By Tobore OVUORIE
ALMOST half of identified human trafficking cases began with a family member’s or love one’s involvement, 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 deaths.
Here are her findings.
The youngsters – over 25 of them – had left Agadez chatty after spending four days there and were so happy that the journey to seeking greener pastures had begun. They were super excited that the first check point was around the corner; an indication of completely leaving their frustrations behind in Nigeria and getting closer to making big bucks in Europe.
Then, they heard a very loud noise. Their hearts started pumping so fast. Loudly at that, too and not in unison. Their eyes popped out of the sockets housing them; hunting for the source of the noise.
It was a corpse. Few minutes old. A young man.
Few minutes before the sad occurrence, he was like them. Hanging onto a stick at the back of a Hilux truck. On his way to Libya, but to make a stopover at Qatroun, too. And, lo and behold, he fell from the truck. And, died immediately. The driver of the Hilux from which he fell, continued as if legions of demons were in hot pursuit of the truck. Stopping, even in such situation, is against the unwritten rules on that route.
The youngsters arrived at the first checkpoint all baptized with fear and sorrow. They didn’t believe what they had witnessed and the callousness of the driver of that truck from which the young man’s life was cut short. They were never told people fall off trucks on the journey and did not expect to see corpses. All efforts to cheer themselves failed woefully.
All very young Nigerians, crammed into the truck like sardines in a can, the driver made the ladies to sit beside him, while males sat at the back – an open space – but held onto sticks to support themselves.
A salad of fear, anxiety, panic, sorrow and ‘what-next?’ overshadowed them. Deafening silence, too. They all became moodier for every fresh corpses, skeletons and dried bones they saw. These were countless.
When almost at Qatroun, heavily armed rebels launched attacks on them. The driver moved the truck as if he was in sport car on a racing track. He then hid the youngsters.
Though drenched in fear, not a single person changed his or her mind about continuing with the trip. They kept going and spent four days in the desert amidst vast land filled with sand.
Hope Yakub: Of greener pastures and risky journeys
My eyes locked with Hopes’ and sitting opposite her in the dead of the night; sometime in the third week of March 2020, I painted images in my mind; of the horrors she was narrating to me.
Hope was one of the over 25 young Nigerians sitting in the truck on the trip to Qatroun, but Libya was her final destination. She was not lucky to get a seat beside the driver, so had to sit at the back of the truck and joined the males, holding onto a stick like the rest to support herself from falling off the truck.
She never bargained for the horrors she witnessed alongside the youngsters, although she knew before departing Nigeria that Libya was the destination. And, by road too.
Her reason for travelling by road to Libya?
“Every youth wants to seek greener pasture; so, that is what prompted me to go to Libya to help myself and my family,” she told me, believing she was not trafficked.
It was 2015. Her desire for greener pasture overseas was an open secret. Ozzy; a friend, came to the rescue by introducing Hope to her sister who lived in Libya. The lines seemed to be falling in pleasant places for Hope. Ozzy’s sister offered her an all-expenses-paid trip to Libya!
She left Nigeria almost immediately.
She spent four days in Agadez and from there, the Hilux truck came to convey her and the other young Nigerians to Qatroun, in Libya.
I was almost asking her ‘what yeye greener pasture were you looking for by taking part in this kain horror film?’ The journalistic part of me successfully took control.
Minutes birthed hours, then days, with Hope and the other youngsters waking and sleeping on the deserted dusty road from Qatroun to Sabha. New friends were made. New alliances formed. Many of them were heading to Italy to become nurses. They had been told by their sponsors that nursing jobs awaited them already because Italy was in dire need of nurses. Some of the youngsters, like Hope, would end their trip in Libya. They had been told by their sponsors that life is easier in Libya than in Nigeria and with numerous money-spinning jobs.
But at Sabha, Hope and the other youngsters were told for the first time that the jobs awaiting them was prostitution or domestic servitude. Hope was certain of not becoming a sex slave. She trusted Ozzy’s sister.
Vehicles and movements in that axis are highly regimented unlike what obtains in regular journeys in which passengers go to parks to board vehicles. So, like other travellers on that route, Hope and the youngsters spent three days idling in Sabha. Then, when drivers who are experienced with the road and desert announced that the coast was clear, the journey to Tripoli continued.
At Tripoli, after meeting Ozzy’s sister, Hope phoned her parents and told her mother for the first time ever that the trip was by road.
Same day Hope arrived; Ozzy’s sister told her she would start work the next day. Hope was already battling with ulcer pains due to starving for 17 days on the trip, so pleaded that she be allowed to heal. She vehemently refused that Hope must start paying her 4,002 Libyan dinars (N500,000). She decided to collect the ‘paltry’ sum because she considers Hope a younger sister.
Hope started work exactly the following day as a servant to a Libyan family and had to learn Arabic within a month in order to communicate easily. After two months, she stopped working for that family due to the stress of working from 7 am to 12 midnight without being allowed to rest. She moved on to work for a friendlier family with a smaller apartment. She stayed with them until she completed paying the madam who brought her to Libya.
Osita Osemene: Hopelessness and leaving Nigeria at all cost
Once upon a time, after several years of joblessness, notwithstanding graduating from the prestigious University of Benin (UNIBEN) with a very good first degree, Osita Osemene became frustrated. This was sometime in 2003/2004. He no more had hope, so decided to leave Nigeria by all means for the United Kingdom.
A very close friend of his volunteered to help by assisting with an informal travel agent. Then, Osita paid for a UK visa and international passport. He was very excited. At last, a better life was smiling at him. And, it came so cheap, too.
Not long after, his helper brought him a travel package – international passport with a visa, and flight tickets – he was more excited when given his travel documents. His transformation began even while still in Lagos, Nigeria. His accent changed – faking how Britons speak, though had never boarded an aircraft all his life at that time.
The D-day arrived for his departure. But at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Osita was instructed to step aside and wait for the British High Commissioner
“I don’t have anything with the British High Commissioner,” the then young Osita had retorted.
Very big trouble was around the corner. An airport official hinted him he was about to be arrested. His visa and passport were fake. Osita’s lucky hunch at escaping arrest.
He fled the airport leaving behind his friends who had accompanied him to say their goodbyes.
Fake travel documents are a disturbing racket in Nigeria, with even immigrations and airport officials’ involvement.
Osita couldn’t show his face on the streets or his regular hangouts because he had told everyone that cared to listen that he was going to the UK and wasn’t returning to Nigeria until he made it big.
“How could I ever face them? Everyone thought I was already in the UK. I hated Nigeria even more,” Osita sat opposite me in a room at the Ikeja Airport Hotel, one of the elitists’ parts of Lagos state, recounting how his migration dreams headed south.
It was difficult for him to smile. He had to force himself to get out of bed and even eat. He kept telling himself he needed to forge ahead but he had lost his drive, spirit and zest for life. His world was crashing.
His bedroom became a prison for him. The only time he stepped out was when everyone else had left the house and he would scout through the kitchen and eat anything he could find and return to the solitude of the room before anyone arrived.
In his bedroom, all Osita did was stare at the white ceiling boards above him. Lying on a lump of skinny mattresses, he tried to do everything he could to prevent lapsing into a state of uncontrollable grief. His eyes always moved around in slow circles, trailing the lazy rotation of the rusted ceiling fan blades above him. He never held back any tear that threatened to fall. They rolled down his cheeks freely as if being flushed out by angry sweepers.
Notwithstanding the narrow escape at the airport, Osita’s thirst to leave Nigeria by all means, increased.
“Due to the desperation and I had made up my mind that I was going to leave this country, I was still not comfortable where I was. I had complained to my relatives, my sisters and friends, so, they were consoling me not to worry, I can still make it (to migrate at all cost).”
Chasing the mirage
For the second time in less than a month, Osita told his parents goodbye. This time, he was heading to Spain hoping to make it big within a month of his arrival, then get into the UK. His friend who introduced him to the fraudulent travel agent, again, connected him with Dada, a young undergraduate. Osita was shocked Dada was trading his degree for his trip to Spain.
Dada believed that having a secondary school certificate in Europe is better than having a PhD in Nigeria. Dumping four years of university education in Nigeria for an opportunity to be in Spain was heavenly for him.
Ever smiling Dada with a smooth tongue convinced Osita 250,000 Naira was all he needed for a tourist journey that would get them to Spain. After knocking on several doors for financial assistance and his mother scouting around, the amount was complete and two weeks later, Osita was ready to leave Nigeria again.
They were many leaving the country for Spain through Dada. And were told they would board an aircraft at some point during the trip to Spain. No one bothered to ask any questions. Their major goal was to leave Nigeria. Simple.
Before departing Asaba, Delta State, Dada had assured his clients, including Osita, that they would indeed be boarding a plane to Spain but needed to get to Kano, first. Osita was told that in five days’ time they would be in Spain because it would be a tourist journey with stopovers; lodging in beautiful hotels, and beholding lovely sceneries. On arriving the ancient Northern city, Dada changed the whole boarding itinerary to Morocco.
At some point, Osita suspected something was wrong, because Dada and some other persons were trying to unite the travellers before leaving. They were given water to drink that they must not betray each other.
“I was wondering what kind of journey will require not betraying ourselves? But what I found out is that, once you are desperate, you are vulnerable; you will fall into a lot of traps. They can sell anything to you and you will buy. So, I found myself in that place because they had already seen that this guy is no more here, he wants to leave at all cost. And, I went. That is how I found myself in the land of no return, which is Sahara Desert, on my way to Europe”.
At the park, all passengers were told to buy garri, spaghetti, and biscuits. Osita was amazed when he saw Dada buying garri, milk, sugar, spaghetti and geisha. He had a terrible feeling, again. Then, he started asking questions that they were supposed to be in luxury buses with their meals paid for by the organisation ferrying them to Spain. He was prevailed upon to be patient.
In Kano, the eager Nigerians were told to be cooperative that someone else was going to get them to Europe, soonest. The journey from Kano to Zinder took almost a whole day because they travelled in a truck that was almost falling apart. Then, they were received by an Alhaji when they arrived at their destination. He took them to a connection house where they would spend the next five days.
The connection houses look like pens for goats. They are old mud buildings in which several persons are allocated little corners in the large open space to put their blankets or wrappers or mats on the floor to sleep until the day they are called to embark on their journey.
A major feature in the connection house is the communal feeding schedule; the owner of the connection house cooks once or twice daily for the occupants of the house who are entitled to eat because they already paid for the service. Also, the owner of the connection house provides protection for persons who are being trafficked or smuggled because police look out for the latter persons. The owners of the connection houses give part of the money paid to them (by traffickers, smugglers, persons being trafficked and smuggled) to the police as bribes, hence, the latter looks the other way while human traffickers and smugglers’ businesses and activities thrive.
What was supposed to be a joyride became tense and overtaken by torrents of quarrels and fights between Osita and Dada, as the former later discovered he had been handed a pack of lies like a bowl of his favourite Nsala soup. He had gullibly swallowed everything, only to learn from a fellow passenger there was no airplane anywhere but trips through dangerous deserts.
Hell was let loose when Osita again discovered Dada cheated him. The trip was originally N100,000 but Dada inflated the price to make up for his own travel expenses.
Investigations so far indicate that these connection houses are unsafe. Records abound of Moroccan burgers – persons who traffick people through Morocco – coming to some of those houses very late in the midnight with guns to rob every occupant.
Of stranded Nigerians, abandonment and mental instability
All 72 trafficked persons I interviewed and surveyed while working on this story described their stay at Dirkou military camp – after Agadez – as hellish. Osita said so, as well.
Many Nigerians become stranded in Dirkou because they are abandoned by their burgers. Several of them have been on the road for no fewer than 12 months due to lack of funds to continue their journey. While many Nigerian girls and ladies are raped by rebels, soldiers and Chaldeans in the camp. Consequently, many of these young Nigerians become mentally unstable in the process.
Medical experts, such as Dr. Babatunde Fadipe, a psychiatrist at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital, (LUTH) says people who have been victims of human trafficking can experience a wide range of mental problems or psychological problems. These could include Post Traumatic Stress Disorders (PTSD). This is commonly seen in persons who have experienced life-threatening events that may have threatened their own existence or witnessed other people being victims of such.
Young Nigerians who have become mentally unstable in the Sahara Desert have the meltdown because their expectations were cut short; it is not what they were told that they experienced on the road.
For instance, Osita was told that he was going to be in Spain within the next five days, only to end up in the Sahara Desert and spent 40 days to arrive Libya. He never knew he was actually going to travel by road, how much more, through the desert.
“For someone who cannot control his or her emotions, a lot of things will go wrong, especially as their families would have had high hopes in them believing they are already in Europe,” Dr. Fadipe explains.
Further investigations indicate common symptoms of persons who have been trafficked include fear – the most common, anger, anxiety, depression and some forms of disorders.
Ms. Ikana Apata, a life coach/mental health expert recommends counselling as a way of assisting survivors of trafficking, although at times, they would need to be placed on prescribed medications.
During initial diagnosis and counselling, other various mental health challenges are discovered.
Mary Joseph: Religion, trafficking and surprises
Sometime in 2010, August to be precise, 16-year-old Mary Joseph who was about to write her final senior secondary school examination decided to look for her mother during the long vacation because they were separated since she was a toddler due to uncontrollable circumstances. She eventually located her mom but met her in a bad state: abandoned with a set of twins by her husband. He was nowhere to be found.
As the first child, Mary wanted to join her mom wherever she was working so she could earn some more money for her in order to care for herself and the kids. The mom refused because she had no specific work at the time. But she discussed it with her pastor who was surprised that she had a grown daughter. Impressed by Mary’s zeal to assist, the pastor said there was vacancy at a supermarket somewhere in Lagos. But two days later, she phoned Mary’s mom that the place was no more available, however, there was vacancy elsewhere in Kano state. Mary was very excited about working in Kano. It would be her first-time leaving Lagos state, so, considered it an excursion.
Two days later, Mary embarked on the journey to Kano after her mom’s pastor introduced her to a certain Alhaja Hassan, who then handed her over to a man who was to take her from Lagos to Kano state. On their way, at Ibadan, during the night journey, the man picked three ladies. They arrived Kano at about 6 pm, but it turned out the journey was not yet over as the man made some phone calls, and a golf car turned up to pick them to the next destination. Mary thought it was the last taxi to be boarded. The man also confirmed Mary’s thought that it was the last taxi before the final destination.
When it was almost seven, Mary brought out her mobile phone to call her mother, only for her to notice the texts on her phone had changed from “MTN to L’orange.” She started asking questions while the driver turned on the car’s radio for Mary to hear French over the airwaves. Her questions about their whereabouts increased. In a speed of light, the men in the car seized her phone and locked the car doors. She was the only one talking and feared that she was being abducted.
Phenomenology of human trafficking
Researches indicate 10 years ago, there were two categories of traffickers: family members – aunties, friends of families, and some husbands who felt that they have had the number of children they wanted to have, and because they were very poor, there was no reason their wives could not go abroad to make some money and make their lot better.
But today, investigations from November 2019 when this project commenced, reveal that trafficking syndicates have become so sophisticated. In addition to having family members and their friends, individuals are now traffickers on their own.
These trafficking syndicates often consist of madams who could be on their own, and businessmen whose products being sold are human beings.
From in-depth researches, it is never easy to recognize them because they are well dressed, have so much influence and affluence, and are seen as responsible and kind-hearted people in society.
Like businessmen, they seek products – human beings – to buy, and clients to purchase them. They recruit salespersons and agents, in overlooked places such as universities, and secondary schools. Other places also include cybercafes, bars and clubs, while the agents are very young unassuming students.
That is not all. They first become friends with the people they meet at these places, and after winning their trust, tell them there is so much money to be made if they join their businesses as agents. These young secondary school and university students are the persons now luring their friends and other youths into trafficking rings. They sell human beings as a side business, in addition to their studying for degrees in various schools all over Nigeria.
Investigations further reveal that, as agents, students sell their friends for N100,000 per person and are immediately paid cash on delivery. They often deceive their friends that they are going abroad for further studies, or to become hairdressers, and cosmetologists. Their latest deceit is telling their friends who can tie headgear popularly known as gele in Nigeria, that they are taking them to Europe to destinations where there are large populations of Nigerians. They claim there is plenty of money in gele tying because Nigerians overseas organise lavish parties and services of professionals who tie gele are in high demand.
Migration experts, such as Dr. Franca Attoh, an associate professor at the Sociology department, University of Lagos, say a person being trafficked can start the journey with a group in Nigeria, but by the time the person arrives at the final destination, he or she would have been trafficked by four different groups.
Helplessness and irreparable damages
Mary quietly watched as she was transferred from one vehicle to another until they arrived a military checkpoint where the car was flagged by army officers. She tried to cry out for help that she was being kidnapped. Before she could complete the sentence, she was hit so hard – a thunderous slap – and she fainted.
When she regained consciousness, she found herself in a very big building with several girls. Again, she started asking questions, wanting to know what they were doing there. No one answered her. All the girls looked scared and worried.
Two days later, she was moved to Zinder where she later met Alhaja Hassan’s daughter for the second time. When Mary tried to exchange pleasantries with her, she acted as she had never met Mary before. And, the young man taking her on the journey warned her to mind her business. Later on, some 18-seater buses arrived to convey Mary and the other girls to the next destination.
They were attacked by rebels wielding sophisticated guns. It was Mary’s first time seeing a gun and it being shot sporadically as she had seen in movies.
Mary and the other girls finally discovered they were being trafficked when they arrived at Agadez. They were on their way to Libya to become sex slaves.
But Mary was a virgin.
The man who took her from Nigeria was shocked that she had never had sex. Feeling some form of remorse because of her sexual purity, he disclosed he could not tell Mary’s mother what the pastor had planned while they were in Nigeria lest his life would have been at stake. And, his wife’s, too.
More revelations from investigations indicate that traffickers and smugglers often run out of cash on such journeys. When this happens, the girls and ladies being trafficked and smuggled are pimped to make money. The same fate befell the other girls Mary travelled with during their two-week stay at Agadez. Mary was shielded by the man who took her from Nigeria due to her being a virgin.
When sufficient money had been made from pimping the girls, they were loaded like cows into massive vehicles with open tops and no seats; for the journey. The driver – of the vehicle Mary was in – drove like he was high on illicit drugs. Persons who fell out of the vehicle due to poor stamina were abandoned in the desert.
No money. No mercy. Roving in a limbo
At every point on the journey to Libya, anyone who runs out of cash is abandoned, while others continued. This is one of the unwritten but active and sacred rules.
By the time Osita arrived Dirkou, in the desert, many of the persons he started the journey with from Kano had been abandoned. Investigations so far, reveal that having money alone is not sufficient.
At a point, Osita and others got stuck in the desert when the truck they were travelling in broke down. This is quite common on the trip in that axis. And, people often die from thirst and heatwaves.
They were super excited when someone announced seeing a well not too far away from where they were. All the travellers were thirsty. But their joy was cut short by the driver of their truck when he told them many Nigerians who missed their way in the desert were buried in and around the well. Indeed, many skeletons are around and inside that well. Passports around that vicinity reveal they are mostly Nigerians and other West African nationals.
The same fate almost befell Osita. He had no water when they had to continue their journey on foot for over 10 hours in the desert, through borders of various communities until they arrived at the first state in Libya called Qatroun. He was left behind when he became too weak to continue with the journey but for a kind-hearted fellow traveller who returned with some drinking water so that he could continue.
Osita and Dada had a major disagreement which almost resorted in physical exchanges between them. Osita was very angry at the great deceit and lies they were told. He was further angered that all these were perpetrated by a young man like him. The relationship broke down irretrievably. They had to go their separate ways.
At some point during his 40-day journey on the road travelling through deserts, deserted spaces and dangerous territories, Osita had to give a rebel-soldier the designer trouser he was wearing, his bag, neck and hand chains, and a pair of Sancho shoes in exchange for protection, after he saw how his fellow Nigerians: some who had become his very close friends, were raped, tortured, sold into prostitution, robbed and murdered by rebels, soldiers and Chaldeans.
The rebel soldier took him as a friend and ensured he was never beaten or messed up like other persons being trafficked or smuggled on the trip. Many Nigerian ladies were raped in his presence, while others who didn’t have money to give to the rebels and thieves were shot in their legs.
The deaths hit him closest as he helplessly watched Dada die in the desert. He had defended and taken bullets for Osita when attacked by desert armed bandits. A part of him went numb when Temi- a seven-year-old boy, who had become his friend, was killed by hunger, thirst and severe heat in the desert. Images of the little boy’s father crying and staying back in the desert with his dead child still haunts Osita to date.
The story continues tomorrow…
This report was supported by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation (DFAIT) through the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation (AICS) and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) under the empowering young people in Africa through media and communication project.