West African slavery lives on, 400 years after transatlantic trade began

A woman, who says she was a victim of sexual exploitation and calls herself Claudia Osadolor to protect her identity, works as a tailor after training with the support of Nigerian charity Pathfinders Justice Initiative in Benin City, Nigeria July 20, 2019. Picture taken July 20, 2019. REUTERS/Nneka Chile

By Angela Ukomadu and Nneka Chile

LAGOS (Reuters) – Blessing was only six years old when her mother arranged for her to become an unpaid housemaid for a family in the African Nigerian city of Abuja, on the promise they would put her through school.

In her home town in southwest Nigeria, her mother had trouble making enough money to feed her three children. But when Blessing arrived in Abuja, instead of going to school, the family worked her round-the-clock, beat her with an electrical wire if she forgot one of her chores and fed her rotten leftovers.

When her mother later moved to the city to be closer to her daughter, Blessing was unable to be alone with her when she came to visit.

“They would tell me that my mother was coming, that I should not tell her what was happening to me, that I should not even say anything,” she says of the family.

“If she asks me how am I doing I should say I am doing fine, they said.”

As the world marks 400 years since the first recorded African slaves arrived in North America, slavery remains a modern-day scourge. Over 40 million people are estimated to be trapped in forced labor, forced marriages or other forms of sexual exploitation, according to the United Nations.

Blessing, now 11, is one such victim. She was rescued in 2016 by the Women Trafficking and Child Labour Eradication Foundation (WOTCLEF), an anti-human trafficking group, after two years of isolation and abuse. She is still under the care of WOTCLEF, which gave consent for her to be interviewed for this story.

Africa has the highest prevalence of slavery, with more than seven victims for every 1,000 people, according to a 2017 report by human rights group Walk Free Foundation and the International Labour Office. The report defines slavery as “situations of exploitation that a person cannot refuse or leave because of threats, violence, coercion, deception, and/or abuse of power.”

Trafficking of sex workers, many of them tricked into thinking they will get employment doing something else, is one of the most widespread and abusive forms of modern-day slavery.

The experiences of Claudia Osadolor and Progress Omovhie show how poverty increases women’s vulnerability to exploitation.

After Osadolor’s family in Benin City in southern Nigeria hit hard times, she dropped out of university and headed to Russia after a cousin told her about someone who could help her get work there, with travel expenses paid. She left Nigeria with three other girls she did not know in June 2012. When she got to Russia a “madam” came to pick her up.

Osadolor, now 28, says she was forced into prostitution and suffered internal injuries after being made to sleep with up to 20 men a day. She was trapped for three years, with the madam coming round every two weeks to take almost all of her money.

She cries as she recounts the trauma and her relief at escaping thanks to a chance meeting with a representative of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) at a metro station.

“I feel like I paid the ultimate price for my family,” she says. “But I thank God that I came back alive.”

Osadolor has been able to reintegrate into society after training as a tailor back in Benin with the support of Nigerian charity Pathfinders Justice Initiative.

Omovhie, 33, also found herself enslaved after leaving Nigeria in 2015 in search of work. She paid an agent 700,000 naira ($2,290) – money she had borrowed – to smuggle her on a journey across the Sahara desert to Libya, hoping eventually to go to Europe.

The intended final destination of people smuggled across Africa like this is often Europe, but few make it that far. Many are jailed or sold as indentured laborers when they get to Libya. Some are even sold on slave markets, according to aid groups – a chilling echo of the trans-Saharan slave trade of centuries past.

Once in Libya, Omovhie says she started working long hours as a cleaner for a well-off Arab family in Tripoli, often on an empty stomach.

“I worked three months and they did not pay me in that house,” she said.

Another agent promised to help Omovhie escape by sending her to Italy, but she was rounded up by police on the Libyan coast and detained there for six months. She returned to Nigeria in July under a state program to help refugees and migrants. It has helped over 14,000 Nigerians return home since 2017.

Blessing and Claudia Osadolor are pseudonyms requested to protect their anonymity.

(Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Tim Cocks and Susan Fenton)

Traffickers used Russia’s World Cup to enslave us, say Nigerian women

Blessing Obuson from Nigeria, 19, rescued from human traffickers, speaks to a lawyer in the office of Civic Assistance Committee as she seeks help with applying for asylum in Moscow, Russia February 15, 2019. Picture taken February 15, 2019. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

By Maria Vasilyeva

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Blessing Obuson thought Russia’s soccer World Cup would be an opportunity to find a job and flew into Moscow from Nigeria last June on a fan ID. Instead, she found herself forced to work as a prostitute.

Fan IDs allowed visa-free entry to World Cup supporters with match tickets, but did not confer the right to work. Despite that, Obuson, 19, said she had hoped to work as a shop assistant to provide for her 2-year-old daughter and younger siblings back in Nigeria’s Edo state.

Instead, she said she was locked in a flat on the outskirts of Moscow and forced into sex work along with 11 other Nigerian women who were supervised by a madam, also from Nigeria.

“I cried really hard. But what choice did I have?” Obuson told Reuters after being freed by anti-slavery activists.

She said her madam had confiscated her passport and told her she’d only get it back once she’d worked off a fictional debt of $50,000.

Obuson told her story to a rare English-speaking client who got anti-slavery activists involved.

Two Nigerians were later arrested and charged with human trafficking after striking a deal to sell Obuson for 2 million rubles (around $30,000) to a police officer posing as a client, according to her lawyer, statements from prosecutors, and evidence presented at court hearings in the case attended by Reuters journalists. The case is still under investigation.

VIOLENCE

Obuson’s case is not isolated. Reuters met eight Nigerian women aged between 16 and 22 brought into Russia on fan IDs and forced into sex work. All said they had endured violence.

“They don’t give you food for days, they slap you, they beat you, they spit in your face… It’s like a cage,” said one 21-year old woman, who declined to be named.

In September, a Nigerian woman was killed by a man who refused to pay for sex, police said. The Nigerian embassy later identified her as 22-year old Alifat Momoh who had come to Russia from Nigeria with a fan ID.

Russian police say 1,863 Nigerians who entered the country with fan IDs had not left by Jan. 1, the date when the IDs expired.

Kenny Kehindo, who works with several Moscow NGOs to help sex trafficking victims, estimates that more than 2,000 Nigerian women were brought in on fan IDs.

Neither Russian police nor the Nigerian embassy in Moscow replied to requests for a comment. A Nigerian foreign ministry spokesman also did not respond to text messages and phone calls requesting comment.

“Many are still in slavery,” said Kehindo, who said he had helped around 40 women return to Nigeria.

“Fan ID is a very good thing, but in the hands of the human traffickers it’s just an instrument,” he said, calling for more cooperation between the authorities and anti-trafficking NGOs during major sporting events, including the 2022 Qatar World Cup where a fan ID system is also being considered.

Anti-slavery group Alternativa said its helpline had fielded calls from Nigerian women held in St Petersburg and other World Cup host cities.

While a prosecution has been launched in Obuson’s case, police have been unable to act against suspected traffickers in other cases due to a lack of evidence.

“A lot of girls are still out there,” said Obuson.

 

(Additional reporting by Camillus Eboh in Abuja; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Gareth Jones)

North Carolina protesters pull down university’s Confederate statue

Students and protesters surround plinth where the toppled statue of a Confederate soldier nicknamed Silent Sam once stood, on the University of North Carolina campus after a demonstration for its removal in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, U.S. August 20, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

By Jonathan Drake

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (Reuters) – Protesters toppled a statue of a Confederate soldier on the campus of University of North Carolina, the latest move to dismantle Civil War symbols amid debate about race and the legacy of slavery in the United States.

About 300 demonstrators gathered on Monday evening ahead of Tuesday’s first day of fall classes for a protest and march at the base of Silent Sam, a memorial erected in 1913 to the soldiers of the pro-slavery Confederacy killed during the Civil War. Protesters pulled the statue down with rope, cheering as it lay face down in the mud, its head and back covered in dirt.

University Chancellor Carol Folt acknowledged the protesters’ frustrations but criticized their conduct as vandalism.

Police and protesters surround the toppled statue of a Confederate soldier nicknamed Silent Sam on the University of North Carolina campus after a demonstration for its removal in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, U.S. August 20, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

Police and protesters surround the toppled statue of a Confederate soldier nicknamed Silent Sam on the University of North Carolina campus after a demonstration for its removal in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, U.S. August 20, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

“The monument has been divisive for years,” she said in a statement. “However, last night’s actions were unlawful and dangerous and we are very fortunate that no one was injured.”

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat, echoed the sentiment, saying in a statement he shared protesters “frustration” over statues but condemning the violent destruction of public property.

Campus police arrested at least one person at the protest for masking their face and resisting arrest, according to Audrey Smith, a university spokeswoman.

The efforts by civil rights groups and others to do away with Confederate monuments such as Silent Sam gained momentum three years ago after avowed white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine black people at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. The shooting rampage ultimately led to the removal of a Confederate flag from the statehouse in Columbia.

Since then, more than 110 symbols of the Confederacy have been removed across the nation with more than 1,700 still standing, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group. Many of the monuments were erected in the early 20th century, decades after the Civil War’s end.

Many Americans see such statues as symbols of racism and glorification of the southern states’ defense of slavery in the Civil War. Others view them as important symbols of American history.

(Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Christian Schmollinger and Bill Trott)

Memphis removes Confederate statues as King anniversary nears

A statue of Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States, stands in Memphis Park, formerly named Confederate Park, in Memphis, Tennessee, U.S., August 19, 2017.

By Brendan O’Brien

(Reuters) – Authorities in Memphis, a city steeped in civil rights history, removed two statues of Confederate leaders on Wednesday hours after the downtown parkland where they stood was sold to a private group.

Several U.S. cities have in recent months dismantled monuments to Confederate leaders, which have become focal points for a fraught national debate over race and politics.

The removal of the statutes of President Jefferson Davis and Nathan Bedford Forrest comes three months before Memphis marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination there of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

Confederate General Forrest was a slave trader and a Ku Klux Klan leader.

Many Americans see such statues as symbols of racism and glorifications of the southern states’ defense of slavery in the Civil War, but others view them as important symbols of American history.

“The statues no longer represent who we are as a modern, diverse city with momentum,” Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said in a statement.

Earlier in the evening, the city council in Memphis voted unanimously to sell the land where the statues stood to a nonprofit organization called the Memphis Greenspace for $2,000 in order for the monuments to be removed, the Commercial Appeal newspaper reported.

“This is a fix, and a scam, and if the state has one hair on its ass then people will be charged with felonies,” the Sons of Confederate Veterans said in a post on Facebook opposing the sale of the land.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; editing by John Stonestreet)

Mayor says Lee statue must go as debate over U.S. slave past rages

The statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee sits at the center of the park formerly dedicated to him, the site of recent violent demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S. August 18, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

By Brandon Shulleeta

RICHMOND, Va. (Reuters) – The mayor of Charlottesville called on Friday for a special session of Virginia’s legislature to let localities decide the fate of Confederate monuments like the statue at the center of a far-right rally last week that turned deadly.

Mayor Mike Signer issued his appeal amid an increasingly contentious debate over what to do with memorials to Confederate figures, who fought for the preservation of slavery during the U.S. Civil War, that are seen by opponents as offensive.

In what has become the biggest domestic crisis of his presidency, Donald Trump has been sharply criticized, including by fellow Republicans, for blaming Charlottesville’s violence not only on the white nationalist rally organizers, but also the anti-racism activists who opposed them.

“Whether they go to museums, cemeteries, or other willing institutions, it is clear that they no longer can be celebrated in shared civic areas,” Signer said in a statement, referring to the statues. “We can, and we must, respond by denying the Nazis and the KKK (Ku Klux Klan) and the so-called alt-right the twisted totem they seek.”

A 32-year-old woman, Heather Heyer, was killed and several people were injured when a man crashed a car into a crowd of counter-protesters at last Saturday’s rally.

A 20-year-old Ohio man has been charged with her murder. On Friday, he was handed five new felony counts of malicious wounding, with the charges related to serious injuries inflicted on people hit by the vehicle, Charlottesville police said.

Some attendees at the rally were heavily armed, and Signer said in his statement he was also calling for legislation that would let localities ban open or concealed carry of weapons at some public events. And he said he wanted to find a way to memorialize Heyer’s name and legacy.

Heyer’s mother told a memorial service on Thursday that her daughter’s killers tried to silence her. “Well guess what? You just magnified her,” Susan Bro told the service.

Signer said that memorial was a profound turning point for him, and that it made him realize the significance of the city’s statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee had changed.

“Its historical meaning now, and forevermore, will be a magnet for terrorism,” the mayor said in his statement.

RALLYING POINTS FOR RACISTS

Also on Friday, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe signed an executive order temporarily banning protests at the Lee Monument in downtown Richmond while new regulations governing demonstrations are put in place, the governor’s office said.

In many places, Confederate monuments have become rallying points for white nationalists. Efforts to remove many such statues have been stepped up since the Charlottesville rally, which was called by far-right groups to protest against plans to remove the Lee statue.

In Maryland on Friday, authorities took down a statue of a 19th century chief justice, Roger Taney, who wrote an infamous 1857 ruling known as the Dred Scott decision that reaffirmed slavery and said black people could not be U.S. citizens.

Trump on Thursday decried the removal of such monuments, drawing stinging rebukes from fellow Republicans in a controversy that inflamed racial tensions nationwide.

The mother of Heyer, the woman killed in Charlottesville, said in a television interview on Friday that after Trump’s comments, “I’m not talking to the president now.”

“You can’t wash this one away by shaking my hand and saying, ‘I’m sorry.’ I’m not forgiving him for that,” Susan Bro told ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

There are more than 1,500 symbols of the Confederacy in public spaces across the United States, with 700 of those being monuments and statues, the Southern Poverty Law Center said.

The large majority of these were erected long after the Civil War ended in 1865, according to the center, with many going up early in the 20th century amid a backlash among segregationists against the civil rights movement.

More than half a dozen have been taken down since Saturday.

(Reporting by Brandon Shulleeta in Richmond, Virginia; Additional reporting by Barry Yeoman in Durham, North Carolina, Gina Cherelus in New York, Susan Heavey and Ian Simpson in Washington, Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Writing by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg, Frances Kerry and Lisa Shumaker)

Special Report: Enslaved in Libya – One woman’s extraordinary escape from Islamic State

The hands of Eritrean migrant Ruta Fisehaye

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.

BETTER SHOT THAN BEHEADED

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.

CONVERSION

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.

SABAYA

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.”

ESCAPE

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)

Almost 46 Million People trapped in slavery globally

Actor Russell Crowe launches the 2016 Global Slavery Index at the London office of Gallup

By Alex Whiting

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Almost 46 million people are living as slaves globally with the greatest number in India but the highest prevalence in North Korea, according to the third Global Slavery Index launched on Tuesday with Australian actor Russell Crowe.

The index, by Australia-based human rights group Walk Free Foundation, increased its estimate of people born into servitude, trafficked for sex work, or trapped in debt bondage or forced labor to 45.8 million from 35.8 million in 2014.

Andrew Forrest, founder of Walk Free, said the rise of nearly 30 percent was due to better data collection, although he feared the situation was getting worse with global displacement and migration increasing vulnerability to all forms of slavery.

Forrest, an Australian mining billionaire and philanthropist, urged businesses to check their supply chains for worker exploitation, saying he found thousands of people trapped in slavery making goods for his company Fortescue Metals Group.

“But I’ve had some of some biggest entrepreneurs in the world look me in the eye and say I will not look for slavery in case I find it,” he said at the launch of the index in London.

Crowe, who played Roman emperor-turned-slave Maximus in the 2000 movie “Gladiator”, described the plight of people “in our communities who are stuck, utterly helpless and trapped in a cycle of despair and degradation with no choice and no hope.”

“As an actor, my role is often to portray raw human emotion, but nothing compares with the people’s lives reflected in the report published today,” he said.

Incidences of slavery were found in all 167 countries in the index, with India home to the largest total number with an estimated 18.4 million slaves among its 1.3 billion population.

But Forrest said India deserved credit for starting to address this problem with the government this week unveiling a draft of its first comprehensive anti-human trafficking law to treat survivors as victims rather than criminals.

North Korea ranked as worst in terms of concentration with one in every 20 people – or 4.4 percent of its 25 million population – in slavery and its government doing the least to end this with reports of state-sanctioned forced labor.

“We need to make it clear we’re not going to tolerate slavery and when there is slavery in a regime we should not trade with them,” Forrest told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

NUMBERS CRITICIZED

Forrest acknowledged the latest data was likely to attract criticism with some researchers accusing the index of flawed methodology by extrapolating on-the-ground surveys in some countries to estimate numbers for other nations.

The 2016 index was based on interviews with about 42,000 people by pollster Gallup in 53 languages in 25 countries.

But Forrest said a lack of hard data on slavery in the past had held back efforts to tackle this hidden crime and it was important to draw a “sand in the line” measurement to drive action. He challenged critics to produce an alternative.

The United Nation’s International Labour Organization estimates 21 million people globally are victims of forced labor but this does not take into account all forms of slavery.

“Without measurement you don’t have effective management and there’s no way to lead the world away from slavery,” he said.

Forrest said the Global Slavery Index aims to measure the prevalence of slavery in the 167 most populous countries as well as the level of vulnerability of people to enslavement and strength of government efforts to combat this.

The 2016 index again found Asia, which provides low-skilled labor in global supply chains producing clothing, food and technology, accounted for two-thirds of the people in slavery.

About 58 percent of people living in slavery are in five countries – India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Uzbekistan.

However the countries with the highest proportion of their population enslaved were North Korea, Uzbekistan, and Cambodia.

The governments taking the least action to tackle slavery were listed as North Korea, Iran, Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea, and Hong Kong.

By contrast the governments taking most action were the Netherlands, the United States, Britain, Sweden and Australia.

Forrest said a reason for launching the index in Britain was to acknowledge the lead set by the UK government which last year brought in the 2015 Modern Slavery Act.

While Europe has the lowest regional prevalence of slavery, Walk Free said it was a source and destination for forced labor and sexual exploitation. The impact of a mass influx of migrants and refugees fleeing conflicts and poverty has yet to be seen.

Crowe said slavery was a problem that was not going away.

“I think all of us should keep focused on it until we get to that point … where it just gets pushed over the edge and it’s finished,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Belinda Goldsmith, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

United Nations Confirms ISIS Selling Young Girls as Sex Slaves

The United Nations has officially confirmed something long believed among opponents of Islamic terrorist group ISIS:  they are selling girls under 10 as sex slaves for as little as $165.

Zainab Bangura, the UN’s Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Sexual Violence in Conflict, confirmed the document first reportedly found in November 2014 is legitimate and being used by the terrorists.

“The girls get peddled like barrels of petrol,” she told Bloomberg. “One girl can be sold and bought by five or six different men. Sometimes these fighters sell the girls back to their families for thousands of dollars of ransom.”

Bangura said that girls from ages 1 to 9 are being sold for $165.  Girls in their teens fell to $124 and women over 40 sell for as little as $41.

“They have a machinery; they have a program,” said Bangura. “They have a manual on how you treat these women. They have a marriage bureau which organizes all of these ‘marriages’ and the sale of women. They have a price list.”

“It’s not an ordinary rebel group,” she added. “When you dismiss them as such, then you are using the tools you are used to. This is different. They have the combination of a conventional military and a well-run organized state.”

ISIS has already released a document claiming the buying and selling of women is acceptable under the Koran.  The claim by ISIS reportedly comes after taking the idea of selling women from Islamic terror group Boko Haram in Nigeria.

ISIS Issues All-Female Manifesto

A new “manifesto” for girls under the rule of ISIS has been issued telling them they can be married to a Jihadist as young as 9 and that they are to remain “hidden and veiled” to “serve their masters”.

The manifesto, “Women in the Islamic State: Manifesto and Case Study” was uploaded to a Jihadist forum used by ISIS and is written by the all-female Al-Khanssaa Brigade.  The same group is the one that beats and stones women and girls who do not follow strict Sharia Law.

The document focuses on Sharia law and a rebuttal of “western civilization” that includes human rights and equality for women.

“It is considered legitimate for a girl to be married at the age of 9. Most pure girls will be married by 16 or 17, while they are still young and active,” it says.

The document tells women to be covered from head to toe at all times, to stay inside their homes to cook, clean and take care of their husbands and that it’s acceptable for women to be locked inside their homes by their husbands.  Western women who join ISIS are encouraged to immediately marry a Jihadist and begin duties as a wife.

ISIS tells the women that it is fundamental women have a sedentary lifestyle and that it is her “divinely appointed right” to stay inside and care for husbands except in “narrowly defined circumstances.”

The document also justifies the enslavement of “infidel” women as sex slaves.

ISIS Sex Slaves Being Bought, Released By Unknown Donor

In the midst of the horror of ISIS in Iraq, one unidentified Iraqi man is using his wealth to try and make a difference for good.

The man is reportedly using stand-ins to purchase sex slaves from the terrorist group and then reuniting the women with their families in other parts of Iraq.

The terrorist group has been funding part of their campaign of terror through selling captured women as sex slaves or as brides in forced marriages.  The women are usually killed if they refuse or try to escape.

Critics within Iraq and in activist groups around the world against ISIS have been slamming the man for giving money to the terrorist group but he told a reporter working for YouTube channel StreamDZ that all he cared about was freeing the women and returning them to their families.

One of the former slaves who has been freed told the story of a girl named Jilan who had been one of several that committed suicide after capture rather than endure the horrors subjected to them through ISIS.

“We were 21 girls in one room, two of them were very young, 10 to 12 years. One day they were given clothes that looked like dance costumes and were told to bathe and wear those clothes. Jilan killed herself in the bathroom,” the woman said. “She cut her wrists and hanged herself. She was beautiful. I think she knew that she was going to be taken away to a man and that is why she killed herself.”