From file: Migrants in Libya wait for a chartered return flight. | Photo: Mohamed Hmouzi/IOM
From file: Migrants in Libya wait for a chartered return flight. | Photo: Mohamed Hmouzi/IOM

Maïmouna, a 33-year-old Ivorian, always dreamed of starting her own business in the Ivory Coast. Lacking funds, she decided to migrate to Europe to work. She hoped the money she'd earn could enable her to return home to realize her dream and help her family. But the journey through Libya, marred by kidnapping and imprisonment, killed all her hopes.

Maïmouna left her home in Yopougon, a neighborhood in Abidjan, on July 14, 2017. After crossing through Mali and Burkina Faso, she landed in Niger, where she flew to Libya. From there, she planned to reach Europe by boat. Her goal: Work a few years to collect enough money to start her own import-export cacao company. 

For the former student in agricultural management, leaving was "almost logical". Maïmouna was born and raised in Daoula, in central Ivory Coast, a place young people frequently desert for Europe. Her time in Libya nevertheless turned out to be a "true nightmare", pushing her to turn back. 

"When I arrived in Libya, I was alone. I was afraid to stay in this country, so I continued to the coast, in Sabratha, to travel by sea. One morning, I took a Zodiac boat with 126 people. But the motor failed, and we started sinking. Panicked, some passengers started throwing people overboard to lighten the ship. There was a selection process: English-speaking Africans threw the French-speaking Africans into the sea. It was the scariest experience of my life. I cried so much. I wondered if I was going to survive this, but I ended up staying on the boat. Then, we were caught by Libyan coast guards. When they arrived, there were only 85 people left in the boat. The passengers who had been thrown overboard had drowned. 

We were all put in a sort of prison run by the 'Asma boys' [editor's note: "street boys" who violently attack migrants in the street to rob them]. These people collect Black people to make money. The ransom is really high for Africans. My parents had to pay 600,000 CFA [about €900] to free me. 

Once outside, I hid because I feared getting kidnapped. Us Black women are worth more money. I was holed up in a house, but I was happy: I had found my little sister who had followed after me a few months after I departed. It had been more than a year since we had seen each other. During that time, she had gotten her high school baccalaureate degree. 

Unfortunately, after a few weeks, I was taken. Kidnappers forced me to get in a car with other African women. On the road, they stopped the car and ordered us out. We were forced to get naked, and they patted us down everywhere. I felt like I was being raped. I will never forget the look of one of those men on my body. 

Arbitrary arrests of sub-Saharan migrants are common in Libya. Authorities claim they are anti-crime operations. The operations lead to the detention of arrested migrants, where they can be subjected to all kinds of violence. Tired of repeated arrests, Mohamed Abdul Aziz, a 19-year-old Sudanese refugee seeker, hung himself in the Ain Zara prison last June. 

Then they brought us to a camp, where I stayed for a few weeks. 

"No coming back" 

One day, my sister called to tell me we were going to travel by sea that very night. Someone would come get me at 7pm and take me to a beach. I waited for hours, until two in the morning. Nobody came. Someone forgot about me, and my sister left without me. 

Three days later, a woman called me: The dinghy had sunk. My sister was at the bottom of the sea with other girls who lived with us. I was so angry I broke everything in the house. I was also broken. From that point on, I lost my resolve. I told my intermediary in touch with the smuggler that I wanted to go back home. 'Once in Libya, you either travel to Europe by sea, or you die. There’s no coming back' -- that’s what I was told. 

So, I took a boat again. But once again, things did not go as planned. The motor quickly broke down and the other passengers and I had to row back to the coast. The police were waiting for us on the beach. I was arrested and brought to a prison in Zintan. 

Because my mother is a midwife, I know how to treat people. In the prison, I helped women give birth. But although I was doing what I could, some did not survive. Death was common. 

We were sometimes visited by the IOM [editor's note: International Organization for Migration, a UN agency]. We knew when the agents would come, because all of a sudden guards would clean the prison and start acting kinder. They stopped hitting us with their sticks. That's when I first heard about return programs. I called the Ivory Coast consulate to tell them I wanted to go home. I was tired, I felt lonely. When I got out of the prison three months later, I took a bus to Tripoli, then a plane to Abidjan. I left Libya on October 18, 2018. 

'I was ashamed'

In the plane, I felt strange. I was really disappointed, but happy to come home. A bit like when you've first given birth: You're happy to have a baby, but at the same time, you're scared. I realized my ordeal was over when I landed in the Ivory Coast. The first night, I slept in a hotel. The next day, my parents came to get me. I felt really awful, I was ashamed. I had left for my family, to help them. And I failed. I also felt guilty about my sister's death. I was her role model, and she had not survived. I was so scared of my family's judgment. 

When they saw me, my parents were really happy. Actually, they consoled me. If I feel better today, it's thanks to their support. The only rule is, we don’t talk about my sister. 

Today I feel rather well because I do not hide what I went through. Talking healed me. I talk a lot about what I went through with local NGOs. We go to schools, high schools, and women's organizations. I don't lecture people who want to go but I try to warn them, I tell them the truth without holding back. If I knew all of this, if someone had told me it was so dangerous, I would have done things differently. Many people learn about things through social media, but that's not enough. On Facebook, you can't tell real information from fake. 

In addition to this outreach work, I would like to go back into entrepreneurship here in the Ivory Coast. I will never try my luck elsewhere."


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