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Sunday Ani ([email protected])
Following a barrage of reports by local and international media about the deplorable and inhuman condition of Nigerians trapped in Libya, the Federal Government of Nigeria, in collaboration with the International Organisation for Migration, arranged to airlift those willing to come back home. The operation led to the repatriation of over 10,000 Nigerians from Libya, since 2017.
Majority of the deportees were deceived to believe that they were travelling to Spain, Italy or America, only to end up in Libya. Most of them spent over four years in Libya, where they were subjected to all kinds of torture, abuse and slavery. Their stories are full of disappointment, sorrow, torture, pain and, in some cases, death.
Back in Nigeria, many of them became dejected and despondent, believing that they had lost all. To them, life has no meaning any longer, thereby taking up a life of alcohol, drugs and crime. Yet, there are those who have woken up to the realities of life and have decided to pick up the pieces and move on. For these ones, once there is life, there is hope of a bright future.
Against this backdrop, the European Union, in collaboration with the IOM and the Federal Government, again embarked on reintegration and resettlement processes for the returnees to reintegrate them fully into society. At one of the training sessions in Lagos, Daily Sun encountered some of the returnees, who shared their experiences, starting from how the journey was conceived to their desert experience and life in Libya.
Deceit, the name of the game
Thirty-year-old Ubo Marvin, who came back on May 11, 2017, told Daily Sun that life had been very tough for him since his return.
“But with this training, I feel empowered. I feel that things have changed because I have learnt a lot. I want to go into supermart business,” he said.
Unlike many others who were deceived to believe that they were travelling to Europe, Marvin, a native of Agbor in Ika South Local Government Area of Delta State, was told from the outset that he was going to Libya to work and make money. He spent only two years in Libya, out of which one year was spent in prison. He just got his freedom when the opportunity to return home was offered by IOM and he quickly grabbed it.
On his desert experience, he said he was lucky to have survived but not without nasty experiences: “I experienced a lot of ugly things in the desert. I never expected the journey to be that dangerous. I expected that we were going to use a bus but we were put in a Toyota Hillux van. The Hillux van that was supposed to take about 10 persons was loaded with more than 25 persons. It was overcrowded such that people cried as we journeyed. I saw some dead bodies along the way, mostly those that fell off the Hillux van because we were just too many to be contained there. It took us only two days from Nigeria to Agadez in Niger. We rested for two days in Agadez before we proceeded. It took us another four days to get to Libya from Agadez because we didn’t have any obstacle on the way. For those that experienced one problem or the other on the way, they could spend months in the desert.”
How did he find himself in prison? His answer: “After some months in Libya, I wanted to cross over to Europe, but in the process, we were arrested on the Mediterranean Sea by the Libyan police. We had already travelled for almost three hours before we were intercepted and arrested. That was how I found myself in prison.
“Life in prison was terrible. We were caged; we didn’t go out. They didn’t open the place except when somebody died. They would open it and evacuate the dead body and close it again. It was hell. They hardly gave us food. We ate once in a day and that was just macaroni. Even when we were sick, there was no medical provision for us. They don’t care and that is why many people die in prison over there. Today, I am happy that I am back. I thought that all hope was lost but today I am here, hopeful to forge ahead. I thank the IOM for the opportunity.”
Working as a prostitute
For Ogun State-born Popoola Adesewa, who came back on June 26, 2017, the experience was also hellish. The 27-year-old lady from Abeokuta said one of her friends sold the idea of travelling to Italy to her. She grabbed the offer with joy, not knowing that Italy would eventually turn out to be Libya. She spent six agonizing years in Libya.
“He didn’t tell me we were going to Libya; he told me we were going to Italy. He told me it would be easier to secure a good job there and I believed him. I followed him but when we got to Agadez, the story changed. We had to work there before we got to our destination. I also worked in Duruku. Although he told me we would travel through the desert, he never told me that desert was like hell,” she said.
She broke down in tears when asked to narrate her desert experience. With barely audible voice, she said: “I can’t describe my experience. I don’t want to remember it because it was horrible. The things they forced me to do in Agadez and Dururku are what I can’t share here. I just thank God that I survived and came back alive.”
But when pressed to at least share one or two of such ugly experiences, she opened up. Her narration: “When we got to Libya, the story changed. The man sold me to another woman, who took over me as her personal property. She told me that she was the one that paid my money to Libya from Nigeria and that I had to work for her. I worked for 10 months and two weeks as a prostitute yet she didn’t want to let me go. She told me that she wanted to use the money I had realised for her to bring another girl for me from Nigeria. In other words, she wanted to introduce me to their human trafficking ring but I told her I was not interested and that she should set me free, but she refused. I said to her, ‘You used me to do runs and you still want me to use another person’s daughter?’ When I told her that I couldn’t do it, we disagreed and fought.
Police burst into her house the day we fought and arrested me, her husband and two other girls, while she escaped. I spent five days in prison before I was released. When I went back to her house, she insisted that I would have to pay for the expenses she incurred to secure my release from the police. I went back to her house after I was released from the police custody because I was still a ‘Jedit,’ that is, a newcomer, who hardly knew her way about. I knew she didn’t pay any money to the police but I was helpless. So, I had to work for her again to offset the money she claimed she paid to secure my release from the police. This time, she insisted that I would double the money. The police clearly told us that we were free to go and that there was no ‘Banamish’, meaning that no money was collected from us, but when we came back, the woman insisted that she paid for our release. So, I continued working for her for another four months before I told her that enough was enough. She even beat me when I said I was not working for her again.”
When she left her master, there was nothing she could do other than to continue in the same line of business. So, she started hawking her flesh to survive but at the end of the day, she came back to Nigeria without a dime: “I left her and started working on my own. But, to save money in Libya is not easy. And even when you manage to save money, some people that you trust to help you send the money across to Nigeria will seize your money and tell you that they are your ‘Buga,’ and there is nothing you can do about it. I came back to Nigeria empty-handed. In summary, my experience in Libya was terrible and I wouldn’t want to go back for any reason.”
Another lady from Ogun State, Deola Debora, also narrated how she was deceived through her grandma that she was being taken to the United States of America to further her education but ended up in Libya. “We never knew that the woman was a trafficker. She promised my grandma that she was taking me to USA to continue my education and the old woman was so excited that her granddaughter would be going to America. Then I was 21. We took off from Mile 12, Lagos, and before I knew what was happening, I found myself in Niger and in the desert,” she said.
She also did not want to talk about her desert experience: “My experience in the desert was terrible. I saw so many things that I don’t want to remember.”
In Libya, she was lucky, as she was not forced into sex slavery.
“When we got to Libya, he told me that I would have to pay 600 Dinar to cover what he spent to bring me to Libya from Nigeria. The following day, I started working as an ‘Arabo,’ that is, a housemaid. I saw a lot of things that I can’t say. In fact, they treated us as slaves. Even when you were sick, nobody cared,” she said.
She expressed happiness for being part of the training, saying: “I am happy that I came back alive. I am also happy for this training. As it is, the only thing that can make me to travel to America now is if I have my air ticket in my hand and not anybody promising to take me there again. I have seen hell and I don’t want to repeat my mistake.”
Williams Angel Nwakama from Rivers State spent 19 years in Libya. He came back to Nigeria on November 23, 2017. He said he left Nigeria for Libya in 1998 because his father was maltreating him: “Things were rough then in Nigeria and most people were leaving due to the military rule. I went through the desert. No trafficker was involved in my case; it was a personal decision. I left because my father was not treating me well. He was abusing me and, out of frustration and anger, I left home when I could not bear it anymore,” he said.
In Libya, he said he engaged in menial work at building construction sites, just like many other Nigerians at the time. He revealed that most Nigerians in Libya at that time were also involved in drugs and human trafficking: “Those who had no human feeling were into human trafficking because that was the easiest way to make money then. I was too young to even engage in that kind of business. I was just 17 years old.”
He was later involved in drugs and that landed him in prison, where he served six years before he was released.
“I served six years at Matiba Prison in Tripoli. I was eventually set free and compensated because they found out that I was not really into drugs, but the people I lived with. All of us were arrested and imprisoned after our house was raided,” he said.
After he was released, he was not deported and he did not want to come back to Nigeria. So, he continued until 2011 when crisis broke out between Gaddafi’s men and western-sponsored forces. He said they wanted him to fight on the side of Gaddafi, but he declined the offer. “Then in Libya, they saw Nigerian young men and ladies as soldiers because of the military government in Nigeria. But, in actual sense, the attitude of Nigerians then in Libya was just like those of military personnel. Nigerians were courageous and fearless. They believed that Nigerians were the only people that did not have fear in them; they could even go to the land of the dead and still survive. That was the impression they had about Nigerians. I don’t know where they got the impression from, but that was why they wanted to force me into fighting for Gaddafi.”
However, when it was clear that he didn’t want to fight, they wanted him dead, not minding his close relationship with top military brass in Libya. “I made friends among their top military men – generals and colonels, among others. I speak Arabic, French and Italia fluently. I was very popular from Benghazi to Tripoli and Musrata because I speak their language. Most of them had farms and I was always going from one farm to the other, spending time with them. I gave them ideas, like how to break away from the thought that Africans have no homes. That time, they believed that there was no single car in Nigeria, so I tried to change their impression. They were so much in the dark that they didn’t know about the outside world because Gaddafi caged them. I gave them knowledge of how to travel to Europe and many of them travelled outside, sending their children to Europe and America to study. At that time, my means of survival was just relating with these top military men and providing these ideas to them, while they sustained me by providing my needs.
“So, when the war started, it was easy for those top army officers to grab me but I refused their offer to fight. They arrested me at Bograine and confined me to an underground prison. They took me back to Tripoli. We were about 56 but 53 of us refused to fight and they tortured us. Even the people who were my friends in the army took part in torturing me. Throughout the crisis, I was being moved from prison to prison. Sometimes, I would escape but they would later recapture me and put me back in prison,” he said.
But, when he found out that his life was on the line, he convinced them that he had medical knowledge and that he could take care of the injured instead of fighting, and they accepted. “That job equally made me more popular. I even took care of their pregnant women. Sometimes, I would disguise as a woman to be able to penetrate war-torn areas to be able to get drugs for the wounded. Even when the war was moving to Benghazi, where France dropped the bomb that killed most of the Gaddafi’s soldiers, I was there.”
Williams said he was so popular that he eventually became the chairman of Nigerian communities in Libya. “I became the overall chairman of the Nigerian community there. The Arewa, Ohanaeze and Oduduwa groups were all under my chairmanship. I helped to release a lot of Nigerians that were in prison. I used my connection to save a lot of Nigerians and Africans. I became so popular that there was no drug case or any kind of case at all that they would not call on me. Some were innocent and some were actually guilty of the crime they were alleged to have committed but I was there for them.”
With 19 productive years wasted in Libya and now back to square one in Nigeria, Williams said his mission was to write a book to expose what exactly happened to Nigerians in Libya: “I will do that because that was my promise to Nigerians that died in Libya. I am planning to visit families that believe that their sons are still out there, but they don’t know that they have died a long time ago. Some families go to different churches with pictures of their children praying for their safe return but they don’t know that those children had died a long time ago. I saw a lot and I want to help families locate their dead ones in Libya. There are a lot of uncovered graves – mass graves of Nigerians in Libya that I know. I know the places, the areas and even the people that killed them. I know a lot.
“I want the world community to know the truth about the killings in Libya. The dead bodies are not about the people trying to cross the Mediterranean. The people that die in Libyan territory are much more than those who die in the sea. The Libyans are just killing Nigerians for no reason. If there is any reason, I will tell you but in this case, there is absolutely no reason; they keep killing Nigerians in hundreds. They kill people anyhow. I know one Ghanaian called John, who worked for a Libyan, but was not paid. And just because he went to the man’s house to ask for his money, he was hacked to death with an axe. What about the incident that happened shortly before we came back? A Delta man was shot dead by an Arab who said he was making noise. Just like that, and the man was dead. This one happened in my presence; I saw him shoot the Delta guy. There are many instances like that.
“My book will expose many evils so that the world will know the truth. The Italian and European government would have to share in the blame. My mission now is to reveal to the world the truth about what actually happened. IOM does not know what happened; it only came to rescue us.
“We need a lot of work to stop what is happening in the desert. If EU and IOM can support me, it will stop. Many of our brothers come down to Nigeria to organise large numbers of people, and deceive them that they were taking them to Europe. They have made so much money doing this dirty business and they would bring them to the desert and sell them off. They will promise them mouth-watering jobs.”
Virginity for sale
“The one that shocked me mostly was the case of a young girl from Ekiti State, who was about 16 years. As a virgin, she was put in a house at Agadez to be deflowered by the highest bidder. They started with $300 and ended in $5,000. So, the person that brought the girl collected $5,000 and allowed old men to deflower the little girl, who kept shouting as she was being penetrated,” he said.
For 30-year-old Naomi Lawrence from Igbokoda in Eti-Osa Local Government Area of Ondo State, her worry is the fact that some of the notorious human traffickers were seated among other returnees at the reintegration seminar: “Right now, I feel okay; I feel all right but something is bugging my mind. There are some human traffickers who are here with us in this training. I don’t understand that. What are they here for.”
After a year and 10 months in Libya, she came back on December 27, 2017. She said her days in Libya were good because the family she worked for were good.
She revealed that the traffickers and those who trade on human beings are Nigerians and not Libyans. She lamented that Nigerian girls, mostly from Benin, Edo State, and Abeokuta, Ogun State, do all sorts of things, from stealing to prostitution in Libya. “If you go there and say you are a virgin, they will tell you not to worry. They will ask you if you will not give birth and when you say you will give birth, they will then assure you that the baby, which will pass through your virgina is much bigger than a penis. They also steal. Nigerians steal cars from Libya and bring them down to Nigeria and that is why the Libyans hate Nigerians so much. In Libya, you will not find black ladies from other African countries; all the girls are Nigerians. Libyans were even asking us why we betray ourselves and turn around to accuse them of maltreating us,” she said.
Naomi’s only regret was that she lost her mother and her 11-year-old son while she was away in Libya: “I was into fashion designing and I had a shop in Surulere, Lagos. I was also into catering and bead-making. My friend convinced me that there was opportunity for fashion designers in Dubai. I was just carried away. My major regret is that I lost my 11-year-old son and my mum. I thank IOM for this opportunity because it would have been more terrible without this assistance,” she said.