'Returning to life' after being sold into sexual slavery

'Returning to life' after being sold into sexual slavery
8 min read
15 March, 2018
In-depth: Lied to and exploited, some 80 percent of women arriving in Europe through Libya are destined for trafficking, reports Francesca Mannocchi.
Former trafficking victims have banded together to help others escape exploitation [Alessio Romenzi]

When night falls, Fatima comes out with flyers and condoms in her hands.

She is ready for the emergency units in the streets of Asti, in northern Italy; she tries to convince women and girls to abandon prostitution and denounce the torturers who threaten them.

Fatima has the right words, she already knows some of the women; some do not want to leave prostitution, they are afraid. Others are new to the area.

"They are getting younger," she says as she watches them from the window, half-naked on the street, wearing shorts and vertiginous heels, in the icy winter of Piedmontese nights.

She gets out of the car, approaches the girls, some call her "sister". Others seem indifferent to her hand, a hand that tries to help them.

But Fatima always has the right words; she has suffered the same hell of trafficking before them.

Before starting to work with Piam (Migrant Acceptance Integration Project) as a cultural mediator, Fatima had to free herself from the same exploiting thugs who today force young women and girls onto the streets.

[Alessio Romenzi]

Fatima arrived in Italy from Ghana in 2008.

Sexual slavery and human trafficking worked differently ten years ago; the smugglers provided fake passports to the women and Fatima, with this passport, passed through Dubai, Pristina and Thessaloniki to the Czech Republic.

From there, the smugglers bought her a ticket to Milan and finally, waiting for her in Italy, was the woman who ran the brothel in which she would work.

The day after her arrival in Italy, Fatima was on a street near a cemetery, with a debt of 45,000 euros ($55,000) on her shoulders. The only way to repay was, like everyone else's stories, to sell herself, to sell her body on the street.

Fatima felt cheated. She was scared until a woman approached her, giving her a flyer with an emergency number.

That woman told her: "Do not worry, call us, we will help you." So Fatima waited all night, in an unknown city with the only hope that phone number was not yet another deception.

She called the number and was answered by Alberto Mossino. He and his wife, Princess, brought Fatima to a reception center. Fatima denounced the network that forced her into prostitution and obtained a residence permit for social reasons.

Today Fatima lives with her two children who arrived six years ago from Ghana, a girl who likes to study and a boy fond of rugby, who plays and trains with the children of Asti.

[Alessio Romenzi]

Fatima is proud of them. "It is my joy to see them here. Since they are here, my life has another light."

From the window of her house, she sees one of the apartments managed by Piam, where the victims of trafficking are hosted.

She watches over them in the evening, to be sure that no one is approaching the house to blackmail them or bring them back to the street. She keeps an eye on them even in the morning, to be sure they wake up in time to attend Italian language classes.

The amount of money produced by sex slavery is huge. In 2016, according to the International Organization for Migration, about 80 percent of women arriving in Europe by sea from Libyan coasts would be destined for trafficking.

There is no data yet available for 2017, but the scale of the problem has taken on terrifying dimensions.

According to a recent Terres des Hommes report, the number of young Nigerian women and girls arriving in Italy is constantly increasing, from 5,000 in 2015 to 11,000 in 2016.

Between 2014 and 2016, the number of women trafficked through Libya increased by 600 percent, again according to IOM.

Fatima and Princess are role models for the women they try to save. Princess, the founder of Piam, is 43 years old; she was separated from her three children in 1999.

They remained in Akwa Ibom, Nigeria. She, with a fake passport and the promise of a decent job, arrived in Italy - where she discovered she had to return 45 million lira to her "madam" procurer.

[Alessio Romenzi]

She was threatened with a gun and stabbed twice. But one night, Alberto, who was then working as a DJ, asked her if she wanted to walk near the sea.

Princess did not trust him, but that man who helped her to pay her debt 15 years ago, is today her husband and is the man with whom she tries to save women from the street.

"Convincing these girls to leave prostitution and denounce it is not easy at all," says Fatima. "They are ashamed, they are afraid that their family will discover what they have been forced to do and at the same time they fear for the safety of their loved ones. We are talking about ruthless traffickers and madams."

Blessing is 22 years old. In Nigeria, in Benin City, Blessing worked as a secretary in an office. She speaks perfect English.

"My father spent the little money he had to let my brother and me study. He wanted a safe job for us, he wanted us to take care of him and my mother.

"And I was grateful to him because I know they made enormous sacrifices in a country where corruption and crime are ruining people's lives.

"Then everything suddenly changed. My boss stopped paying me. He did not pay me the salary for seven months. Every month he told me: 'Blessing, wait, and trust me.' And I trusted and waited."

One day one of the clients of the office where Blessing worked told her: "It's a pity that you are still staying here in Nigeria, I can help you to go away. I know a lot of important people and I can make sure you arrive to the United States. I'll help you find a job there."

Blessing was afraid, but the fear of poverty and the hope of a better life convinced her.

[Alessio Romenzi]

She trusted that man.

He convinced Blessing that he would accompany her to Lagos and from there would buy her a plane ticket for Europe and then for the United States.

"There's a friend of mine there, he will help you find a great job," he had told her.

Instead, Blessing found herself on a car that took her to Niger.

"I discovered that night that there would be no flight. He told me we would travel for a while in the car. I found myself in Niger. The phone no longer worked. Suspicions were growing inside me, just like despair."

Blessing began to ask for explanations and the man, who until then had shown generosity and understanding, suddenly become aggressive and threatening.

"You'll stay in Libya for a while," he told her.

Once in Libya, Blessing was taken to a "connection house" on the outskirts of Tripoli.

A Nigerian woman, around 40 years old, was waiting for her. She was to be her madam.

Blessing began to cry. Tears return to her face today, as she recounts what happened in Libya.

"They forced me into prostitution for nine months. I spent nine months in that dirty house, in the midst of infections of all kinds. There were days when I had to meet five men, one day I met eight. I never saw a dollar for those long months of prostitution, they told me that this was the way I would have to pay for my journey from Nigeria.

"But those months never ended. I was a slave, I was no longer a person. And today, that sense of dirt and shame cannot leave me."

Blessing is only one of the thousands of stories of Nigerian women victims of trafficking stuck in Libyan hell, used as slaves by Nigerian mafias, often with the connivance of the Libyan militias that control the country's detention centres.

[Alessio Romenzi]

While she talks, today, finally safe, Blessing shakes the hands of Fatima. Fatima is protective and calm, knowing how to balance questions and silences.

She asks questions tenaciously but without insistence.

Fatima knows when to say "be strong, and go on", and knows when to say "it's enough".

In Libya, Blessing witnessed atrocious things. She saw young girls entering the connection house, raped by their traffickers. One day Blessing begged her madam to let her leave, to leave for Europe, even on a rubber boat.

Blessing did not know what she might find in Italy and she knew that the journay was very dangerous. But she knew as well that it was the only chance of escaping from that hell.

Her madam told her that in order to pay for the "ticket", she would have to prostitute herself for another month.

And so she did. Until one day, finally, she left.

When she arrived in Sicily, Blessing was to have called a Nigerian woman - the local madam. But Blessing tore off that note with the phone number, and she told the police of all she had suffered in Libya.

"The hardest thing, once saved," Fatima says, "is to restore their trust and self-confidence. They were victims of voodoo rituals in Italy or Nigeria or Libya. They are afraid of retaliation against them, or worse on their family. The traffickers tell them that if the debt is not repaid, their families will suffer.

"This kind of blackmail keeps the girls nailed to the street for years. Many of them see their debts doubling, tripling. A girl arrived a week ago, Loveth, who gave her madam 80,000 euros over two years ($98,000). Her initial debt increased every time she tried to escape."

Many of them cannot call their family; it is precisely their family that has driven them to leave in the first place.

Today, Blessing is studying to become a cultural mediator. She wants to put her experience at the disposal of the many victims who continue to arrive in Europe from Libya.

"Your body becomes the property of someone else, you stop being a person and you become an object. In a moment you stop living, and to save yourself from that virtual death it takes years," says Blessing. "To work with these girls for me means to show them that you can come back to life."

Francesca Mannocchi is a journalist who previously reported from the front lines of the battle for Mosul and on the refugee crisis in Libya. 

Follow her on Twitter: @mannochia