Dangers of the Trans-Sahara Trek

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While many Nigerian youths have died from the risks associated with illegal migration through the Sahara Desert and Mediterranean Sea to Europe, those who have been lucky to live and tell their stories say the perilous journey is not worth it. Martins Ifijeh writes

Like many Nigerian youths who believed the best way out of poverty, high unemployment rate, harsh economic life, and the pursuit of happiness is to seek greener pastures abroad, Comrade Osita Osemene mulled over the idea since he had made several attempts to get gainful employment or start business without success.

He had combed the streets of Lagos many years after graduating from the university without success. He then ventured into car sale business which eventually crumbled because of fraudsters who outsmarted him. A situation that made him think of travelling out of the country to Europe.

While the idea brought a lot of spark to his dying hope of ever helping his family out of poverty, because he had seen how some Nigerians who come from Europe spend money, drive exotic cars and erect mansions for their families, he went about it the bizarre way. He didn’t mind if he will be migrating without papers, fake papers or through funny travel routes. He was desperate to leave his perceived ‘God forsaken country’ for not being able to secure a job or do any profitable business.

Osemene, who relayed his story to THISDAY at a stakeholders roundtable on Irregular Migration and Human Trafficking, said he made a first attempt at the trip, but it failed because he was given a fake visa by the racketeer who helped him put travel documents together.

“I was asked to pay N250,000 which I rallied round to get for the visa. But I never knew the visa was fake. I was even lucky not to be arrested at the airport on my way to London,” said Osemene who now advocates against illegal migration from Nigeria.

“This brought me to another round of hopelessness and more desperation as the little money I had was swindled. Everything came back to square one. My world fell apart. Even the little money I could salvage from my business was what I used to procure the visa. I lost hope in myself. I believed the end had come for me,” he said.

He said it was in such state of hopelessness that his elder sister, who knew about his efforts at travelling to Europe, called him. “She asked that I leave whatever I was doing and come straight to our village, that there was an opportunity someone had discussed with her about travelling to Europe.

“That was how I met a guy who told me he was a student of a university in the Eastern part of Nigeria, but was planning to travel by road to Morocco and then fly from there to Italy. He asked we embark on the journey together.”

Renewed hope
The news was not only soothing for him, it gave him a renewed hope at life. “I was assured that it would be a safe and hassle-free journey. So I immediately raised N250,000 for my trip. We were told we would be travelling like tourists who along the line will be staying in five star hotels and having fun all the way till we reached Europe,” he said.

But Osemene was wrong. It was a journey of desperation, hence he couldn’t see the dark tunnel ladened with a deceitful light. It was a journey of life and death; the type that has sent hundreds of thousands of Nigerian men and women to their early graves. Many who have been lucky to live through it have lost several productive years of their lives because of their decision to travel illegally.

“My guide reassured me that it would be a safe journey. Though I had my doubts about the entire trip, I didn’t have much choice as I was ready to try out anything. I just wanted to make it in life, and I felt going to Europe was the way out.

“We departed Asaba for the first leg of the journey one Friday morning en-route Kano. But on getting to Kano I sensed all was not well. I overheard people muttering that the journey would not be easy and that there have been terrible stories of hazards.

“I couldn’t comprehend what I heard, so I was trying to remind them that the person taking us along the route had said it was going to be a smooth journey. But it immediately dawned on me that am in for something tougher than expected.

The beginning of suffering
“About 24 hours after we left Kano State we were at Zidane, a state located in Niger Republic, it is a route taken by people who want to go through the desert to Europe. That was when I finally realised it was not going to be a smooth journey as told,” the comrade said.

Unlike what he was told by the guide, Osemene didn’t see any five star hotel where they were in Zidane. They were all kept in a goat pen like prisoners.

“We were taken to one Alhaji’s house where there were over 100 Nigerian men and women, and the place looked like a goat pen. No normal human being would stay in such place, but that was where we were asked to lay our heads. I was shocked as this was not what my guide told me about the journey. Everything he told me started playing out on the flip-side.

“When I asked my guide for the five-star hotel, they were all laughing. They referred to me as a Jedit, because according to them I was new on the road. I was Jedit. It was at that point I began to realise I have let myself unto something much more bigger than me.

“The connection house is a place where anything could happen. Prostitution, drugs and fake passports were openly peddled. They came to me and offered to sell me a Mauritanian passport. According to them, it was the safest way to travel across Sahara Desert. They said that my Nigerian passport would put me in trouble because Nigerians were hated. That was how I bought one, only to learn that I was even swindled on that. I was confused about the whole trip,” he said.

According to Osemene, they were able to leave Zidane and head towards Agadez, still in same Niger; a trip that took them a whole day. “Over 100 of us were packed like cattle into a truck towards Agadez which is closer to Libya than Zidane. We were then taken to a connection house worse than the one we experienced in Zidane.

“We spent seven days in Agadez; it was one of my worst seven days on earth. We paid between 1000 and 2000 CFA per night. We then received information that rebels were killing and raping Nigerians on the Morocco route. People who escaped told us to go to Libya because it was safer. We all had no choice than to divert our route towards Libya. At this point we were over 400 Nigerians.

“That night, I wept and prayed to God to save me. I had lost weight drastically, and I had no idea how long this would last. We were supposed to be headed for Morocco, but because of rebels in the desert, we were now headed for Libya,” he added.

He said on the fifth day, they were able to reach Duruku, a transit camp in the desert for travellers. In this camp you will see a lot of stranded Nigerians. Some have been stranded there for close to four years. They were all broke and could not continue their journey to Europe or even go home. They were stuck.

“In Duruku, it is survival of the fittest. At night, if Nigerians noticed you had money, they would lure you into the desert and if you were unlucky, after dispossessing you of all you have, they’d kill you. I witnessed the killing of a boy because of 700 Euros. It was there I learnt how to keep my money safe in transit. The best way was to insert it into your butt hole. I was doing it with the help of vaseline. The girls hid their monies in their private parts while the men hid theirs in the butt hole.

“At night, soldiers brought out all the Nigerians and flogged us with whips, after which they marched us into the toilet and gave us what they called banku, a powder-like substance to drink. Once you ingest it, you must purge to the point where your intestines protrude. The idea was to catch all those using vaseline to hide their money. I was lucky I did not have to drink banku. I bribed one of the soldiers with 1000 CFA. The trauma was too much. I began to ask myself, ‘Is it worth it?”

He said for every stop they made, the experience was tougher, while Nigerians that embarked on the journey became fewer. “We then moved towards Gatron, a border state in Libya. I had previously heard about how almost 250 Nigerians died on their way to Gatron because their truck had broken down,” but little did Osemene know he was going to go through almost same experience as the truck he was in broke down as well.

“On the road, besides the heat and the dust, there were frequent fights and people were murdered in cold blood! We lost so many Nigerians and their bodies were abandoned to rot away in the desert; I had to watch as a boy die in my presence. At this point, I had to jettison all my load and provision and carry only a small water bottle. After about 100 kilometres, people were getting exhausted and beginning to drop behind. I was lucky that I had a group of friends, so we stuck together.

“A boy from Edo State ran mad, stripped and brought out his money shouting that it was too heavy that he, wanted to die. As we were trying to calm him, he slumped and died! At a point, we were all thirsty and there was no water so we started drinking our urine. Imagine, we were begging to drink urine!”

“Finally, we made it to Tijeri tired and exhausted and were welcomed by kids who beat us up with canes. That was where I got to know that there is a tree in the desert called Debino. Desert dwellers normally eat it because it gives strength. We started plucking them.

He said Tijeri is guarded by Libyan and Nigerien police because there’s so much violence. “A Nigerien policeman came to assist us. We paid about $100 per head, and he offered to smuggle us from there to Gatron. It was difficult to enter Gatron without police assistance. We were hidden in a police SUV. We were over 150 people, and we were transported in batches.

“When it came to my turn, the tyre of the Police SUV ferrying us burst. Rather than return our money, the policeman beat us up and chased us away.”

He said at that point he knew he had been stretched beyond limit. “After running away from the policeman, I became so exhausted that I said, ‘enough is enough’. It’s either the Libyan police pick me up, or I die here! I felt that the journey was not really worth it. After all this pain and suffering, what kind of money would I make in Europe that would compensate me? That was my worst moment. I was no longer afraid of dying because I had seen many people on the way who gave up because of the suffering.

“I then slept off under a tree waiting for death to come take over. There was no single strength left in me. Everybody that had been traveling with me left me to my fate. That was where I blacked out.”

He said even though he can’t remember how long he blacked out, he knew he heard the voice of a guy he had met on the trip from Uromi, shouting and calling out to him. I somehow managed to wake up with the last strength in me. He gave me water to drink. It was the sweetest thing I ever tasted; without him I probably would have died.”

Osemene said after several days, they finally made it to Gatron even though a lot of those they started the journey with died on the way. He said the girls who were among them were then sold into slavery.
“We came upon a connection house owned and run by Nigerians in Gatron. It was there I knew that the girls that came with us from Kano were going to be sold. Each girl was sold for $3000. They would have to pay $9000 to buy their freedom, and the only way they could raise that kind of money was through prostitution. It’s only on completion of the payment that the girls would be free to either continue to work as prostitutes in Libya with all the problems illegal immigrants face, or go to an uncertain future in Europe.

“I paid about five dinar at the connection house and from there they moved us to the next state, Cyber. We stayed there for about three days. Our guides were watching the roads, to know when it would be safe to move.

“Libya is very strict when it comes to illegal immigration, but the irony is that the same Libyan police provide the network through which people are smuggled. They hide us in the boot of their patrol cars to beat check points.”

He said since Cyber police were always hunting for illegal immigrants, they couldn’t stay long in the town. “So we moved to Tripoli. The place I was supposed to stay was called Terimatat, a place for black Africans. It’s a ghetto. Anything can happen there. We were advised that it was safer to be there. The week I got there, the place was busted after a fight broke out and the Libyan Government destroyed everything, and arrested all the Nigerians there.”

End of the road
In Tripoli, we were smuggled to a lonely beach along the Mediterranean Sea from where we were to make the journey to Europe. This was a defining moment for Osemene who had been looking forward to living in Europe. The only barrier between him and Europe was the Mediterranean Sea.

However, what happened next changed everything. He was shown a boat with a Yamaha engine called Lampa Lampa. “When the guide explained that the relatively small boat would carry 200 persons, I knew there was no way I could make it to Europe in this boat.

“I had never swam before. I had never used a navigator before, and the sea was so mighty all you could see was the sky covering all its edges. That was the turning point for me. I decided I was no longer continuing the journey. So I convinced five other guys, and we started another journey back home.”

Osemene successfully made it back to Nigeria and then decided to establish the Citizens Patriotic Initiative, a non-governmental organisation dedicated to helping youths and create awareness on the dangers of illegal migration, especially through the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean Sea.

Osemene who is now giving back to the society through his story and interventions for youths said outside those going to the desert and sea, there are persons who have capitalised on the vulnerability of youths to sell them fake visas with a promise of jobs abroad.
“Some will tell you there is a nanny job somewhere, and that you will be paid as high as N200,000. But truth is majority of these stories are not true. When you travel abroad you will understand that if you don’t have papers you won’t be able to work.

“Anytime you see someone preparing to go Libya or other countries through bizarre routes, or the person has no meaningful thing to do in those countries, please sit them down, help them by telling them to use the money they intend using for the trip to start up a business.”

He said in most of these countries Nigerian men beg on the streets because they are stranded. “Before you travel get proper papers go there legally, otherwise you will end up being disadvantaged,” he added.

The grim picture
Osemene is just among the few lucky ones who are alive to tell their stories. Statistics show hundreds of Nigerian youths still leave the countries shore through the Sahara Desert in a bid to get a better life when they reach Europe.

The Nigerian Immigration Service, in its latest report says not less than 10,000 Nigerian youths have died between January and May 2017 either in Sahara Desert or the Mediterranean Sea in a bid to cross over to Europe.

In fact, according to a representative from International Organisation for Migration (IOM) Lagos, Dr. Nahashon Thuo, not fewer than 1,594 illegal migrants were deported from Libya just this year alone. Thousands are said to be stranded in the country, while several hundreds of thousands are stranded in other parts of the world, including Europe.

Consultant from IOM, Mrs. Winnie Aideyan in her address at the roundtable, said, “Nigerians need to know that the grass is not greener on the other side, there is nothing wrong with travelling, but people need to travel the correct way.”

She called on Nigerian youths to stop illegal migration, stressing, “Women need to be empowered so they will not be tempted by these traffickers.”

Will the story of Osemene and others who have been lucky to share their hurting experience deter Nigerian youths from the bizarre method of travelling? Will government, stakeholders and the society put all enabling environment in place to give confidence to its growing youths that there is opportunity anywhere for those who work hard? When our youths work hard in Nigeria will these opportunities come?