Woman in chains

THE haar rolls in to Aberdeen and wraps itself around the city like a dirty blanket. At the port, the hulking figures of ferries and container ships are almost obscured beneath the freezing fog as the North Sea laps at the stone harbour wall, bitter and unforgiving.

Miana Badd was 25 when she first arrived here, transferred against her will from another harbour town, her home of Kismaayo, in southern Somalia. She knew nothing about life in north-east Scotland until she was found on the streets of Aberdeen by two police officers in February 2007. The police found Miana beaten and with her wrists bound in handcuffs. A mother without her children, a wife, possibly a widow, the only possession she owned was a torn and faded photograph of two tiny children.

She was taken to hospital, where doctors found evidence that she had been held against her will. There were cuts and bruises on her limbs where she had been restrained, she was bleeding and had been raped. "The first thing I remember is waking up in a hospital bed," she says, her voice gentle but steady. "The doctors told me I was in Aberdeen. When I came out of hospital, the police questioned me for three days. They asked so many questions, but I didn't know the answers. I knew I had been inside a house for a long time, but all I had ever seen was the inside of a room. I don't know where that house was."

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Miana had been held captive for 11 years, bound in chains in an unknown house in an unknown location. She does not know how – or why – she came to be in Scotland, and does not remember how she got from the house to the streets of Aberdeen. Police and hospital staff were unable to establish who was responsible for the handcuffs and the abuse. Psychiatric tests ruled out psychosis. It seems that Miana could have blanked out some of her horrific experiences, the details of which might help both her and the authorities piece together her past. Most of it, however, remains a mystery.

MIANA'S STORY BEGINS by the shores of the Indian Ocean, in southern Somalia. A market town and busy port on the horn of Africa, Kismaayo, with its light golden beaches, look like a tropical paradise when compared to Aberdeen. But Somalia is one of the world's most dangerous and unstable countries, without an effective central government since President Siad Barre's regime was overthrown in 1991. When Miana was born, in 1981, civil unrest and hostility towards Barre's repressive government was building across the country, gradually spreading to the south and leading to the outbreak of full-scale civil war in 1988. The rival clans who ousted Barre failed to reach agreement upon a replacement government and the resulting power vacuum plunged Somalia into lawlessness and murderous tribal warfare. Since then, clan-based militias and warlords have been vying for control of territories and resources. Abductions, kidnappings and murder are daily occurrences.

Miana is part of the Mutulti clan, a small tribe found only in the region around Kismaayo. As a young child, she was sheltered from the approaching violence by her father, but her childhood was short. "I got married when I was 11," she says. "My husband was 15 or 20 years older than me and was related to my father – his brother or cousin, I think. It was common to get married at that age. When a girl starts her periods, she is thought to be a woman and ready to be married, and I had known since I was a child that this would happen. People would point at a man in the village and say, 'That's Miana's husband.' You can't say no." Enforced circumcision was also common practice for young brides-to-be, but Miana's father protected her from this. Despite being a child at the time of her marriage, Miana says that her husband was a good man, and they had two children, the first born by the time she was 13.

Until her marriage, Miana's father kept her close to him, within his grounds. The violent civil unrest spreading across Somalia had reached Kismaayo. Clashes between rival clans were common, as were abductions. "People disappeared," says Miana. "I would hear about people going missing, but I was a child and not allowed to ask questions. You grow up only knowing what you are told."

Shortly after the birth of her second child, Miana's father asked her to work in his office, taking bookings for his lorry and car hire business. Miana worked there for two weeks, until the day she saw her father, husband and children for the last time. "I left my children at home with the housekeeper and went to work," she says. "It was a normal day, market day, and the town was busy. I was at work for about ten minutes when some men came and knocked on the office door. They were Somalis and four white men. They took hold of my husband and me and held us for half an hour. Then my father told me that these people suspected him of carrying weapons to another group, an enemy tribe. They took him on a lorry with a lot of Somali men on top of it. They tried to take my husband too, but he resisted. So they shot him. I left my husband lying there. He wasn't moving. I saw my father going in the lorry. He didn't shout anything but he cried, and I'd never seen him cry before. With his hands, he gave me the blessing we do in our country. That's the only thing he managed to do."

The men seized Miana and took her to a boat moored in the harbour, where she was bound in chains and repeatedly gang-raped. "There was another girl inside the boat, a white girl," she says. "The men took us down inside the boat to a place with chains on the walls, chains for people. They tied us, and there was a special chain here," she puts her hands around her neck.

"I never knew exactly where I was on the boat. It was dark and I heard water hitting the sides. There was no way to escape. We used to sleep and sleep, and when we woke the men did a lot of bad things to us. We had no power to stop them. I used to fight them, but I got more hurt. If they do what they want, then they finish, but if you fight them you get more hurt. So you wait. That's how I survived."

The men knew Miana's name and had a photograph of her as a young child. This is the one she was found with in Aberdeen. Miana never spoke to the other girl on the boat. She doesn't know where she was from or which language she spoke, but she remembers that the girl was often beaten and the men slashed her with a knife. It's impossible to know how long the two women survived on this boat. "It went on for a very long time," she says between deep breaths. "I've no idea how long I was on the boat. Eventually we came to an island. It was a small place, and very, very cold and windy. The next time I woke, I found myself in a house. It also had chains to hold people. I didn't see anyone but I could hear lots of footsteps upstairs.

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"My life was naked, no clothes, a plastic bag to cover myself with. The place was so cold. They changed us from one place to another – one day on the boat, one day in the house. I spent many years like that. One day I woke up and the other girl was gone. I never knew what happened to her. Time went by. Then I found myself in hospital in Aberdeen."

It seems likely that Miana's abduction was related to her father's activities. When Barre's regime collapsed in 1991, Somalia was thrown into anarchy. All the apparatus of the state – from the government to the police forces – collapsed. Kismaayo, with its strategic location by the coast, was fought over by warring clans desperate for control of the area. It would have been near-impossible for her father, a businessman, to avoid being affected by the violence. Miana says he may or may not have been transporting weapons. She was just 14 at the time, and such information was not shared with young girls, despite being mothers and wives. She believes that her father was betrayed by men from a rival tribe, and she suspects they had been watching her and trying to seize her for years, but failed because she strayed so rarely beyond her father's property. It also seems likely that Miana was trafficked for sexual exploitation.

The nature of human trafficking and the psychological impact on its victims means that it is one of the most difficult types of crime to police. A six-month operation by Scottish police forces in 2007-08 resulted in 35 arrests – 59 victims were located across the country, many of them women from south-east Asia and central and eastern Europe. In Grampian, where Miana was found, two other women were found in circumstances indicating that they were victims of trafficking. No-one has ever been charged or arrested in connection with Miana's experience.

TWO AND A HALF years after her discovery in Aberdeen, Miana waits for a bus in the centre of Glasgow. She moved here after a few months in Aberdeen to be closer to immigration officials. She volunteers once a week at a project in the north of the city, providing information and orientation to recently arrived asylum-seekers. The rest of her week is spent volunteering for the Red Cross. She has just completed a college course in car mechanics, the only woman in a class full of young men, and as a trained provider of first aid, often spends weekends supplying emergency health services at public events. Keeping busy, she says, helps her cope. Days spent hard at work help her to sleep, and keep the past out of her dreams.

On the bus she talks about the Baby P case, how things happen behind closed doors here in the UK that are almost beyond the imagination. This, she says, is why she is telling her story now: beacause people need to know in order for things to change.

THERE IS ONE last chapter to Miana's story, one that confirms the time-scale of events since her abduction, and gives her a reason to hope. Earlier this year, workers at the Red Cross found her son, who is now living as a refugee in Kenya. He is 16, and hasn't seen his mother since the day she was seized at her father's office. He was then three. Miana was found two years ago. She had been held captive for 11 years.

Her son had spent those years walking hundreds of miles across Somalia, searching the country's refugee camps for his mother. "Tracing Miana's son was a long, gradual process," explains Frank Higgins, manager of the Red Cross international tracing service in Glasgow. "Fortunately he was still using his own name, and that's how we found him. Someone now living in the UK met him when he was walking around refugee camps in Somalia, clutching a very old photograph of his mother. This person remembered his name. He walked for years on his own with this photo, then he made it on foot to Kenya."

At the Red Cross office in Nairobi, Miana's son recited all the details he knew about his family. "We go through a very strict process to verify identities," says Higgins. "No information about Miana was given to her son – all the details came unprompted from him. He told us his father's name, where he was born, where he travelled to. All of these details match Miana's story, and there's no other way for him to get that information without being part of that family. Because he was only three when Miana left – as with any child we find abroad – there is always a small doubt. But we are as sure as we can be, and the UN has accepted his details and registered him as refugee in Kenya."

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The Red Cross arranged for Miana and her son to talk on the phone. "I had such pain in my stomach, right here, like labour pains," she says. "When I spoke on the phone to my son that day, oh my God, I didn't have a heart. It was a very special moment. I imagine it again and again."

Did she know from the sound of his voice that he was her child? "He says he's my son. The information he has given says he's my son. I haven't asked him about the past, I just can't. But part of me is sure, and we will know 100 per cent later on."

The search continues for Miana's daughter, husband and father. Living without her family, alone in the world with her memories, is her greatest challenge. "The main thing I pray for is to find the rest of my family. I cannot forget the past. What happened is part of me and I'll live with it. Working helps me cope and medicine calms me down, but the history is part of me. It doesn't stop. I still feel scared and depressed, and that will never stop. But maybe if I find the whole of my family it will help. I haven't seen my son since he was three. I just want to hug him."

MIANA GETS OFF the bus and walks through the rain to work. Families with children and babies in pushchairs follow her into the tower block and the advice centre. Her job here is to offer practical help to the displaced and disoriented, many of whom will also have lost contact with relatives, children, husbands and wives.

It's a bleak day, and the north of Glasgow does not look like a welcoming place. Does Miana hope to return one day to Somalia? "There is no place like home," she says quietly. "I dream about Somalia, but I can't go back because of what is happening. If it was safe I would love to go back. But life in Somalia…" she trails off. "The people there now are so ready to fight, ready to kill, ready to do anything. If I was there, I would do the same because to survive there you have to do anything. I am just glad to be alive."

For more information, log on to www.redcross.org.uk/trace