Special Report: Enslaved in Libya - One woman's extraordinary escape from Islamic State

August 18, 2016 9:17 AM EDT

The hands of Eritrean migrant Ruta Fisehaye are seen as she poses for a photograph in Catania, Italy, May 11, 2016. REUTERS/Antonio Parrinello

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By Selam Gebrekidan

(Reuters) - On the night of June 2, 2015, gunmen blocked a highway on Libya's northern coast and stopped a white truck speeding toward Tripoli, the capital. The men trained their assault rifles on the driver. Three climbed aboard to search the cargo.

Ruta Fisehaye, a 24-year-old Eritrean, was lying on the bed of the truck's first trailer. Beside her lay 85 Eritrean men and women, one of whom was pregnant. A few dozen Egyptians hid in the second trailer. All shared one dream — to reach Europe.

The gunmen ordered the migrants off the truck. They separated Muslims from Christians and, then, men from women. They asked those who claimed to be Muslims to recite the Shahada, a pledge to worship only Allah. All of the Egyptians shouted the words in unison.

"There is no god but God. Muhammad is the messenger of God."

"Allahu Akbar," the gunmen called back.

Fisehaye realized then that she was in the hands of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Her captors wore robes with beige camouflage print — clothes she had not seen on other men in Libya. Most of them hid behind black ski masks. A black flag waved from one of their pickup trucks.

"We were certain that they were taking us to our deaths," recalled Fisehaye, a Christian who wears a black-thread necklace to symbolize her Orthodox faith. "We cried in despair."

Her captors had another end in mind.

As Islamic State battles to expand in Libya, it is rewarding its warriors by exploiting the great exodus of African migrants bound for Europe.

Since the group emerged in Libya in late 2014, some 240,000 migrants and refugees have traversed the war-torn country. Over the past 18 months, Islamic State fighters have abducted at least 540 refugees in six separate ambushes, according to 14 migrants who witnessed the abductions and have since escaped to Europe.

The fighters then enslaved, raped, sold or exchanged at least 63 captive women, nine of whom described their ordeal in detail to Reuters. Their stories comprise the first corroborated account of how Islamic State turns refugee women into sex slaves using them as human currency to attract and reward fighters in Libya. It is the same blueprint of abuse it employed on Yazidi women in Syria and Iraq.

Because of its proximity to southern Europe, and its shared borders with six African nations, Libya is Islamic State's most important outpost outside Syria and Iraq. It is territory that the group is fighting hard to defend.

In August, U.S. fighter jets bombed Sirte — the stronghold of Islamic State in Libya — in an attempt to wrench the city from the group's control. The airstrikes have revived a stalled military assault that Libyan brigades launched earlier this summer.

Sirte is strategically important for Islamic State. The city sits on a highway connecting two hubs of Libya's people-smuggling trade — Ajdabiya in the northeast, where migrants stop to settle fees with smugglers, and fishing ports in the west, where boats depart for Europe every week.

From this bastion, Islamic State has found numerous ways to profit from the refugee crisis, despite the group's declaration that migration is "a dangerous major sin" in the September issue of its magazine, "Dabiq."

The extremist group has taxed smugglers in exchange for safe passage and has used well-beaten smuggling routes to bring in new fighters, according to Libyan residents interviewed by phone, a senior U.S. official and a U.N. Security Council report published in July.

Brigadier Mohamed Gnaidy, an intelligence officer with local forces mustered by the nearby town of Misrata, says Islamic State has recruited migrants to join its ranks, offering them money and Libyan brides.

It has also extracted human chattel from the stream of refugees passing through its territory, according to the accounts of Fisehaye and the other survivors who were interviewed. Five of six mass kidnappings verified by Reuters took place on a 160-km stretch near Sirte in March, June, July, August and September of last year. The sixth occurred near Libya's border with Sudan this January.

This story is based on interviews with Fisehaye, eight other women enslaved by Islamic State, and five men kidnapped by the group. Reuters spoke to the refugees in three European countries over four months. Two women agreed to speak on the record, risking the stigma that besets survivors of sexual violence. Reuters was unable to reach the Islamic State fighters in Libya or independently corroborate certain aspects of the women's accounts.


Before she left Eritrea, Fisehaye (rhymes with Miss-ha-day) felt trapped in her job as a storekeeper for a government-owned farm. Like most young Eritreans, she was a conscript in the country's long-term national service, which lasts well beyond the 18 months mandated by law. She could hardly get by on her meager wages of $36 a month. But she also felt she could not quit and risk angering the state, which is often accused of human-rights violations.

Fisehaye, a petite woman whose smile easily takes over her entire face, decided to take a risk. In January 2015, she walked across the border into Sudan with a cousin and two friends, her heart set on Europe.

In Khartoum, Sudan's capital, Fisehaye spent four months raising the $1,400 she needed to pay a smuggler for a trip to Libya. She tried and failed to find a lucrative job. So, like thousands of refugees before her, she called on relatives abroad to pitch in. She talked to recent émigrés and found an Eritrean smuggler whose clients gave him a glowing review.

Before setting off into the desert, she heard stories about armed outlaws who rape women in Libya. She paid a doctor for a contraceptive injection that would last for three months.

"Once you leave Eritrea, there is no going back. I did what any woman would do," she said.

The first leg of her journey went off without a hitch. In May, her convoy crossed the Sahara and reached Ajdabiya in northeast Libya. Fisehaye believed the worst was behind her. Though no one counts migrants who die from sickness, starvation and violence in the desert, refugee groups say more may perish there than drown in the Mediterranean Sea.

"No one stopped us in the Sahara … and the smugglers told us we shouldn't worry about Daesh," she said, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State. "I never expected to see an organized state like theirs in Libya."

She was wrong.

On the night of the kidnapping, the armed Islamic State fighters ordered Fisehaye and the other Christians back onto the truck. The men climbed onto the front trailer and the women, 22 in all, onto the back. They drove east, threading the same road they had driven hours earlier. A pickup truck with a mounted machine gun trailed close behind.

A half hour later, the truck turned right onto a dirt road and the soft glow of a town's lights shimmered ahead. A few male captives had seen videos of Islamic State beheadings. Realizing the gunmen belonged to the group, the men jumped off and ran into the flat desert. Gunfire erupted. Some fell dead, others were rounded up. A few got away.

"We thought it would be better to get shot than beheaded," Hagos Hadgu, one of the men who jumped off the truck, said in an interview in Hållsta, Sweden. He wasn't caught that night and made it to Europe two months later. "We didn't want to die with our hands and legs bound. Even an animal needs to writhe in the hour of death."

The fighters deposited the migrants at an abandoned hospital perched in a scrubland near a desert town called Nawfaliyah. They searched the women for jewelry, lifting their sleeves and necklines with a rod, and hauled them into a small room where a Nigerian woman was being kept.

The next morning, one of the fighters' leaders, a man from West Africa, paid the women a visit. He brought a young boy, one of at least seven Eritrean children Islamic State had kidnapped in March, to serve as his translator.

"Do you know who we are?" the man asked.

The women were silent.

"We are al-dawla al-Islamiyyah," the man explained, using the Arabic for Islamic State.

He reminded the women that Islamic State was the group that had slain 30 Eritrean and Ethiopian Christians back in April, filmed the massacre, and posted the video online. The caliphate would spare their lives because they were women, he assured them, but only if they converted to Islam.

"Or we will let you rot here," he warned.

Fisehaye found conversion an unholy thought. Along with the other women, she fired a volley of questions at the man: Can we call our families and tell them where we are? Can they pay you a ransom for our freedom? Can you tell us what you did to our brothers? Our husbands?

The man offered few answers and no solace.

Three weeks later, in the first week of Ramadan in June, fighter jets bombed the abandoned hospital compound and some of the buildings collapsed. It is difficult to determine who was behind the attack. Both the U.S. military and western Libyan groups have claimed raids on nearby towns around that time.

In the ensuing chaos, Fisehaye and the other women sprinted past the debris and ran barefoot into the desert. The hot ground seared their feet. The captive men, who had been held in the same compound all along, ran ahead.

Before long, the fleeing captives made out the silhouettes of a pickup truck and men with assault rifles ahead of them. The armed men waved for the migrants to stop then opened fire. The women stopped. Most of the migrant men escaped, but eleven were rounded up and flogged. Their whereabouts are unknown.

The airstrikes continued through the week. Eventually, Islamic State fighters moved the women to the abandoned quarters of a Turkish construction company in Nawfaliyah, two hours away.

The makeshift prison housed graders and dozers from road-work projects of the mid-2000s, their metal bodies rusting under the intense heat. Itinerant workers had scribbled their names and countries on the compound's walls. Fisehaye and the other women stayed in a small room where the drywall sweated when temperatures rose. A Korean family — a pediatrician, his wife and her brother — were jailed in another room.

It only took a week for Fisehaye and the other women to attempt another breakout. Nine escaped, but not Fisehaye. Instead, she was brought back to the makeshift prison and whipped for days. The Korean doctor tended to her wounds.

A few weeks later, in early August, 21 other Eritrean women joined Fisehaye's group. They too had been kidnapped along a stretch of highway in central Libya. One woman came with her three children, aged five, seven and eleven.


Throughout the summer, Islamic State consolidated its hold in central Libya. In Sirte, Islamic State fighters crushed a Salafist uprising by executing dissenters and hanging their bodies from lampposts. In Nawfaliyah, they paraded decapitated heads to silence dissent.

Then, in September, the group's emir in Libya, Abul-Mughirah Al-Qahtani (more commonly known as Abu Nabil), advertised his domain's "great need of every Muslim who can come." He summoned fighters, doctors, legal experts and administrators who could help him build a functioning state. He levied hefty taxes on businesses and confiscated enemy property, just as his group had done in Syria and Iraq.

The ranks of Islamic State fighters swelled. At its peak, the group may have had 6,000 fighters in Libya, based on the U.S. Army's estimates, although the Pentagon drastically cut that estimate this month to a thousand fighters in Sirte.

The single men, most of whom flocked from other parts of Africa, needed companions, and Islamic State enlisted older women in Sirte to help. The women, called 'crows' because they dressed in black, visited townspeople's homes and registered single girls older than 15 as potential brides, says Brigadier Gnaidy of the Misrata forces.

As the group's ambitions grew that summer, so did its need for women. Islamic State's take on sharia permits men to take sex slaves. The kidnapped women, unprotected and far from home, became easy targets. In mid-August, more than two months after Fisehaye was abducted, Islamic State fighters moved the 36 women in their custody to Harawa, a small town they controlled some 75 kilometers (46 miles) from Sirte.

As Fisehaye and the seven other women Reuters interviewed describe it, life in Harawa was almost quotidian at first.

There were no air strikes, beatings or threats of sexual violence. The captives — the Eritreans kidnapped in June and August, including Fisehaye, two Nigerians, and the Korean couple and their relative — lived in a large compound by the town's dam. In the next few weeks, they were joined by 10 Filipino medical workers kidnapped from a hospital in Sirte, a Bangladeshi lecturer taken from a Sirte university, a pregnant Ghanaian captured in Sirte, and an Eritrean woman captured with her 4-year-old son on the highway to Tripoli.

It was here that Fisehaye bonded with Simret Kidane, a 29 year-old who left her three children with her parents in Eritrea to seek a better life in Europe. She was among the women kidnapped in August.

Kidane befriended one of the guards, Hafeezo, a Tunisian mechanic turned jihadist in his early 30s. Hafeezo helped the women navigate their new life in captivity. He brought them groceries and relayed their demands to his superiors in Sirte. He comforted them when they cried. He counseled them to forget their past lives and embrace Islam. That way, he promised, they may be freed to find a husband among the militants. They may even be allowed to call home.

The women asked for religious lessons, and Hafeezo brought them a copy of the Koran translated into their first language, Tigrinya. He also brought a small Dell laptop and a flash drive on which he had uploaded religious texts and lessons on the lives of fallen jihadists.

Fisehaye succumbed first. In September, after three months of captivity, she converted to Islam and took on a Muslim name, Rima. Her conversion had a domino effect across the compound; Kidane and the others followed suit a month later.

"I could see no other way out," Fisehaye said. "Islam was one more step to my freedom. They told us we would have some rights as Muslims."

After their conversion, Hafeezo brought them black abayas and niqabs, loose garments some Muslim women wear to cover themselves. He kept his distance and refused to make eye contact. Instead, he supervised their piety from afar.

Another guard, an older Sudanese fighter, taught them to pray. He recited verses from the Koran and made the women write down and repeat his words. When the guard moved to a new job in Sirte, Hafeezo brought a flat-screen TV and played them videos of religious lessons and suicide missions. As promised, Hafeezo allowed the women to call their families.

In December, frequent gunfire punctured the relatively quiet life in Harawa. Food became scarce. Hafeezo was often called to the frontline and disappeared for days. One day, he took Kidane aside and told her to prepare for what was to come. The leadership had changed — Islamic State's emir in Libya had died in a U.S. airstrike a month earlier — and the women's fate along with it.

"You are now [[i]]sabaya,[[/i]]" Hafeezo told Kidane, using the archaic term for slave. There were four possible outcomes for her and the other women, he explained. Their respective owners could make them their sex slaves, give them away as gifts, sell them to other militias, or set them free.

"Do not worry about what will happen to you in the hands of men," Kidane says Hafeezo told her. "Concern yourself only with where you stand with Allah."

Kidane did not share this detail with Fisehaye or the other women, hoping to save them from despair.

Later, one of Hafeezo's superiors came to the compound to take a census. He wrote the women's names and ages on a ledger. He asked them to lift their veils and examined their faces. He returned a week later and took two of the youngest women, aged 15 and 18, with him. On December 17, he sent for Kidane. That day, he gave her to a Libyan member of an Islamic State brigade in Sirte. Despite her repeated pleas, her new owner refused to reunite her with Fisehaye.

Kidane and the teenage women escaped and are now seeking asylum in Germany.


In late January, a stomach ulcer confined Fisehaye to her bed. Stress made matters worse. Returning from a hospital visit one afternoon, she witnessed a child, no older than 9, shoot a man in the town square.

Soon after, she and the remaining female captives moved to a warehouse in Sirte where Islamic State stored appliances, fuel and slaves. A group of 15 Eritrean women, who had been kidnapped in July, and three Ethiopian women kidnapped in January joined them that week.

The warehouse became, to the women, a last frontier of defiance. As new Muslims, they argued for better healthcare and the abolition of their slavery. They absorbed beatings in response.

Resistance proved futile. An Eritrean fighter called Mohamed, who had often dropped by to survey the women, purchased Fisehaye in February. He never said how much he paid for her. But he seemed gentle at first, asking after her waning health and her past life in Eritrea.

"I was confused. I thought he was going to help me. Maybe he had infiltrated Daesh. Maybe he wasn't really one of them. I started harboring hope," Fisehaye said.

Instead, he raped her, repeatedly, for weeks.

"No one ever showed us which part of the Koran says they could turn us into slaves," Fisehaye said. "They wanted to destroy us…so much evil in their hearts."

She plotted her escape but could not find a way out.

Then her owner lent her to another man, a Senegalese fighter. Known by the nom de guerre Abu Hamza, the Senegalese had brought his wife and three children to the Libyan frontline. Fisehaye was to work, unpaid, in Abu Hamza's kitchen.

The work was busy but bearable, until one night in mid-February when Abu Hamza brought an Eritrean woman from the warehouse. He raped the woman all night.

"She was screaming. Screaming. It tore my heart," Fisehaye recalled. "His wife stood by the door and cried."

The next morning, Fisehaye convinced the battered woman to run away with her. They left the city behind and ran into the desert. No one stopped to help them and they were caught by religious police on patrol outside the city.

The police returned both women to captivity. The battered Eritrean woman went back to Abu Hamza. Mohamed took Fisehaye to a three-story building in Sirte that he shared with two other fighters.

Fisehaye moved in with a 22-year-old Eritrean woman and her 4-year-old son, both of whom belonged to a Tunisian commander named Saleh. Another 23-year-old Eritrean lived down the hall with her 2-year-old son and a daughter to whom she gave birth while in Islamic State custody. That woman and her children belonged to a Nigerian fighter who called himself al-Baghdadi.

Fisehaye's roommates said the men raped them on multiple occasions. They told their stories on condition of anonymity.

"There was no one there to help me. So I kept quiet and took the abuse," the Eritrean mother of two later said. "I stopped resisting. He did as he pleased with me."


In April of this year, Libya's nascent unity government stationed itself in a naval base in Tripoli. Separately, rival factions — the Petroleum Facilities Guard in the east and brigades from towns in the west — plotted to attack Islamic State from opposite flanks.

In Sirte, meanwhile, Fisehaye and her roommates learned that one of them, the mother of two, would soon be sold to another man.

The revelation pushed them to plot an escape. They pretended to call their relatives but talked, instead, to Eritrean smugglers in Tripoli. They studied their captors' schedules. They surveyed their surroundings whenever the Tunisian commander Saleh, in a cruel prank, left the house keys with his slave but took her son with him.

Finally, on the early morning of April 14, the women grabbed 60 Libyan dinars, about $40, from Saleh's bag and broke out of the house through a backdoor. But Sirte looked ominously deserted in the early morning and, fearing they would be caught, the women returned to the house.

They ventured out again, hours later, when the city came to life. They walked for hours before a cab stopped for them. Fisehaye negotiated with the driver in halting Arabic. She told him they were maids who had been swindled by an employer. She gave him a number for an Eritrean smuggler in Tripoli.

The driver negotiated with the smuggler over the phone. He agreed to drive them for 750 dinars ($540), to be covered by the smuggler once the women arrived in Bani Walid, five hours away.

In the end, it took the women 12 hours to get to Bani Walid. As promised, the Eritrean smuggler paid for their escape and took them to a holding cell. There, they shucked off their niqabs and cried with joy. They prayed for the dozens they had left behind.

Fisehaye borrowed the smuggler's phone and called her father in Eritrea. Soon, word of her escape spread among her friends and relatives. They settled her debt and paid the smuggler another $2,000 to get her on a boat to Europe.

In May, during a month when 1,133 refugees drowned at sea, Fisehaye crossed the Mediterranean. Her 10 months of captivity had come to an end.

She traversed a path trod by many refugees, across Italy and Austria, and reached Germany a month after her escape. She is now seeking asylum there.

(Gebrekidan reported from Ulm and Hanover, Germany; Catania and Rome, Italy; and Hållsta, Fur and Vetlanda, Sweden; Additional reporting by Patrick Markey and Aidan Lewis in Sirte, Libya; Ali Al-Shouky in Marsa Matrouh, Egypt; and Jonathan Landay in Washington; Edited by Alessandra Galloni)

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