18 December 2017

Nigeria: Walking Into Slavery

Adibe Emenyonu writes on the endless tales of woe recounted by Edo returnees from Libya.

The difference between the trans-Saharan slave trade/transatlantic slave trade which was abolished more than 200 years ago and the present day slavery is that while those involved in the former were forcefully sold out because they were war victims having been captured and sold as spoils of war, but the modern day slavery especially the ones taking place through Libya to Europe is made up of people who willingly walked themselves into it out of greed or inordinate ambition to get rich quick.

Onuwa Sunday, 27 years old, an indigene of Edo State from Orhiomwon Local Government Area, had no problem with his physique. But today, his right ankle was amputated after he was hit by a rocket in a camp in Libya. Today, he limped on his left leg to the reception of the hotel where officials of the task force on human trafficking received him and others in a hall where they were profiled and documented.

Beauty Okoro, was among the 168 girls deported out of which 20 of them came back with pregnancy. Okoro said she traveled July 4th last year because her sponsor told her that within one week, she will be in Italy. But this turned out to be a ruse.

"I travelled July 4th last year. My sponsor told me that within one week I would be in Italy. But when I got to Libya it was another story. These sponsors always convince you and make it look like it is easy, but I have learnt now. I feel the government should arrest and execute them," she said, weeping.

If people travel alone, the burden is usually light but when a husband and wife decide to make such a dangerous journey, it amounts to double jeopardy.

Ebinewo Praise, a 24-year-old lady, said she travelled with her husband. Today, she is among the pregnant returnees. She wept profusely while recounting her ordeal.

"I traveled together with my husband, but he is still there now. Before I travelled, I was a sales girl. I am an orphan. My husband and I paid N900,000 to our sponsor to move us. When we got to Libya, I was lucky to be the first they took to move through the sea, but my husband´s set was not ready. We left, but our boat got spoilt in the middle of the sea. We stayed there without any rescue until the UN boat came and rescued us, we were later arrested. My husband now went to pay N250,000 to release me from prison. Somebody now said we should pay another N150,000 to push me across the sea; my husband paid the money. But while we were planning to move, their immigration people came to arrest us and took us to a prison. I spent months in the prison before we were taken to the deportation camp. I was not staying in the same place with my husband, but we see every day. You can imagine I am pregnant but no food. They give you one small bread per day, and you buy water. Water is very expensive there. My husband will be calling his people to send us money. What they told us before was that in two weeks we would be in Italy, but we never knew it was not like that. We spent seven days in the desert, and it was very hot. You can imagine that when we left Agadez, we were 33 in number but by time we got to a camp in Libya, we have 27 persons alive. I was lucky I was listed as one of those coming back.

Onuwa, Okoro and Praise were among the close to 800 boys and girls of Edo State origin who have been forced back home. The harrowing journey back to Benin City began on November 7, when some buses drove into the venue of a popular hotel in Benin City, the Edo State capital, in the government reservation area (G.R.A), with returnees on board deported from various prisons and camps in Libya.

The weary and famished looking returnees clutched to their bags containing few of their belonging aroused much curiosity into the condition and experiences of the Libyan returnees who had hoped to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe in search of the proverbial 'green pasture'.

The shocking tales of the returnees encapsulates suffering, prostitution, drugs, and slavery in Libya are endless as they recounted gruesome ordeal of how unlucky illegal migrants are sold into slavery and prostitution by their traffickers while others are killed in their attempt to cross the desert to Libya.

Recounting his experience, Onuwa narrated how he and others were ambushed by some deadly criminal gangs called (Asma boys) and taken to different camps where they were eventually sold into slavery and prostitution by their captors.

He said in an attempt to cross the high sea, migrants boats were ambushed by these same gangs and taken to camps where they were forced to call home for ransoms ranging between N300, 000 and N700,000.

According to him, "It was a terrible experience. We were abducted on our way to a town known as Saba by some group they called 'Burger Boys' and taken to a camp. I was charged 4, 000 dina which is about N400, 000 after spending six months in captivity. Few days later, we made attempt at crossing to Italy but our boat was intercepted four hours after we departed the shores of Libya in the middle of the sea by Libyan Naval patrol ship. They took us to Zaweya Prison where I spent another one month. I had to pay N170,000 before I was released. On release, I got a job at a car wash so that I can save some money to pay for my crossing.

"Unfortunately, after spending two months, fight broke out and that was the beginning of my ordeal, the Libyans say they don't want any black so they started invading from one camp to the other so I ran to another camp not knowing that the camp was marked to be invaded.

"When the information got to me, immediately I took a cab to escape but I was kidnapped by three uniform men who shot me on my right hand and leg. As I speak, I still have bullets lodged in my thigh. I can't sleep at night."

Continuing he added: "I was locked up and asked to call my family members for money for my freedom. In the camp I was, we were over 3,000 from different countries but Nigerians are the highest in number."

On his part, 30-year-old Marley Ayodo, said he paid N700, 000 to his trafficker but was ambushed and taken to a camp where he had to pay ransom for his freedom.

"Majority of our people are usually kidnapped and asked to pay ransom. Many Nigerians have spent over one year in detention camps. In Gerrian Prison they are about 1,000 Nigerians dying on a daily basis due to torture and starvation. Most of the people I travelled with are dead.

"They used to flog us every day, before and after eating, we all lost hope. I want the government to encourage our ambassador so that he can assist our people. A lot of people who have been documented to come home in the last one year are in various prisons suffering.

Similarly for Miss Rosemary Ugogo, aged 29, a native of Kwale in Ndokwa East council area of Delta State said, "my experience was so terrible; my going there was terrible and coming back was terrible."

She disclosed that her trouble began when the woman who took her to Libya died of exhaustion in the desert on their way because of scarcity of water while 120 of them (male and female) were kept in one room where five persons ate a plate of food daily even as they defecate and sleep in the same place.

So when the Edo State Taskforce against Human Trafficking, the agency saddled with the responsibility of reintegrating, arresting and prosecuting traffickers received these returnees, it was like a joyous homecoming stepping their feet on Nigerian soil again having escaped death and trauma in Libya. They were full of praises for the federal and Edo State Governments who had showed commitment in curbing the trend and creating better opportunities for the mass returnees.

Ironically, a good number of the sponsors and slave camp owners are Nigerians, Ebinowe disclosed. She told journalists that these sponsors are here in Edo State and they have their links in Libya too because it is an organised trade, and I have seen it all at this my little age of 20.

"When I got to a place they call Ghetto, I was there with one other girl. They sold us to one man so we can be doing prostitution.

"The next day another woman came to the Ghetto and bought me as her slave. She bought me for N1,700 and she asked me to pay her N450, 000, that includes my feeding and the water I will be using to bath.

"I called my dad and explained to him that she said my people should send me the money or I will be prostituting to get the money. Then my father sent me N50,000 and pleaded he would sell his land to get me the remaining. The husband of my madam is in Nigeria; my father wanted to sell the land to him so they can help me. But the man said he does not like the location where the land is so he will not buy. I had no choice than to do what my madam said I should do, and that is prostitution. I was now sleeping with different men. I worked with her for over two months. I was not allowed to go out, and always indoors sleeping with customers.

"I told my dad that I was tired of the situation so he told me he has a friend in Libya that he will contact him to help me. He contacted the man, and the man informed him that he was staying in a different town. The man then told me to ask my madam how he could come to pick me and that he was ready to pay her off. I asked my madam, and she said the man should bring N300,000. But I reminded her that my dad had already sent me N50,000 meaning that it was a balance of N250,000. But the man (my father's friend) said he had only N200,000 cash to give to the woman. We pleaded with the woman, and she accepted. The man brought N220,000 including taxi money for me to come over to his place. That was how I left that woman.

"Then when I got to my father's friend's house, it was the same job I was doing with the woman, that he said I should be doing. That is prostitution. And my father did not know that his friend had bought me from the woman to do the same kind of sex job. The man said I would pay him N440,000. I had no choice than to work hard and pay. By December last year I was done with the payment, then started hustling for myself so I could get money to cross the sea to Italy.

"So, I made about N400,000 and gave the man N300,000 to keep for me. Knowing that I now had some money, I decided to go buy some food stuff that I will use to cross the sea. I met the man to give me my money, and he said he would not give me. I told him that that was wicked because he was sleeping with me, and then I still paid him for keeping me in his house yet he was not satisfied. He started beating me until I fell sick. I called my mum that I want to leave that house. Incidentally, my period was delayed that month, and I told the man that it seemed I was pregnant. He said I should go and do a test but the very day I wanted to go for a test, my period started. Then he started beating me that I had gone to remove the pregnancy but I told him it was not true.

"He said he would not leave me that I have gone to destroy his baby and threatened to call the bad boys of Libya for me. I was dying in that house and didn't know what to do. Then I met one pastor on Facebook and told him my problem. He said I should buy a white handkerchief and send him the man´s picture. The pastor told me that the man, Ade, a Yoruba man has taken my urine to a native doctor. I was crying, but the pastor said I should not worry. We were eight girls in that house with the man, and we all worked for him.

"He sleeps with all of us, and we still pay him. So, one of the senior girls in the house advised me on what to do. She told me that any time the man is sleeping with me again and that while he is on top of me, I should ask him when he will free me. She told me that whatever the man said at that moment is what he will do. So when he came to sleep with me, and I asked him when he will free me? He replied that I should not worry that he will free me the next Wednesday. That day he promised me was July 11. So on that day, he called and gave me a battery to charge my phone, a Nokia phone. That night he told me a taxi would come and pick me up. He said my transport fare was N60,000, that is from there to Tripoli from where we were to leave by sea to Italy. So this man claimed that he has paid about N210,000 for my transportation including to help me cross the sea to Italy. But I told him that my money is still with him.

"Then, I got to the camp. From the camp to Italy is about one hour thirty minutes. We were there suffering- no food and no money. I called the man, and he said I should come back to the house. I said I could not go back to him. He was calling me to come back, but I said rather than go back to him, let me die. But the camp was very hot. Several times we woke up to the sound of gunshots and people will be running. In Libya, they shoot anyhow and kill people like chicken.

"There was a night I woke up and was running to nowhere. I fell somewhere and injured my head when a block fell on top of me. People saw me and rescued me, took me to a pharmacy and gave me drugs. One day some people were asked to come and cross over. One of my friends, Anita joined that boat because they move people in batches. But Anita died inside the boat when the boat capsized while they were running from security agents.

"That day, two boats entered the sea. I was to be in the sixth boat. One of those boats got stranded in the sea because it was leaking. Some people died while some were rescued. One of the boats before our own left around 5a.m. that morning. It was not up to 30 minutes after they left, they saw Libyan immigration coming, the man piloting the boat jumped into the sea. And I discovered that the problem was that the man collected money from us but he did not settle the Libyan immigration officials on the sea. We heard that the man felt his father is influential in Libya, so he refused to settle those officials even though he had collected money from many people to cross them.

"They call him Ginabo. So the immigration came, and they knew we were Ginabo´s people, and they started cursing him that Ginabo is a crook; he is a liar. That he has collected our money and abandoned us because he refused to settle them. They were speaking Arabic. These people arrested us and said we should call our people to send us money or else we will be killed. In fact, our men suffered under these people. They will force them to bring money, or they will kill them.

"They will beat them until some of them will die, and they will throw the person´s body into the dustbin. How I came back, what happened was that one man said we should pay N20,000. He controls another camp. We were there when the police came to that place and started pursuing everybody. We started running to nowhere. The man that owns the camp called us to a room and collected all our phones and money. We were about eight girls. The police surrounded everywhere and took us to one prison. That was where the UN people came for us. They gave us one tiny bread, they call oza bread once a day and sometimes half cooked rice that you cannot give to a dog, but we were managing.

"Sometimes they will lace the food with drugs, and after eating it you will sleep off on the floor, and they will rape you. But the UN people kept us and started deporting us back. They sent back some people, but my name was not among. At a point, no water, nothing. We have a lot of Nigerians in that prison. From what I saw in prison, we have thousands of Nigerians in different prisons. Each time you wake up you see five persons dead beside you because the place was tight. Once, when I was very thirsty and no water, I saw water where somebody died, I had no choice but to drink the stinking water so I will not die. I closed my eyes and nose to drink the water. These people don´t care. In fact, I regret embarking on that journey. The orientation we got from my sponsor was that Libya and Italy are close. I did not know that the sea is even dangerous as I later discovered. The person that sponsored me did not tell me all these.

"My advice to people is that they should not dare go to Europe through that means. I saw hell as a 20-year-old girl. I had my SSCE result before I left. I am begging government to help with any job; I will never pass this route again. And I want to advise our youths not to try it; it is better you work here in Nigeria even though you are suffering here, endure it and pray to God for better days. I was not patient in life that was why. Nobody should go to Libya; the place is hell on earth. I saw people die like chicken every day and I wonder if I can get out of the trauma."

Nonetheless, Governor Godwin Obaseki has assured the returnees that his administration would place them on a monthly stipend for three months while they undergo various vocational training.

"You should see your current situation as a passing phase in the journey of life," the governor said and added that his administration would ensure that they receive vocational training while those interested in pursuing higher education would be trained.

"You are back to where you came from and you will be taken care of. For the next three months, we will put you on a special stipend," Obaseki said.

He explained that the goal of government is to make them ambassadors that will sensitise other youths about the risks associated with illegal migration.

"You will not wish what you went through for even your enemies. So we will make you ambassadors, to share your harrowing experience with others. We are not out to judge you, we will not judge you. We are all humans and make mistakes. Anybody can be deceived. I want to welcome you back home."

In fulfillment of this promise, Edo State Government has commenced various agricultural training for over 150 Libyan returnees from the state. The 10 days training which is taking place at the Agricultural Development Programme (ADP), in Benin City, was declared opened by the Commissioner of Agriculture, Monday Osaigbovo.

The training which is part of the state government's effort to engage the youths in productive venture is also aimed at stemming the rising illegal migration among youths being trafficked abroad in search of the proverbial greener pasture.

Not only that, Edo State Government said plans are underway to enact laws against human trafficking, as part of the ongoing measures to tackle illegal migration and drastically reduce the trade in human beings. The state Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice and Chairperson of the Edo State Taskforce on Human Trafficking, Prof. Yinka Omorogbe, disclosed this at the flag-off of a state-wide sensitisation workshop on human trafficking and illegal migration, held at Idogbo, the Headquarters of Ikpoba Okha Local Government Area.

Omorogbe said, "the state government is working on a law to ensure perpetrators who aid human trafficking and illegal migration are sentenced to jail without the option of fine. All hands must be on deck to support this drive in curtailing the menace which has damaged the reputation of the state."

The Edo State Taskforce on Human Trafficking is a collaboration of the state government and international agencies such as the European Union. It is aimed at rebranding the state as an investment destination with human resources potential.

Omorogbe said instead of youths to take to illegal migration, they should rather take advantage of the state government's initiative on job creation, as the state is already setting up technical centres for skills acquisition.

Even at that, some of the returnees have vowed to take their pound of flesh from their traffickers who lured them from their parents, with the promise to give them decent jobs in Italy and other parts of Europe.

The victims, who would not want their names in print, for security reason, said they are ready to lead officials of the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to the houses of members of the human trafficking cartels in the state and in Europe.

"We know where the human traffickers live in the state. Some of the madams are in Italy and in other European countries, and have relatives in Benin who take the girls to native doctors and some pastors for oath taking," they said.

The victims said they are ready to work with the federal government to unmask the faces behind the illicit business.

"We want to form a strong advocacy and support group that will assist the federal government to bring an end to illegal migration and human trafficking in Edo State.

"We had a terrible experience in Libya and would not wish same for anybody. We are ready to name and shame them and give names and addresses of these dealers in human flesh to the government," they said.

Some returnees including Miss Blessing Sunday from Ovia North East Local Government Area and Miss Rosemary Oboh pleaded with the governor to employ her father and also expressed their appreciation to the governor for the warm reception accorded them.

"It was wrong for us to sneak out of our country. We did it because we thought we would be able to achieve something. We love you for welcoming us back home as a father, a leader and a governor. May your reign be long as governor," Oboh said.

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