Skip to main content

Abused, pregnant and behind bars: Former IS slaves in Libyan prisons

Months after the battle for Sirte was declared 'over,' women raped by IS are still imprisoned for questioning by forces of UN-backed government
An Eritrean woman held at the Libyan air force compound in Misrata (MEE/Alessio Romenzi)

MISTRATA, Libya - Wered vomits every morning. Her dream, like that of so many others, was to cross the Mediterrean to Europe to seek a better life for herself and her family. Now, at 16, she is pregnant after months of rape and abuse by Islamic State fighters, and locked in a Libyan prison for 23 hours a day.

She faces a choice between delivering the baby here or in Eritrea after her deportation.

"This is a child of evil – I do not want it," she said. "I just want to forget. I want to forget being raped, and being sold like an object. I want to forget about being treated like garbage."

Wered has asked for an abortion, but was refused. Abortions are generally illegal in Libya, even in cases of rape and incest. The women who seek them or perform them on themselves can be jailed for six months.

So Wered, herself still a child, is facing the prospect of giving birth to the baby of one of the four men who systematically raped her – she has no idea which.  

The prison wing where she is held spans two floors. On each floor is a locked door, behind which runs a long corridor with five cells on each side. Each cell has four to six beds crammed into it, and a rudimentary toilet.

Children are held in the cells with their mothers. Middle East Eye saw one woman and her young son eating stale bread chopped into tiny pieces.

The wing is inhabited solely by women and their children - about 100 of them - who had been abducted by IS as they travelled through the Libyan desert hoping to reach the coast and cross to Italy.

The women fled IS, but are being held as 'suspects' (MEE/Alessio Romenzi)

Eritrean, Filipino, Syrian and Iraqi women are all present among the prisoners. The path of each one, though, had ended in Sirte, where they were taken by their abductors to live as sex slaves for the fighters.

"I was sold to several different men," said Yemane, 25, who was also kidnapped in the desert and brought to Sirte.

"They used us as gifts: my life was worth less than a bunch of flowers."

Wered and Yemane are two of many women and children who have been detained for months by forces of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), while they are interrogated for any information they may hold on IS operatives.

MEE was invited to the prison, inside an air force academy south of Misrata, by Mohammed al-Ghasri. Ghasri heads al-Bunyan al-Marsous, the GNA-led military operation to retake Sirte from Islamic State.

The offensive, launched in May 2016, declared in August that the group had been pushed out of most of the city.

"From a military point of view, the battle for Sirte is over," Ghasri said then, adding that "victory" would be announced soon.

More than three months later, his forces are struggling to complete their mission - and vulnerable former IS captives are still being detained some 275km along the coast at the prison in Misrata.

"A Sudanese man raped me for four months," Yemane said. "He never told me about what was happening outside. He just told me that my life was worth nothing."

Eventually the outside world came to them, during the GNA-backed offensive to recapture Sirte that began this summer.

"After May things changed," Yemane said. "We began to hear noises from the fighting. We couldn't get out, but we could hear the bombs and guns. I was terrified. It's a miracle we're still alive."

Some said they had tried to escape previously, but the violence they faced after being caught persuaded them against trying a second time. Mesmer, who is in her late 20s, broke her leg trying to escape through a window of the locked house where she was being held.

"It was early in the morning when I tried to run. [After I broke my leg] I walked for many miles, but they caught me and beat me fiercely. After that I no longer tried to escape."

Dozens of women are being held in the Misrata air force compound (MEE/Alessio Romenzi)

When Libyan forces finally seized the area where they were held, many women walked toward the soldiers holding whatever pieces of white cloth they could find to surrender.

"We wanted them to understand we were civilians," Mesmer said. "We wanted to show them we needed to be helped and saved and that we had no weapons."

The women were taken on a four-hour journey along the coast to Misrata, where forces loyal to the GNA hold sway. Months later, they are still being held in the prison, being interrogated to investigate any possible ongoing contact with IS militants.

Most soldiers in the prison declined to say how long the women would be held for.

"They have to stay here until we finish the interrogations," one official said, requesting anonymity.

The Libyan forces fighting in Sirte feared that IS members might hide among groups of civilians. But Tecle, who has been in the prison for two months, said she doesn't understand why she is still being held.

"I have not done anything. I ran away from hunger and dictatorship in Eritrea and now I am here, locked in a cell in Libya," she said, tears falling behind the black veil that revealed only her eyes.

"I am a Christian, and IS forced me to convert. They told me that Christians were devils, that for us there would never be a paradise, only the flames of hell.

Abducted by IS, rescued by Libya - but this Eritrean woman's future hangs in the balance (MEE/Alessio Romenzi)

"I was afraid to die by drowning in the Mediterranean, but I never imagined ending up in the hands of IS."

She lowered her face to the ground, repeating over and over again: "I have never harmed anyone. Why am I here?"

None of the women interviewed have mobile phones, and cannot contact their families even to say where they are, and that they are safe – or if not safe, then at least alive.

The prison's infirmary is empty. Soldiers who asked not to be quoted said there is not enough money to buy medicines for the inmates.

They said that, when the weather is sunny, the women and children are allowed out for an hour for fresh air. But despite the hardship of their current situation, the women said their greatest fear is their uncertain future.

Libya, a key transition point for migrants hoping to cross to Europe, is under intense pressure to curb flows. Deaths by drowning in the stormy seas hit a record high this year.

The North African country, ravaged by years of fighting and political chaos, regularly deports hundreds of people back to countries such as Nigeria, Gambia and Eritrea, to where 16-year-old Wered fears she will be deported.

“Now I have escaped," she said. “But I will never have a future worthy of the word."

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.