This is the second part of the report on the suffering and frustration of the Nigerians who travel through desert to seek better life in Europe.
Life of indiscriminate arrests, uncertainty
THIRTY-FIVE persons trafficked to Libya whom I interviewed for this story all confirmed that they had lived a life of uncertainty characterised by indiscriminate arrests and torture while resident in the country between 2015 to 2017.
They all claim Nigerians are hated deeply by Libyans. And many are targeted for brutality by the Libyan Police and kidnappers.
According to these trafficking survivors, when Libyans chase blacks and meet Ghanaians, Nigerians, Senegalese and Congolese, they leave out others and grab the Nigerians. And when Nigerians are abducted, the Libyans break their legs.
Hope Yakub had similar experiences, too.
One day, while at work, she received a call from an unknown person. Her friends had been arrested. She couldn’t go to the Police station to bail them. She would be arrested, too. The husband of the Libyan woman whom she was serving accompanied her to the Police station for the bail which cost 2000 Libyan dinars (N250,000). Hope had to work extra months for the family as payment for the bail fee. She then stopped being a live-in servant due to sexual harassment and other ill-treatments. And, moved in with her boyfriend.
Findings reveal that unmarried ladies who live alone in Libya are constantly harassed by Libyan Police officers. They break into their homes to humiliate, arrest and imprison them.
Not long after she started to live with her boyfriend, Hope became pregnant. The boyfriend wanted her to stop work but she refused. Hope wanted money of her own, and was planning to return to Nigeria.
Towards the end of February; the following year, Hope’s friends went to the market in the morning to buy food items for their forthcoming birthday party, while Hope who was past the first trimester of pregnancy stayed back at home to cook for them. She prepared beans, ate, watched movies, then slept. When she woke up around 5pm in the evening and couldn’t find the girls anywhere around, she knew something has gone wrong. She raised alarm calling everyone she knew in Libya that something had happened to the two ladies as their phones kept ringing but not answered.
At about eight in the night, a man answered the call that her friends had been abducted by his group.
The ransom fee was 1000 Libyan dinars (N125,000). Every Nigerian associated with the abducted girls refused being the one to deliver the ransom. Buy Hope against her instinct decided she would.
The next day, Hope’s taxi driver came over, armed with a gun and cutlass because she had explained her suspicion that from the phone call that the abductors were blacks, not Arabs. The two-man rescue team felt it was something they could handle on their own.
They waited so long at the agreed drop-off location for the ransom fee because the abductors kept changing the pick-up time. Then, the taxi driver suspected the abductors were up to no good. Immediately he started the car and wanted to move, they were ambushed both at the front and back. They were surrounded by young men pointing guns at them.
Hope was dragged out of the car, while the driver was thoroughly beaten and his car’s windscreen broken. Passers-by were simply minding their own business. No one uttered a word. Hope was forced into a vehicle with tinted glass. Three men wearing Police uniforms took them to Serir in Tajura. There were many sex workers and Arabs going about their business at the place. She was speechless and overwhelmed by shock at the reality of her being abducted while trying to rescue her friends. They took her phone and money. A sex worker, a lady from Benin city, Edo state, told Hope her friends had been sold the previous day by her abductors who are Nigerians and Nigeriens.
Hope was beaten with electric cables when she refused to eat and call her family to pay a ransom fee of N500,000. The gang leader later told his members the buyer who was to buy Hope had been contacted. She was moved to another place with six guns-wielding Arabs to watch over her. Hope couldn’t escape because she noticed there were CCTV all over the place.
At about 12am, two female sex workers from a connection house and who were loudly chewing gums came into the room Hope was in. She explained her predicament to them since they were familiar with the area if they could help her. She was ignored, then told to relax and accept whatever will happen to her. Two mattresses were laid beside Hope, while the men had sex with the two ladies at the same time. Hope couldn’t cry. She was too shocked. Then, a man by the name Abdallah came in, raped Hope while beating her at the same time. Two of his friends also joined him in taking turns to rape her. The three men took turns on her all through the night until the dawn of the next day. In the morning, she swore (to herself) she would rather die than allow them touch her again. But there was no escape route because where they were in a place far removed from the city.
Hope was later moved back to Serir where she met a sex worker and pleaded with her to assist her in escaping because if she was sold, her pregnancy would be forcefully aborted and she could lose her life in the process. The sex worker; a Nigerian, advised her to simply accept her fate.
At night, about 20 Nigerian and Nigeriene men arrived in the room where Hope was kept. While eating, they talked about the person who was to buy Hope because he was delaying in coming with the money. Then, she was moved to another room where she started praying to God for an escape route.
It started raining.
And, the 20 men were so excited at the sight of the rain, and rushed outside because it hardly rains in Libya. While outside, they continuously fired gunshots into the air, and danced with reckless abandon, forgetting Hope was alone in the room. Towards 9.30pm, it stopped raining. Hope resumed prayers telling God she considers the rain a sign for her to escape, so, if this was really Him and she wouldn’t be harmed while escaping, the rain should resume falling.
A very heavy downpour started later.
The abductors started shooting, everywhere was noisy because people were very happy over the heavy downpour. Hope picked one of the phones being charged nearby, opened the window, and jumped. She removed her shoes and started running until she got to a very high fence. She jumped over the fence. She still doesn’t know how she did it.
She kept running in the heavy downpour while following a light ahead of her until she got to the road at about past 10 that night. There were no cars on the road anymore, so, she kept running because she knew they would come after her immediately her absence was discovered. She waved at an oncoming vehicle but it didn’t stop. All cars she waved down did not stop. Then, one of the vehicles that had passed her, returned, while the occupants asked if all was well with her. She explained that she was kidnapped that they should please assist her. The door was open for her to enter the car. They were also kidnappers.
Hope was driven to a nearby Police station for identification by the officers – if she escaped from them – they said no. The Police officers requested she be left with them for further investigations, but Hope refused that the Police will sell her. The men then told the Police officers that they will carry out their own investigations. Immediately they stepped out of the Police station, the phone Hope stole started ringing. The men collected the phone and answered the call. The other kidnappers told them to return Hope because she is one of their wives but who stole money from them and ran away. Immediately the call ended, Hope stripped herself naked in front of them saying she should be searched. They did but found no money on her except some pain relievers. She was miraculously released and even given some money to find her way home.
One of the men trailed her to where she was to initially sleep that night – an open space. He forced her to have oral sex with him. When he left, she moved elsewhere out of fear that he would return. She slept in the cold that night and found her way home at dawn the next day. Her friends were very excited on seeing her because no one escapes from kidnappers’ den in Libya.
The Nigerian trend
National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking In Persons (NAPTIP) says in Nigeria, the two most reported human trafficking cases are foreign travels which promote prostitution and employment of children as domestic workers while inflicting grievous harm.
Most of these victims are women but children and men these days, now consist larger shares than they did 10 years ago. The anti-trafficking agency’s 2017 report states in the country, 0.1 percent of trafficked victims are men, while 25 percent are females. Globally, 51percent of trafficked persons are females and 21 percent are males. The report indicates traffickers are often males but women comprise a large number of convicted offenders.
Majority of Nigerian migrants undertake the risky journey in search of jobs in North Africa and Europe. IOM’s Missing Migrants Project states 2,834 migrants died at sea on the route between Libya and Italy in 2017. The Central Mediterranean Sea is one of the deadliest migration routes in the world. Travelers are sexually abused, robbed, and abducted on the Niger’s desert to Libya route and while crossing the sea to Italy.
Notwithstanding these hazards, European statistics indicates at least one person dies for every 35 persons arriving Europe. It states the number of illegal migrants from West Africa to Europe is still rising.
EXPENSIVE TICKETS TO CHEAP DEATHS!
Osita had survived thus far: every danger, deportation raids and made it to Tripoli. There was only a push between him and Europe: one ship ride. Standing at the port looking at the large ships, he had wondered which of them he would be traveling in.
There were many people waiting there at the port with Osita and moving in the shadow of the night. Their guide, an average sized Libyan with a limp, had instructed they waited for the lampa-lampa. The crowd awaited the boat.
Investigations reveal that the boats used in crossing the Mediterranean Sea from Libya into Italy come in various sizes and makes but all of them are rickety. They are either made of wood but with Yamaha engines attached to them, or balloons and are popularly known as lampa-lampa. Trafficked and smuggled persons and other illegal migrants pay almost fair fortunes before being allowed to board these boats but with unexpressed guaranty that they will arrive their destinations safely and alive.
Osita was expecting a large ship, but was shocked to see a dingy boat coming up shore. It could take about 20 passengers but there were 150 people scheduled to board the boat.
As the boat stopped, people scrambled to get on it, and he watched the lampa-lampa dance upon the waters unsteadily. About 100 had scrambled in, while 50 of them were yet to get in. He watched a young Nigerian in the lampa-lampa, holding unto a pole, swaying with the boat.
Investigations reveal that the boat owners, traffickers and smugglers never get on the boat. Rather, they tell the persons in the boat to simply get it to move on a straight path and help themselves through the water. A passenger who thinks he can operate the boat’s engine volunteers to move it, while others suggest the direction, they think the boat should go. The smugglers and traffickers give the passengers a mobile communication device, that if they run into danger, they should call a certain phone number and rescuers will turn up. They do this because they are fully aware the passengers will definitely run into danger.
In-depth researches reveal that travellers who get into these boats often do not make it to their final destination because the boats capsize or are turned back with the occupants half alive. Many boats get missing on the high sea and are never found.
A loud horn distracted Osita and he turned. A ship was coming in, and some Red Cross officials were busy offloading bodies of people who had drowned while trying to cross the sea. They had also been travelling in a lampa-lampa and it capsized, drowning everyone.
Osita stood at the port for a long time, his resolve growing; this was the midpoint, the final step between him and Spain. Then, he remembered Temi, Dada and other friends he had lost on the journey. He recalled leaving Nigeria well-dressed but at the time he was at the departure point – the Mediterranean Sea – he was only wearing a boxer- undergarment and a singlet.
He was not going to risk bobbing about in a little boat, and getting lost in the middle of the sea.
“Having known where I was coming from, I couldn’t stand it anymore. There was no point going to commit suicide when I was already free, because getting to Libya was like freedom for me.
“Somehow, within me, I knew I had to go back. I knew I had to tell people about the unforeseen dangers, the unimaginable hours and the web of deceit that they had been lurched into. Someone needs to tell their stories.”
Osita shook his head. There was no way he was getting on that boat. He stared at the lampa-lampa, and wilfully, deliberately turned his back on his ticket to Europe and headed in the opposite direction. Home. Back to Nigeria.
Serial murder, and deafening silence
Dirkou is a desert and ghetto with different kinds of persons, especially shady characters. The first day Mary arrived there, a soldier stabbed a lady to death in her presence because she demanded for the money he had agreed to pay after rendering sexual services to him. Everyone watched the murder as if in a movie theatre, without uttering a word. Mary spent two weeks in Dirkou watching people being hacked to death and taking advantage of.
Again, they were packed like chickens in a vehicle travelling through the Sahara Desert to Qatroun. Then, their water got finished. The driver had to mix water and petrol in a keg for everyone to sip little drops so it could go around the crowd in the vehicle.
Then, a ghastly accident happened. Mary almost died in the process. Four persons later died due to dehydration, heatwave and exhaustion on that journey. She arrived Qatroun but with severe pains due to injuries sustained as a result of the accident.
Mary woke up one night in Qatroun, to a hefty man on top of her. He beat her mercilessly when she struggled to push him away. He gagged her mouth. No one came to rescue her. She was raped.
After some days, Mary was moved to Tripoli, then to Zuwara, where she was handed over to Gani- a fellow Nigerian, who had bought her. He wanted her to immediately resume as a sex worker though she had pleaded that she was in pains and had uncontrolled blood gushing from her vagina due to the rape.
He told her it was none of his business that she had to pay him $3,000.
Mary’s pubic and armpit hair, as well as nails, were cut and collected. Then, she was threatened with voodoo that she will die except she does their biddings. One night, she was assigned to a Sudanese but when he touched her body, it was so hot. She noticed the man was concerned, so, she pleaded he allowed her to use his phone to call her mom. He initially refused because the ‘connection girls’ (sex workers) are not allowed to phone anyone. After much pleading and promises to keep the phone-call a secret, he allowed her call home to inform her mother about the pastor’s evil deeds and what had befallen her in Libya.
Some members of the Oduduwa society – a Yoruba, Nigerian group – had noticed Mary and were on her trail while Gani handed her to another Nigerian to prevent the former from reaching her.
Mary was later moved to Misrata but was taken to the man’s home immediately they arrived at their destination. She met the man’s wife and son – both Nigerians, and pleaded if she could live with them for a few days so she could recover fully, but the woman refused that she is to resume immediately as a sex worker at their connection house. Mary took ill and almost died. When Gani was contacted over Mary’s predicament, he simply asked for the amount she had made so far. When told nothing, he ordered she should be left alone to die.
Two weeks later, Gani came down to Misrata when members of the Oduduwa society were pressurizing him over the whereabouts of Mary. He then phoned the pastor who sold Mary to him to inform her that Mary had not made a dime since, so, the pastor must pay him. Attempts to have the pastor pay him N500,000 within three days failed, so he settled for N80,000.
On the third day, Gani got the N80,000 he requested from the pastor, and then handed Mary to members of the Oduduwa people who had been searching for her after they heard her rape story amongst members of the Nigerian community in Libya. The Oduduwa group after listening to Mary, disclosed that the same pastor had trafficked no fewer than 72 Nigerian girls, including her own cousin. The group made Mary to promise she will stop at nothing until the pastor was sent to jail.
Mary’s mother got in touch with NAPTIP, while the organization arrested the pastor and Alhaja Hassan. November 5th that year, Mary returned to Nigeria through the assistance of the Oduduwa group. The group had never rendered such to anyone before.
Several weeks after Hope escaped from the kidnappers’ den, the whereabouts of her friends who were abducted was uncovered. They were sold to a lady from Benin city, Edo state who trades in human beings in Libya. After much pleading by Hope and her friends, the woman who had requested for a million naira before she would release the ladies, finally accepted N800,000. The ladies spent a month and 14 days working as sex slaves for their fellow Nigerian woman.
Hope almost lost her life in the civil unrest around her house in Bazar Benghazi while she was seven months pregnant. Then, she started planning her return to Nigeria. Six months later, after her son was four months old, she finally returned to Nigeria; December 2017 after 30 months in Libya.
Osita’s return to Nigeria through the Sahara Desert was not tedious like his departure. The rebels were very happy he was going back to his country, particularly as the decision was his. They even waved ‘goodbye’ at him.
At a point while returning, Osita saw over 25 trucks loaded with Nigerian men and ladies from Edo and Delta states respectively, who were very anxious to get on the Mediterranean Sea through Libya.
“They were running as if Italy was going to run; they were showing me time that they needed to enter (Libya) that they gave them time that the boat would soon leave.”
They never believed Osita that nothing awesome was happening in Libya, that it was all deception.
The pastor and Alhaja who sold Mary were sentenced to 21 years in prison respectively, after she testified against them in court. The pastor died immediately she was released from prison after serving her term in jail. Alhaja’s whereabout at the time of this publication remains unknown.
Notwithstanding forgiveness being one of the strongest messages in Christianity, clerics say such should not be extended to traffickers. One of them, Reverend Father Benson Irabor, Resident Priest, St. Dominics Catholic Church Yaba, Lagos, tells me traffickers must be jailed notwithstanding forgiveness in Christianity because there is a penalty for every crime that is committed.
“There is a punishment that is attached to every crime; every sin that we commit,” he says.
Trafficking survivors come back with plenty of money or else…
Fifty six of the 72 trafficking survivors I interviewed in Nigeria between January 2020 and July 2021 said they are discriminated against and stigmatised by the society, including their friends and families. Forty-eight of these affected persons are young ladies, while eight of them are men.
Further findings reveal survivors are discriminated against if they return to the country with no money. They are not being discriminated against because they were trafficked but because they came back with nothing. Their parents and families see them as failures and verbally, mentally and emotionally abuse them. They even stop feeding them.
But, when survivors return to Nigeria and build hotels and houses and establish businesses in choice parts of towns and cities, they are accorded so much respect.
Corroborating these findings, Dr. Attoh shares a personal experience of a lady who was trafficked for sex slavery, paid her bondage fee and worked as a sex worker on her own thereafter, before returning to Nigeria with so much money to invest. Young men who are fully aware of her history are begging her to marry them while she is giving them the cold shoulder.
“It is because the person has money!
“So, two things: if you want to be trafficked, please, come back with plenty of money. Don’t be poor because poverty is a curse. But, if you come back with no money, then it means whatever you see, you get,” Dr. Attoh warns.
The associate professor says if they succeed, even as thieves, their families will rebrand them. She says she knows five ladies who were trafficked for sex slavery, successfully paid their bondage fee, worked as sex workers on their own and are now back to Nigeria. They own lucrative transportation lines in the country and call the shots in Nigeria’s transportation industry.
She notes that if a girl who is trafficked returns wearing only the clothes NAPTIP gave her, no family member will want to have anything to do with her.
However, in an online survey which I carried out via WhatsApp with respondents living in Abuja, Lagos, Ogun, Oyo, Rivers states respectively and Cotonou in the Republic of Benin, it turns out that the society is still divided over accepting human trafficking survivors and Libya returnees.
Eleven of the 22 survey participants live in Lagos, six in Abuja, two in Ogun state and one each in Oyo, Rivers and the Republic of Benin respectively. While 14 males and eight females who consist: civil servant, book publisher, journalists, politician, life/relationship coach, IT/Brand consultants, trader, artisan, rights activists, teacher, caterer, realtor, lawyers, fashion designer and medical doctors participated in the survey.
Titled: ‘Societal Acceptance Of Libya Returnees/Human Trafficking Survivors,’ I asked all respondents: “Would you (allow your child) marry a Libya/human trafficking survivor?” Ten of the 22 participants said they can marry the trafficked survivors and will allow their children do same. Nine on the other hand vehemently refused, three were uncertain if they can or will allow their kids embark on such path.
Some of their responses include:
Dr. Anthony Okeregbe, Senior Lecturer, Philosophy department, University of Lagos says the Nigerian government needs to do better in curbing human trafficking in the country and this could be done through diligent prosecution of those who have been culprits of human trafficking.
Migration experts say the Nigerian government can end illegal migration by fixing the economy, not by organising fanciful events that are not beneficial to the vulnerable who are prone to being trafficked.
Dr. Attoh suggests the government should strengthen NAPTIP – the organization that the Nigerian law has set up to help those who are survivors.
Findings reveal that NAPTIP has shelters but lack sufficient professionals, such as psychologists and social workers, needed for the rehabilitation of trafficked girls and women. Medical experts say trafficking survivors need to undergo therapy, and it is never a one-off happenstance.
Investigations reveal many trafficking survivors struggle with various forms of traumas and mental health challenges even years after their return to Nigeria. Their emotional and mental challenges go undetected because they do not undergo therapy, and have no access to psychologists or psychiatrists due to ignorance, lack of funds and insufficient psychologists and psychiatrist in Nigeria. All the 72 trafficking survivors I interviewed while working on this story say they have never spoken with a psychologist or psychiatrist, how much more undergo therapy. Since their return to the country about three years ago, they have been trying out various ways to survive Nigeria’s harsh economic reality.
Further findings, even amongst the 72 survivors I interacted with, reveal that when the emotional or mental challenges of trafficking survivors are obvious without diagnosis, their friends, families and the society mock them and tag them with nasty and inhuman names. Their families with time start avoiding them, deny them in public and do everything possible to prevent such survivors from interacting with their close associates. There is still so much shame attached to mental health challenges in Nigeria, even that which is caused by traumatic trafficking experiences.
Women and girl-child education should be made a priority. This is according to Rev. Fr. Irabor. He says poor education of women is responsible for why they are easily trafficked.
Dr. Attoh says living overseas is no easy task because it makes Nigerians prone to racism and discrimination. The wide gap when foreign currencies are changed to naira is responsible for the numerous risky journeys Nigerians are embarking on, as well as living overseas.
Immediately the economy is fixed, a number of things will take their normal shape overnight. There would be no need for road shows, enlightenment campaigns, advocacy programmes, or traditional rulers making anti-trafficking pronouncements.
Hope for trafficking survivors?
Dr. Fadipe says there is hope for survivors of human trafficking and irregular migration but all hands need to be on deck to do this. There is the need to educate the community and support the survivors.
Dr. Attoh also says there is hope for trafficking survivors because no situation is hopeless. Once there is life, there is hope. She however warns that: “our destiny is in our hands. The gods can only help us when we decide to help ourselves. Anyone who is a survivor; having survived, you have returned to source, it is now up to you to key into rehabilitation to see how you can rebuild yourself.”
Rev. Fr. Irabor says one of the ways trafficking survivors can rebuild themselves is by making lemonades with the lemons life hauled at them.
“There are people who after being trafficked, they come out of it and you see them promoting something that is worthwhile. There is hope for them. Everybody has hope and that is what we preach; that is the gospel of Christ -preach hope to the people – instead of them to feel dejected or feel rejected because of something has happened to them.”
Kindly watch the full documentary on How Families, Friends, ‘Kill’ Nigerian Women, Youths (1) here:
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.