The Elephant in the Room- Sexual Abuse

Sexual violence- those two words put together invoke different reactions in people. It causes some to cringe, brings back traumatic memories for others, and shockingly, is considered a funny issue by some. Why the thought of someone’s sexual will being overridden by another is amusing to some is something I will never understand. Besides the invasion and feeling of devastation the victim of sexual violence encounters, one of the worst things they have to deal with is the shame and stigma attached to it; almost as if you did something to ask for it. I’ve heard people say things like “what was she wearing?” “Why did she go there that evening?” “She should have known”. “She got what she deserved!” Really? To think that anyone deserves something so horrific is barbaric and inhumane and people who believe that in my opinion should be… hmm let’s just skip over my recommendation for such people!

This post is about sexual violence, not about myself but about a fleeing migrant that I encountered recently; people do not understand that many people left their countries as migrants and became refugees along the way. This is the story of a couple I call Ali and Mary whom I met on-board MSF’s Search and Rescue vessel- the Vos Prudence.

I had done my rounds on the boat informing people about where we were going in Italy, what to expect on arrival such as the presence of armed police officers, (which for many of our guests was cause for panic due to the inhumane treatments many of them said they had experienced in the hands of armed police officers and militia in Libya) ministry of health staff, and so on. Then I explained to the women that the medics on board were available to treat victims of sexual violence and provide physical examinations and pregnancy tests as well. I told them that sexual violence is never the fault of the victim and that even though societies like my own-Nigeria, where many of the women were from still have a long way to go in treating victims with dignity and respect, we as MSF were here to help where possible.

Soon after, a young man approached me asking if we could talk; it had been a long day and was close to 11pm at this point. I was tired and cranky, and wondered why he wanted to talk to me when my message was specifically for the women that evening as I had specified that I would address the men the next day. Eventually I agreed to have the conversation that night, and the story that came out of his mouth left me in shock, which eventually wore off and caused me to burst into tears when I walked away.

He and his wife migrated to Libya a few years ago to live and work there because they had heard that it was a good location for intra African trade, and they were doing well in the first year. He worked in town, and she stayed home as a house wife maintaining the home and looking after their two-year old son; they could save a bit of money that way and were looking forward to eventually moving back to their home country in sub-Saharan Africa when tragedy struck.

They were home watching TV one evening when five armed men stormed their apartment demanding money and valuables, then attacked his wife; this led to a violent struggle between the couple and the attackers, who then shot dead the 2-year old boy who was there with his parents, stabbed the man in multiple places and took turns to violate his wife sexually while making him watch; he was wrecked as was she. Afterwards, they took him away and held him hostage until she was able to pay the ransom they demanded which when converted is approximately €3,000.

I asked Ali to call Mary so we could talk even though I honestly did not know what to say, how do you comfort a mother who feels like she failed because she could not protect her child or defend herself from rapists, and still feels like it was all her fault? How do you console a man who feels useless because he could not keep his family safe, had to endure the screams of his wife as she was sexually violated and watch life seep out of their only child? I told them to go to sleep, get some rest, and we would talk in the morning. As they thanked me and walked away, I could feel the tears burning behind my eyes, the back of my throat closing. I walked as fast as I could towards the entrance of the boat with the aim of getting to my cabin as soon as possible in mind. Somewhere on the deck, I heard my colleague ask if I was ok and I shook my head but didn’t stop walking. I heard my manager call me but I couldn’t stop walking, I had to get to the privacy of my cabin where I then burst into tears.

I cried for Mary who wore her grief like a cloak, I cried for Ali who seemed like a ghost of a man yet was perseverant enough to seek help for his wife. Throughout our conversation, he kept saying “she is not fine, and when she is not fine, I am not fine”, referring to his wife. I cried for the 2-year old boy whose life was snuffed out for no reason and would never be held by his mother again. I cried for the world, for how brutal some people have become- who shot a two-year old boy to death, laughed hysterically afterwards, then violently attacked his parents. What happened to us? When did we become this way? Is this a nightmare or some sort of hellish existence? When will it end?

Afterwards, I met with my manager who was willing to talk with Ali man to man and that was very welcome by Ali; they set up a meeting time to talk the next day and maybe he will write about that when he is ready. I took Ali and Mary to the hospital on board to receive some medical checks and medication, and I am so thankful for our medics and how they handled the situation.

I wish I could say that Ali and Mary’s situation is the rarity, that it is a one out of a thousand or even a hundred situation, but I would be lying. I have heard countless stories of rape, torture, sodomy and other violations from our guests at sea. Many of whom left home without the intention of coming to Europe, but became refugees in Libya and had to flee for their lives and sanity. After the attack, Ali and Mary decided to leave Libya and sold all that they had; they could not go back home because they would be captured en route and sold into slavery in Libya, so they went the illegal route and got on a rubber dinghy headed for Europe which they believed would be safer.

So, the next time people talk about migrants, pause for a minute and ask yourself why these people are coming, what stories and scars they carry and how you would want to be treated if you were in their shoes. Most of them believe that human rights are valued all over Europe and that they will be treated as humans, offered assistance and/or a safe repatriation back home; many of them are in for a rude awakening. This is 2017 and more than 2,300 lives have already been lost on the central Mediterranean, how many more have to die before we come up with a humane and lasting solution?

People like me do not enjoy being in the Search And Rescue zone, retrieving bodies of the people who drowned in their search for freedom; we are here because we value human life and human rights. We are here because we believe that all people are equal and should be treated as such, that no life should be lost at sea.

Let me end with this quote by Martin Luther King “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly”.

You probably feel sad, angry or overwhelmed after reading this; so my question to you is, “what are you going to do about it?” “How will you commit to making someone’s life better today?” Look around you.. there’s always a need and always a way to meet that need.

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