By Mihaela Rodina (AFP)
TIMISOARA, Romania — Western Romania has turned into a harbour of peace for nearly 200 refugees who fled persecution, abuse or violence -- many in Libya -- and dream only of "living freely", once resettled in a western country.
"We suffered terribly in Libya. Now, what we want more than anything else is freedom," Mussie, a 31-year-old Eritrean refugee who declined to give his last name for safety reasons, told AFP.
He is one of the scores of residents in the Emergency Transit Centre (ETC) in the western city of Timisoara, some of whom have spent months in the facility.
One of these was a Libyan woman who accused soldiers loyal to Moamer Kadhafi of raping her in an incident that grabbed international attention. In March, Iman Al-Obeidi, 29, burst into the Rixos hotel in Tripoli, a base for journalists covering the conflict, screaming that Kadhafi loyalists had abused her at a Tripoli checkpoint -- all caught on press video that quickly went viral.
A UN official in Bucharest said she spent nearly two months in the Timisoara center before arriving in the United States in July, though gave no further details.
Mussie, a former teacher, fled Eritrea like many other countrymen to avoid an open-ended military conscription imposed by the autocratic, isolated and impoverished government of the Red Sea state. But Libya was not quite the refuge he expected.
"The Libyans were not tender" to illegal African immigrants, he said, saying he was imprisoned for two-and-a-half years, tortured and deprived of even basic medical assistance.
In February, when the revolt erupted in the North African state things got even worse for African nationals. Many were targeted, physically abused or even killed by Libyans angered over Moamer Kadhafi's reported use of sub-Saharan mercenaries to quash the uprising, according to the office of UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Mussie and a dozen other men managed to flee to Tunisia, finding shelter in a camp in Shousha from where the UNHCR evacuated them to Timisoara in June.
"When they remember the past, they sometimes cry," Mussie said, referring to his friends. "I pray for those still suffering."
Like several other Eritreans here, Mussie is hoping he will be transferred soon to the United States, where some of them have relatives.
"I want to continue my studies and get a job, maybe in education," he said.
Set up in 2008 jointly by the UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Romanian government, the ETC has so far hosted more than 650 refugees. Of the 200 people now housed there, 125 have fled Libya.
In Europe, only Romania and Slovakia have such UNHCR emergency transit centres, where refugees spend a maximum of six months before being transferred to third countries to start a new life, notably the US, Britain, the Netherlands and Sweden.
Last year, Romania itself joined the list of potential host countries and accepted to take in 40 refugees per year on a permanent basis.
Asanthe, a 27-year-old Sri Lankan, is a former TV journalist who fled his country after making a documentary criticising the regime.
"I was hunted down and received death threats. My wife who is still in Sri Lanka has to move from place to place," he said, not giving his last name out of fear.
The young Sri Lankan will be transferred to the Netherlands next month. But he said he still feels his life is in danger and vowed to continue "to tell the truth about the corrupt regime".
"I have no idea what my life will be like in the Netherlands but I will have total freedom and will be able to talk freely," he said.
The courtyard of the centre, a former farm that once belonged to the border police, is swarming with children, running, shouting, rocking on seesaws or flying paper airplanes.
Be they Eritrean, Somalian, Ethiopian, Sri Lankan or Iraqi, "they all play together and go to kindergarten together, where they mainly learn English," said Adina Gogeoman of Save the Children association.
If psychologists strive to help the young ones move beyond their recent horrific experiences, the children still bring them up.
"One day a boy told me that in the refugee camp where he was before, soldiers used to threaten children with their machine guns if they were too naughty," she said.
"This centre is an oasis of peace and quiet for people who have gone through life without really living," said Camelia Nitu, the head of the UNHCR in Timisoara. Her office walls are covered with pictures of refugees, some smiling, some still showing the signs of trauma.
"People who had no identity and no hope, who did not even feel like human beings anymore, have found respect and safety here," she said.