Her husband's disappearance was only the beginning

When Saba's husband fled his national service, she was threatened with arrest. As she had no idea where he was, she left to find him, only to be kidnapped, robbed, & abused in Libya, which had descended into anarchy.


OSLO—“Saba”, as she asked to be called, left Eritrea in the middle of last year and came to Norway through Sudan and Libya. I spoke with her at a cafĂ© near the Torhov camp in the Norwegian capital a month after her arrival.

Born in 1987, she had married young and was never called for national service. But when her husband fled, leaving her alone with three children, the authorities came to her home and demanded to know where he had gone, threatening to arrest her if she did not bring him back. Fearing indefinite detention, she left her children with her relatives and arranged with smugglers to go to Sudan, crossing the border at Om Hager in May 2014 and continuing on to Khartoum. She remained there for two months searching for her husband, but she was unable to locate him, so she arranged for passage to Libya. All went well until they reached Tripoli, which had descended into a kind of lawless anarchy.

First, she was arrested and taken to a prison with hundreds of other refugees and migrants and beaten repeatedly with pieces of plastic water hose while drunken soldiers fired their guns in the air. She thinks their captors were from the Libyan Army but is not sure, as they fled during fighting outside the prison, leaving the prisoners in the hands of a militia in civilian clothing whose members forced them to lie on the ground while robbing them.

There were 370 prisoners, 150 of them women, almost all from Eritrea or Ethiopia, she said. Six of the women were taken out and raped within earshot of the others. When two men came back to take more women, the group rose up and resisted. Several were stabbed, but the militiamen were driven out and the prisoners escaped.

Saba told me that two men from the Libyan Red Cross—she probably meant the Red Crescent—came the next morning and promised to protect them while ministering to the wounded and injured. However, when they left to get help, the refugees were accosted and robbed again—they had no idea by whom—and had to flee the area. Eventually they were able to make contact with smugglers whose names and phone numbers they had and they set about arranging a boat for a sea-crossing.

Sixteen days later, they were loaded on a leaky boat with 450 others and put in the cargo hold where they remained in the dark for eight hours without food or water until the boat was boarded by members of the Italian Navy and they were rescued. “People were vomiting and crying,” she said. “Only those about to die were allowed on deck to get air.”

Once ashore in southern Italy they were released without being fingerprinted, so she made her way to Norway, which she heard would be safe and secure but little else. “I was aware of the dangers of crossing the desert and the sea, but I never knew the risks of Libya,” she said. “All I wish is to know where my husband is and to be reunited with my family.”