He set out for Europe in search of hope. Instead, he was sold like a chicken and left for dead. A Nigerian migrant who was recently deported back home from Libya, tells Solomon Elusoji his story
Friday Eneji, 27, wears a prominent scar on his face, like a badge that screams ‘hey brother, I’ve been to hell and I’m back’. But there are deeper scars buried beneath his skin, roaming inside his head, like restless roaches. During conversations, he speaks with a smile, as if narrating a fairytale. “I was lucky,” he said repeatedly.
Eneji grew up in Obudu, Cross River State. His father, a retired civil servant who worked in prisons, married three wives and bore 14 children. His mother was a farmer who never struck gold.
In 2008, he wrote WAEC, but he could not get into any university despite trying severally. He finally settled for a National Diploma at Fidei Polytechnic, Gboko, where he read Public Relations and wrote his final examinations in 2012. “I could hardly meet up with financial responsibilities while at the Polytechnic, especially when they retired my dad.”
After Polytechnic, he went to Enugu to work as a hotel room service attendant and also did laundry work at 9th Mile for about a year. It was during this period he met a friend who advised him to start planning a trip to Europe. With just N500,000 he was told, it would be very easy to take part in the white man’s paradise.
“I was surprised at first,” he said. But with much persuasion, he was convinced. His friend took him to a lady who was going to give them the necessary connections. The lady explained to them that it was easy to get work in Libya and get paid in American dollars. “Honestly, before then I had never heard of Libya,” Friday, then 25 years old, said. Together with two of his friends, convinced of the Eldorado awaiting them, he paid a deposit of N200,000. “She said we would get to Libya in one week.”
In May 2016, Friday, with two of his friends, took a night bus from Enugu to Kano. As they approached Northern Nigeria’s centre of commerce, their bus was stopped and searched by men of the National Drug and Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA). The wannabe migrants were immediately identified and asked to step out of the bus. “We had to settle them with six thousand naira each,” Friday said. After they crossed the NDLEA hurdle, they encountered immigration officials who also arrested and released them after allegedly accepting a bribe. “Everything is settlement,” Friday, flicking a finger at his nose, said.
From Kano, they crossed through the desert into Niger on bikes. When they arrived Zinder, a city 240 km north of Kano, Friday began to suspect that the journey was not going to be as easy as promised. The harsh weather, a roiling air dancing in the face of a volcano sun, was getting to him. And then there were the expenses he was forced to incur. At the Nigeria-Niger border, he had bought some garri, sugar and water kegs at quite exorbitant rates and, less than halfway into the journey, he was already running out of the N20,000 he brought along with him.
They spent a week in Zinder before moving. “That’s because we had to wait for more passengers coming in from other routes,” Friday said. “The way the route works, you just can’t wake up and say you will board a bus to Libya. Everything is based on connection. Every passenger has a Connection Man. So when you get to a place, your Connection Man gives you a number to call, who will then put you in a bus to your next destination.”
From Zinder, they travelled to Agadez, where they met more migrants like them. Agadez, a city in Central Niger and once a thriving economic hub, has become a major smuggling route into Europe. According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), over 170,000 migrants passed through the town in 2016 and more than 6,000 newcomers arrive every week, staying several days before moving on.
“At Agadez, we sold our clothes, wrist-watches just to be able to feed,” Friday said. The pain of survival became so intense that Friday, together with some of the travellers, decided it was better to go back. But, unknown to them that the worse was still to come, they chose to persevere. After all, Europe was on the horizon.
Travelling from Agadez into Libya is a cavernous death-trap. According to the Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat (RMMS), more people perish in the desert journey than in the Mediterranean, succumbing to disease, starvation and dehydration. No one knows the exact figures, but experts believe they are astronomical. “The majority disappears without someone knowing,” IOM-representative Giuseppe Loprete told Belgian freelance journalist Lucas Destrijcker in 2016, the year Friday set out for Europe. Friday, drawing from his own experience, confirmed the desert’s deathly reputation.
Along with about 30 other passengers, he was squeezed into the back of a Toyota Hilux pickup and handed a wooden stick to support his grip for the bumpy trip. “We went through the desert at maximum speed, so much that some people fell off,” Friday said. “The driver leaves anybody who falls off.”
Friday also watched his comrades – most of them Nigerians – die of starvation. He remembers clearly the story of two brothers, twins actually, who said they were from Benin-city. They had stopped in the middle of the desert and the driver had driven off, leaving them without water. By the time he returned, the twins had died of dehydration. “We buried them in the desert,” he said.
Four days after they left Agadez, they arrived in Qatrun, a village in the Murzuq District in Southern Libya. From Qatrun, they proceeded to Sabha.
Now, Sabha, some 770km to the south of Tripoli, has a reputation as the heart of Libya’s smuggling and human trafficking network. Phil Hoad, writing for the Guardian UK last June, said that reputation was unavoidable given the city’s position, “deep in the Libyan desert at the confluence of several migration routes from sub-Saharan Africa.” Ashraf Hassan at the United Nation’s Migration Agency, IOM, described Sabha as the “assembly point” for the dastardly smuggling and trafficking trade.
When they got to Sabha, Friday recollects, everything changed. The drivers, who he described as Tubaos, black Arabs, started to brandish guns and canes to assert their control and they switched to Toyota pickups with tinted glasses. He and some of his friends even tried to escape, but they were caught. “They loaded us into the pickup like we were goats,” he said. “You can’t sit, you have to stand. More than eight people occupied the back seat alone.”
Friday ended up in Ali Ghetto, a prison-place Italian journalist, Alessandra Ziniti, has described as “a fortress in the desert” with “high walls and barbed wire” and “militias armed with machine guns” patrolling its perimeter. He would later learn that their driver had sold them to the prison, claiming that they had been unable to pay their transport fares. “I saw so many black people in Ali Ghetto,” Friday said. “This was where I saw people who looked like stockfish. You won’t even see sunlight.” Some, he said, had degenerated into insanity.
At Ali Ghetto, Friday was not put to work. But every morning, he was served with “Morning Tea” – brutal flogging with a hosepipe. “What they told us was that we had to pay back the money they paid to the driver that brought us; they told me to pay N250,000 and I had to call a relative back in Nigeria to transfer the money in naira,” he said. He called his father, who thought he was still in Enugu. “I never told anybody in my family I was going to Europe. I wanted to get there and then call them, to surprise them.”
Luckily for Friday, he spent only two weeks in Ali Ghetto, after his father paid the demanded fee. But rather than return to Nigeria, he resolved to forge ahead. “I wanted to make my family proud, and I really did not know where I was going to start from in Nigeria,” he told me. “Besides, after all I had gone through, how could I just give up?”
He was released from Ali Ghetto with about five other boys at the same time. They just opened the gates and let them out to survive the streets of Sabha, where they could easily have been kidnapped and re-ransomed by street gangs popularly known as Asma Boys. “These Asma Boys, they are jobless Arab boys who hunt for blacks to kidnap and then demand for ransom,” Friday said. The picture he painted of the streets of Sabha was that of complete anarchy, massive unemployment, kidnapping, robbery and drugs. “You can’t even go to the Police because they will just hand you over to these Asma Boys.”
But, fortunately, he stumbled on some Nigerians who washed cars for a living. He joined them, worked for months, raised a substantial amount of money, about N300,000, then set out for Tripoli for the Mediterranean crossing, the last barrier between him and his European dreams. In November 2016, he arrived the Libyan capital, full of hope and optimism.
But, of course, he never crossed. He was duped of N150,000 by some traffickers in Tripoli, before travelling back to Sabha to work and raise more money then travelling to Sabratha, another costal Libyan city to cross the sea. At Sabratha, he joined thousands of other hopefuls, waiting for the boat that never came. After staying four months at a seaside camp, warding off deadly insects, watching people die of starvation and realising his mind was beginning to split apart, he walked into a police station and asked to be deported.
Last month, Friday was flown into Lagos. “I am a lucky man,” he said. “There are still thousands of Nigerians over there in conditions that are worse than death.”
From Lagos, he travelled to his village in Obudu, Utugwang, where he met his Father and remaining siblings and shed bucket of tears. It was not the homecoming he envisaged, but they were happy to have him back. “I just want to have a chance to return to school,” he said, “and help educate more people not to make the kind of decisions I made. Everything I did, I did to make a better life for me and my family. But now I know there are things one should not risk.”