MARTINSICURO, ABRUZZO, ITALY - The thick-set 23-year-old Nigerian woman exudes strength, keen to overcome what she suffered in Libya and Italy before she escaped from the shadows in Rome and jumped on a train heading for Ancona on Italy’s Adriatic coast.
Not that she knew the train’s destination before boarding — she just wanted to flee her tormentors, run from beatings and sexual abuse. But it will take longer than a three-and-half-hour railway trip to forget the torments of the past.
Anna (the name she chose to protect her identity for security reasons) is one of more than 16,000 young Nigerian women — including many underage girls — who’ve been trafficked into Italy by Nigerian crime syndicates over the past two years, joining thousands of Nigerians who now make up nearly half of the street prostitutes working in Italy.
Many outreach workers suspect that most of the Nigerian girls, especially the more recent arrivals — although not all — knew before leaving Nigeria that their traffickers would put them to work as prostitutes. Many may have been sex workers before in Nigeria, something charity workers say shouldn't matter when it comes to helping the women, arguing they are all abused and in need of compassion and help.
Either way, the trafficked women, they say, didn’t know how grueling their work would be in Italy, how appalling their living conditions, how poorly paid they would be and how long it would take them to pay off debts to traffickers, who charge the women upwards of $41,000 (35,000 euros) for the journey.
But staff at On the Road, an Italian charity that helps women break from sex work, say they don't believe Anna was one of those who knew what she would be doing in Italy. They say she was duped.
Eight months after her escape from her "madame" Anna described her journey north from Nigeria’s Benin City through Niger and Libya. She is now living with nearly a dozen trafficked Nigerian girls in a shelter, going to school and learning Italian.
Anna said she was raped repeatedly for almost two months just outside the Libyan town of Bani Walid. There she witnessed young migrant women and boys shot because they resisted the sexual demands of their Libyan captors.
She said she couldn't give a precise number of those murdered but added, sadly, “Too many, too many.”
She made the journey to Italy because her uncle told her to go. After her parents died when she was 14-years-old, she and her three siblings — a brother and two sisters — lived with their uncle.
“He was not really taking care of us in the way he should. He is a drunkard and had no job. So we could barely afford a square meal a day. He always say we should leave his house,” she explained.
She did go to high school and was learning how to sew before she set off for Italy.
“One day my uncle came and said there was a woman who had a business here in Italy that needed someone to work with her. So he said I would go with the woman and work with her in Italy. So I had no choice.”
She never met the mysterious business woman, who she was told owned a supermarket, but did meet a woman who claimed to be the woman’s sister, who told Anna she would owe more than $47,000 (40,000 euros) for the journey and would have to pay it off.
Juju oath for debt repayment
Like thousands of other Nigerian women trafficked to Italy via Libya by Nigerian crime syndicates, she was taken to a voodoo priest to swear a juju oath to repay the debt.
After what she said was a rough journey through Niger, she and a group of Nigerian migrants arrived in Libya’s southern desert town of Sabha, spent a few weeks there before going to Bani Walid.
“When we got there, they put us in a compound guarded by many armed Arabs with many kinds of guns.” She recalled the scene with a shiver. “We don’t have anything to eat. You couldn’t escape. The place was secure.”
According to Anna, the compound was full of women, at least 200.
“They said we are going to Tripoli and they took us to a place that wasn't far from the place where we were before and so I said to myself, ‘Tripoli is close to Bani Walid.’”
In fact, it wasn’t Tripoli and was only 10 minutes outside Bani Walid. They arrived at night and she was kept indoors for almost two harrowing, terrifying months.
“They slept with us, mistreated us, beat us, and shot people,” she said. “They killed many people — girls and boys, who refused to sleep with them. The people who refused to do what they asked, they killed them and threw them out of the place.”
Asked if she was raped, she responded: “I slept with several men, several times.”
A smuggling chain
Last week, Amnesty International warned that “facilitating the interception and return of refugees and migrants to Libya results in their arbitrary detention in centers where they are at almost certain risk of being tortured, raped and even killed.”
Last year, Human Rights Watch interviewed 47 newly arrived migrants in Sicily who described severe abuses in Libya by government officials, smugglers and members of militias and criminal gangs.
With more women arriving, Anna’s captors moved her and her group along the smuggling chain. The smugglers’ inflatable boat, which Africans nickname balloon boats, capsized in the Mediterranean Sea. Several migrants drowned before an Italian coast guard ship rescued the survivors, including Anna.
In Italy, she was moved from a reception center in Calabria to another in Torino, where she contacted the business woman’s sister in Nigeria and was told a man would come and collect her.
The man, a Nigerian, took her to a house in Rome, where a woman beat her when she refused to prostitute herself. She was warned of the voodoo consequences of breaking her oath to repay the debt.
“Juju works,” she said. “It is our tradition.”
For a month she did as she was told, sleeping with men in a house overseen by an older Nigerian woman, who would receive the money from Anna’s clients. But even Juju couldn’t keep her doing the work. At Ancona railway station, an Italian man spotted her, and drove her to the Catholic charity Caritas, which passed her to On the Road.
“What has happened, has happened," she said. Now she wants to get on with her life. She said the traffickers are “giving my family problems, my siblings” and are threatening them.
“I can't go back to Nigeria,” she said. “I hope I have a good life in my future.”