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 Allah. 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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.