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Women in Libyan migrants camp say they were raped

Migrant-CampMigrant workers squatter camp outside Tripoli

Women in Libyan migrants camp say they were raped

Aid workers say they are taking seriously alleged sexual assaults of up to two dozen women at camp for migrant workers.

Migrant workers living in a squatter settlement outside Tripoli have claimed that nearly two dozen women in the camp have been raped since opposition forces began their final push on the capital two weeks ago.

At the abandoned fishing harbour about 27km west of Tripoli, Nigerian maids Rose Johnson and Darcy Ikibueka said on Monday they are two of more than 20 women in the camp who have been raped by armed men whose identities and affiliations remain unknown.

The names of the women have been changed to protect their identities.

The claims were bolstered by aid workers from Doctors Without Borders (MSF) who gained access to the camp on Saturday. Simon Burroughs, MSF emergency coordinator, said women had approached the staff with claims of rape and had received counselling.

Burroughs declined to say how many women had alleged rape or to discuss their testimony, specifically the women’s accusations about who was responsible.

"They're not free to talk about it. It’s the situation they're in," Burroughs said. "[But] we have to take the allegations seriously, we can’t discount them. This is not the environment for the kind of care and attention they need."

Gunmen attack

Sitting on plastic chairs in an unfinished, rubbish-filled concrete room inside the decrepit harbour headquarters, Johnson, 25, and Ikibueka, 22, told Al Jazeera of how they worked together in the same Tripoli household. They had lived in Libya for two years and came to the port in June.

Like hundreds of other migrants from Nigeria, Chad, Senegal and other impoverished African countries, they had fled to the camp to escape NATO bombings and impending street battles.

The port had in recent months become a hub for human traffickers whose business of smuggling migrants into Europe, usually by way of the Italian island of Lampedusa, boomed when Gaddafi opened the illegal immigration floodgates.

In an interview with the Italian radio station Rai, Hafez Gaddour, Libyan ambassador to Italy, said Gaddafi controlled illegal immigration "in person". The ambassador, who defected to the National Transitional Council (NTC) earlier this year, added that the flood of immigrants was meant to punish NATO nations for its bombing campaign.

These days, hundreds of men and women live in the shade of tilting fishing boats. On Monday, the migrants were cooking goat heads over small wood fires, braiding each other’s hair, and playing draughts with water bottle caps. Many speculated on the whereabouts of friends and family lost in the chaos of Tripoli.

On the night of August 19, gunmen entered the harbour camp. They fired their guns in the air, shouting "God is great". That night, Johnson and Ikibueka said, they were raped at gunpoint.

Anthony Ogiexeri , a 37-year-old Nigerian pastor who lives in the camp, gave Al Jazeera this account:

"The came in, some of them they were shooting all around, and they ordered girls to come out. [When] they came out, they laid them down. Some of them were saying they should allow the girls [to] go, and some of them said, 'No, they were going to rape them'. And at the end they submitted to the men, and they raped them. And after they left."

'Dark places'

Johnson, Ikibueka and several male refugees alleged the attackers were rebels who shouted slurs against Gaddafi. At the time of the alleged rapes, the camp lay in contested territory.

But Ogiexeri said he could not tell who had carried out the attacks. It is possible that forces on either side in the conflict, or even unallied gunmen, could have stormed the harbour camp.

Rebel forces do not obey one single line of command, making it difficult to determine what units where in the camp's vicinity at the time. Efforts to reach representatives of the National Transitional Council on Monday night were unsuccessful.

Regular visits from armed gangs have slowed in the three days since the MSF team arrived, Burroughs said. Yet he was still concerned about the security at the port and worried that publicising the women's testimony could lead to reprisals.

Johnson and Ikibueka estimated that 25 to 30 women had been raped in the camp. It was impossible to verify that number during Al Jazeera’s visit, but an aid worker who declined to be named said it was close to the organisation’s estimate.

Migrants and aid workers said the threat of violence still remains. 

Some Libyans have donated food and supplies to the camp, but in recent days, groups of armed men and boys have regularly entered the camp at night, robbing the refugees of food and money.

They also take women away to use them for sex, Ogiexeri said.

"We try to connect lights so we can see ourselves at night, but they take them to the dark places."