By Tobore OVUORIE
Family members, friends and intimate partners are involved in the initial stage of human trafficking for a third of adult trafficking cases and around two-third of child trafficking cases says the International Organization for Migration (IOM) – a United Nations migration agency.
Nigerian investigative journalist TOBORE OVUORIE, motivated by years of research into irregular migration such as trafficking of women, children and youths in her country; Nigeria, as well as the initial loss of a friend and subsequently many others, decides to dig deeper in the multi-billion-dollar criminal enterprise often involving family members or close associates of affected persons. Traveling around Nigeria, in this three-part series, she documents rape experiences, beatings, bruises, abductions, embassy officials, police and other security agencies’ aiding and abetting the criminal enterprise, murder and death.
Here are her findings in the third part of this series.
They were three boys and a girl on their way from Nigeria to Libya to earn mega bucks. The girl was Isioma Peters.
Before Isioma went to Libya, she was working as a secretary in Agbor, Delta state. One day, her uncle’s wife approached her, offering an all-expenses paid trip out of Nigeria and connected Isioma to her niece who in turn introduced the 20-year-old to a young man – a supposed informal travel agent in Agbor.
Isioma, an indigene of Agbor, lived with a friend though her parents were in the same town- Agbor – with her. She did not complete her secondary school education, neither did she acquire a vocational skill.
The first time Isioma met the informal travel agent, it was at his home, and she went with her mother. She confided in the agent that she has no education nor vocational skill but he assured her of still making it big in Libya despite the shortcomings. When she returned home, her boss warned her not to go to Libya, but Isioma was already tone-deaf.
Her mind was made up to embark on the journey. Her mother and other family members warned her, as well, but words fell on deaf ears.
Resolute, Isioma left for her grandfather’s house, packed some of her belongings and began her journey out of Nigeria on February 5th, 2016.
The agent encouraged her never to entertain fear because there are many other persons like her on the journey. And, when she gets to Libya, she would definitely get a mouth-watering paying job.
He then gave her N3,000. Money to bribe Nigeria police officers she would encounter on the journey. Then, put her in a vehicle.
Isioma never paid a dime for transportation. All she knew was Libya was her final destination but didn’t know who was responsible for her transportation fare, how much more how and why.
The journey from Agbor was smooth until they approached Kano State. The vehicle broke down. Then, they were apprehended by some police officers. When interrogated, Isioma said she was going to Libya and one of the police officers advised her against it.
“You are in Nigeria, you have free movement, you are enjoying; look at the big phone you are carrying,” she went down memory lane as she narrated her story on Saturday April, 2020.
The Police officers threatened to arrest the four youngsters. Then, gave them only an option: payment of bribes.
One of the young men took to his heels. He was never found.
“I called the boy (the agent) to tell him we are about to be arrested. He said if I have money, I should give to them (the police officers),” she narrated.
Isioma had a total of N21,000 on her. N18,000 of her own and N3,000 the agent gave to her, from this, she gave the police officers a bribe of N2,500.
At Kano, an Alhaji came to get them across the border. At the point of crossing the border, she phoned her mother that it would be the last time she would be reachable on phone until she gets to Libya because she is about to cross to the other side. Isioma’s mom assured her that nothing will happen to her.
Motorcycles are used in crossing the border and it is one of the riskiest phases of the trip because Police officers apprehend people whose riders are not fast and smart. The rider who took Isioma across the border rode the way armed robbers do in action movies.
Trafficking in persons is a serious crime and a grave violation of human rights. Every year, thousands of men, women and children fall into the hands of traffickers, in their own countries and abroad.
It has been estimated that every second of the day, an average of eight women, girls and often young boys, are trapped by international criminal networks where the sole aim is to sexually exploit them, traffic them and enslave them.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that nearly a million people are trafficked every year for purposes of sexual exploitation, although 98 percent are women and girls.
Notwithstanding that huge sums of money are made, the victims rarely receive any of this, making human trafficking a modern form of slavery.
Almost every country in the world is affected by trafficking, whether as a country of origin, transit or destination for victims.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in her 2016 Global Report On Trafficking In Persons says globally, more than 500 different trafficking flows were detected between 2012 and 2014. Forty-two percent of detected victims between 2012 and 2014 were trafficked domestically, while 21,251 total victims were detected.
The UNODC reports 69 countries reported to have detected 21,251 victims from Sub-Saharan Africa between 2012 and 2014. Nigeria had 1030 detected trafficking victims. Of these, 322 were adults (61 males, 261 females) and 708 were children (458 boys, 250 girls).
The UNODC also indicates while traffickers are overwhelmingly males, women comprise a relatively large share of convicted offenders, compared to most other crimes. This share, according to the UN organization, is even higher among traffickers convicted in the victims’ home country. Court cases and other qualitative data indicate that women are often used to recruit other women. It disclosed trafficking in persons recorded 400 offenses in 2012, 407 in 2013, 603 in 2014 and 334 in 2015. However, in 2012, it disclosed 185 males and 147 females suspects and arrests were made.
By the time she got to Agadez, Isioma had less than N5,000 left on her. She had spent over N16,000 paying bribes to Police officers and thugs. She could not buy food for herself. She starved and waited for crumbs from group meals people shared for a week at the camp she lived in Agadez before the journey continued.
“We thought that Agadez to Libya is not that far. None of us in the vehicle had ever been to Libya. But people (in the vehicle) were saying ‘Libya is not far from here’,” she went down memory lane.
They drove through vast land filled with sand, whirling dust and animals.
Findings reveal that drivers on that route do park the Hilux trucks and everyone spreads their blankets on the ground in the desert to sleep in the cold at night. Isioma’s driver did the same, while she made friends with other young ladies the first night they slept in the desert.
Isioma arrived in Libya 13th February 2016. They stopped at Ghetto – a transit and arrival point in Libya – and the man in charge of them on the trip, forced many of the young ladies to sell sex for money. Isioma escaped this phase.
In the morning, one of Isioma’s new friends was stripped naked, and thoroughly beaten by a man she had sex with all through the night. She was never given a dime by the man.
That morning, the man – in charge of them on the trip – told them various persons would come check them out, pay and take whosoever is bought away.
“I said that is buying and selling; they want to sell us to another person. He said we should not talk, that we should keep quiet,” she recollected how she challenged being sold. She never knew she had been repeatedly sold right from Nigeria.
Helpless, and with no option, she kept quiet and observed how each girl was sold. Then, a Ghanaian man arrived, took a closer look at Isioma and her friend, Maureen, paid for them, and they were taken away.
“The man (who sold them) said that when we get to the man’s house, the man (the buyer) would tell us how much we are going to pay him for all the expenses incurred from Nigeria to Libya,” she recollected. This includes the transportation fare.
They were first taken to Jufra, where Isioma learned through a Nigerian woman from her hometown, that war would commence in two week’s time where she was being taken to: Sirit.
Police officers kept turning them back from continuing the trip to Sirit. For reasons best known to Isioma’s buyer, he wriggled their way through to the forbidden zone. Announcements via every means of communications that every human, particularly Libyans, should vacate Sirit due to the forthcoming war, did not interest their master.
Isioma, Maureen and their master got to the war-prone Sirit, February 25th, 2016. It turned out that the master’s wife was a Nigerian. She told the two girls that they are to pay her $400. Confused and naive, the girls requested for the value in naira.
“She said no, that when we are paying her, she would be telling us the balance that is remaining. And besides, we are going to do prostitution,” Isioma said.
Isioma was shocked. She had never lived a wild life. She kicked against being a sex slave but was warned that she had no choice but to do it. If not, she should get in touch with her family and friends to send the $400 bond fee. The woman yet refused to state how much that would be in naira.
Isioma accepted her fate grudgingly.
Often time, she frowned and was unfriendly towards customers and they in turn complained to her madam.
Sexual exploitation overwhelmingly involves women and children, and it is a problem of worldwide proportions which obviously robs them of their basic human rights, including their right to freedom, their dignity, their right to live where they choose and the right to control their own bodies.
Mr. Moses Ologwu, a Lagos-based legal practitioner describes human trafficking as a menace to the society. He says it is a disease which has to be nipped at the bud because young persons are being taken out of the country for money and they become damaged.
“People take advantage of them sexually and at the end of the day, they become a recluse to the society. It is a disease which every society have to fight.”
Many of the pimps and traffickers often inject their sex slaves to prevent pregnancies.
No sooner had she resumed as a sex slave, Isioma got pregnant, while abortions are forbidden in Libya. But the madam tried to flush out the pregnancy in a crude manner: a mixture of lime, methylated spirit and other substances. Even Maureen too was pregnant, but from Nigeria and she never knew until she was in Libya.
Isioma was given a cup full of the mixture to drink one early morning. Immediately she drank it, her stomach started to react. After she was given another cup to drink, she started vomiting, then lost consciousness.
“The woman started shouting that I must pay her even if I die. And, she wouldn’t allow me leave until I pay her,” Isioma said in utter disbelief.
The madam’s brother who lives with them scolded his sister over her inhuman utterances. Isioma was hearing them argue but from afar in her unconscious state. And, she was seeing dead people and did not know where she was anymore.
Then, one day a bigger problem started. ISIS militants came visiting.
Isioma and Maureen never knew their madam was a wanted person in Libya, and ISIS had been monitoring the house they all lived in.
While the madam and her brother were exchanging words and having a heated argument over Isioma’s condition, ISIS in a commando style as performed in action movies, smashed the door and windows of the house they were in. The building was already surrounded. No escape routes.
The ISIS fighter picked the madam, her two kids, brother, husband, Maureen and even Isioma who was unconscious. She gradually started gaining consciousness in ISIS’ detention camp. The ISIS fighters wanted to take her to the hospital for medical attention.
Isioma had changed her name to Hawau immediately she arrived Libya and even learned how to pray the Islamic way. Her madam notwithstanding the inhuman treatments meted out to the girls told them to tell the ISIS fighters that they were faithful Muslims and should showcase this by praying the Islamic way as evidence to ISIS, that on account of that she, the girls and her household would be released. Isioma agreed.
I was almost asking her what manner of mumu are you? How can you agree to that Kain yeye thing? Then, I remembered trafficked and abused persons often come down with Stockholm’s syndrome.
According to mental health experts, Stockholm syndrome is a condition in which trafficking victims develop psychological bonds with their pimps or traffickers while serving them as slaves.
Trafficked persons, experts say, sometimes attempt to appease their pimps or traffickers in order to secure their safety. Through this strategy, they feel they might be better off working with their traffickers or captors. Hence, see their abusers as being their benefactors.
The ISIS fighters started interrogating each captive. They promised taking Isioma to the hospital but she should tell them what was wrong. She told them she was alright that she was in deep sleep when she was captured because she hadn’t had breakfast when she took a powerful blood tablet that morning.
The ISIS fighter interrogating her did not believe her because her mouth oozed of methylated spirit. He was about to take her to the hospital and Isioma became afraid that the truth would be uncovered. Having adopted the Libyan way of living, she knew they hated lies and discovering she lied to them could cost her life, so, she told them exactly what transpired before the arrival of the rebel fighters at the house.
Isioma as at this time still had not had a meal except the undiluted, very thick coffee without sugar and milk her madam had forced her to drink while starving her; hoping it would force the foetus out of her womb. The fighters then gave her food before taking them to a makeshift court for prosecution. Isioma again, lied to them that she was in Libya as a house help, not sex worker, to save her madam.
And, war broke out. ISIS versus the United States Army.
The ISIS fighters kept moving them around as each place they were taken to were bombed by the US soldiers. And, the meal of a huge mountain of human bodies got into death’s mouth.
About 10 to 15 persons shared a bottle water. But a majority of the ISIS captives were not lucky to have drops to grease their tongues nor throats.
Bearing pains that had no name, the captives sort of lasted a little longer in very dark underground tunnels with no ray of light. They could only tell the time from the call-to-prayer made very early in the morning. It seeped through a tiny hole in a little space that seemed like a bathroom underground.
Bitter cries and gnashing of teeth by the captives were witnesses to the dark commitment of the tunnels. Isioma already over three months pregnant, never had antenatal care. She prayed for a miracle.
Imprisoned by ISIS for no fewer than seven months, she finally gave birth to a boy all by herself in the tunnel. The birth date of the child remains unknown as the pitch-dark space paused time and she had a more important issue to worry about. Food. There was no food to eat. Her breasts were hungry too, so did no justice to the little lad. Yet, mother and son stayed loyal to each other.
A major rule in the tunnel was: mothers must never allow their babies to cry because missiles from the American soldiers were activated by even breeze, how much more cries of babies. Isioma’s baby was super cooperative. Quite hungry, he reserved his strength and gathered more from sleep.
Fed up, one day, Isioma told Maureen she would escape from the underground prison to seek help from the American soldiers. Maureen dissuaded her, saying it would be attempting to commit suicide because ISIS fighters kill people who try escaping from their conclave. Isioma wouldn’t listen to anything different. She preferred to die by American bullets than perish in the ISIS side of the war.
“My family members were thinking I was enjoying in Libya not knowing I was in serious trouble,” she could not hide the pains in her eyes, as I sat opposite her and listened attentively.
Maureen was afraid of leaving the ISIS prison though she had no responsibility like Isioma. Her baby died a month to her birthing the child because she had come down with typhoid fever while there was no food or medication for her to take. Luckily, nothing happened to her after birthing the dead child.
The day they tried to escape from the prison to seek help from the American soldiers, a sniper shot Maureen in her leg. But she survived it.
The unbreakable bond formed by Isioma and Maureen was almost torn to shreds. Fed up with Maureen’s fear and trying to talk her out of escaping from the prison, she reminded her friend that they never knew themselves when they each left Nigeria; they only met on the journey to Libya. She was ready to leave without Maureen.
Isioma and her baby took the lead while Maureen held onto her cloth. Others in the prison stared at the two girls with: these-foolish-girls-wanna-commit-suicide expression written all over them.
“I told them, you people you can die, but as for me, I don’t want to die; my time have not come,” she retorted.
Immediately they got out of the tunnel, they saw the armour tank of the US soldiers. The soldiers called out to the girls. They immediately headed in the direction of the soldiers but were requested to take off the long outer garments they were wearing. Isioma initially refused and was almost shot because women wearing Islamic outer garments were used to carry and detonate bombs by ISIS.
After confirmation that the duo had no bomb strapped to their bodies, the Americans put them in a car and drove them to a safe house where they were fed and had a bath for the first time. They hadn’t had a bath for about four months. Then, were moved to Misrata.
At Misrata, after due diligence to ensure the girls were actually victims of trafficking and not perpetrators of the war, the United Nations (UN) and International Organization for Migration (IOM) came for them. They were taken to a safe and comfortable house in Tripoli where they were thoroughly pampered with gifts and care. Isioma’s baby’s transformation was quite fast. He gained weight rapidly and his skin changed for the better due to being well fed and cared for by the UN and IOM.
Two global agencies wanted to move the ladies to either Canada or the US but they rejected the offer. They wanted to return to Nigeria due to fear of the unknown; having experienced grievous inhuman treatments in Libya, which was their first-time outside Nigeria.
Isioma decided to return to Nigeria because she wanted to see her family members again.