iraqi from Baghdad, nods as her friend speaks, and also insists that she ended up in Sirte by hasard, not out of solidarity with Daesh. Her husband likely died in Sirte too.
A prison guard listening to conversation with the women intervenes, saying that there are also Filipino women, but that they are in an especially fragile state and are keeping away from the others.
“The Filipinos are inside,” the guard says, pointing to the building inside the courtyard.
Children’s clothing hangs from the iron grill covering the staircase up to the second floor. At the top of the staircase, an iron door opens up to a 50 metre-long corridor. Down the corridor, there are dozens of doors on the left and the right. A Filipino woman is standing in one of the doorways. Aged in her 60s, with her hair covered in a black and white scarf, the woman starts to cry.
Until very recently, she was one of the hundreds of Filipino nurses working in Libyan hospitals since the days before the fall of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in 2011.
“I’ve been working in Libya for 18 years as nurse in the Cardiac Care Unit,” she says.
In early 2013, the woman made what would prove to be a fateful decision to move to Sirte. When Daesh took the city as their Libyan “caliphate” in February 2015, she and her colleagues – almost all of whom were Filipino – were forced to stay on at Sirte’s central hospital, Ibn Sina, to treat injured Daesh militants. In September, the Daesh men broke into the hospital guesthouse and took the women into a kind of hotel in the city. They were forced to convert to Islam, but the nurse says they were never harmed. Their assignment by Daesh was to treat injured fighters and help their women to give birth.
“I was preparing some food and a mortar hit me. It was October 24. The bombs were falling here and there. And men in the streets were chanting ‘Allahu Akbar.’ We did not know if they were Misratan forces or Daesh. Then we escaped.”
The Filipino nurse and her friends stayed in the streets for a long while till Libyan forces rescued them.
The guards call out that it’s lunchtime and our visit is almost over. All the women return to their cells. All the children running after their mothers quickly disappear from the courtyard. Other children are there alone, mainly the offspring of Tunisian Daesh militants killed during the fighting in Sirte.
The International Committee of the Red Cross and United Nations’ staff have access to the prisoners and they are calling for their release.
“The Libyan authorities have called on the Tunisian government to take the children back into its custody because we have little to offer them here. But so far we haven’t received any answer,” said Marwan Adaissi, a volunteer of the Libyan Red Crescent, as he watched them jumping in the corridor.
The Filipino nurse is unable to understand why they are not allowed to return to their native country.
“They continue to tell our embassies that there are investigations underway. But we are clearly victims,” the woman said, raising her voice in desperation.
“I wish to die in the Philippines,” she yelled.