BY KUNLE FALAYI
In this report, KUNLE FALAYI sheds light on the plight of Nigerians who are arrested in Libya after paying a lot of money to make the treacherous desert-to-Mediterranean journey to Europe but end up dying or wishing they are dead in one of Libya’s detention facilities
Every day for the last eight months, when 31-year-old Osas Ekhaguere woke up in the dingy cell he shared with about 125 other inmates, mostly Nigerians, he believed it was going to be his last.
In the world in which the former computer operator lived in as a prisoner in one of the detention facilities for migrants in Tripoli, Libya, hope is a luxury he could not afford.
“How do you begin to have hope when you see death almost on a daily basis? Surely, it was going to be your turn sometime. I believed I would die a nobody, not even buried in an unmarked grave but thrown in the desert like all my friends, who died in that prison,” Ekhaguere said.
Full of hopes of a golden life in Europe, a place he knew nothing about, Ekhaguere, the last child of 11 children born to an Edo State father, vowed in November 2015 to make the journey to Europe.
“One day, I called my father and told him I would make the journey to Europe. I told him it was either I die or become rich. To make it in life, I knew I had to take some risks,” he said.
But looking into the hollow eyes of the gaunt man, who clasped and opened his calloused hands intermittently as he sat across our correspondent, little doubt remains that something had died in him, least of which is hope of ever travelling to Europe through the desert again.
Ekhaguere, who was one of the 140 Nigerian immigrants, who were brought back from detention facilities in Libya by the United Nations’ International Organisation for Migration, never imagined he would ever step foot in his country again.
As he stepped off the Libyan Airline plane, which transported him and his cohorts, our correspondent watched as he staggered as if his emaciated body was being pushed here and there by wind. He went down on his knees slowly, as if to minimise the pain in his bones, raised his hands to the heavens and said loudly, ‘Nigeria I love you. Thank God I made it back.’ Then, tears flowed freely from his eyes.
An official standing by remarked, ‘The way this man is walking, he is very ill’. The yellow pallor of Ekhaguere’s skin and the vacant hollowness of his eyes said much about his current physical state.
As they were loaded in a bus, which was to transport them to a holding area at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, where they would be fed, registered and given a stipend which would help get them to their various destinations, our correspondent sat beside him.
Without prompting, he began talking. Even as tears flowed from his eyes, he did not pause. He seemed to have a lot to get off his chest.
Ekhaguere’s story bears much resemblance to many other African migrants who had the hope of travelling to Europe.
“Life was very hard while I was in Nigeria and I found my way to Ghana in company with some friends. I got to Ghana in March 2015 and got a job as a computer operator,” he said.
With a poor father who could hardly feed himself, Ekhaguere’s hope of getting help from his three sisters working in Europe soon evaporated.
The woman Ekhaguere was working with in Ghana encouraged him to start a little business of his own and even supported him with $700, but he had different ideas.
With part of his savings, Ekhaguere put the money into obtaining travelling documents to Libya, where he hoped to find his way to Italy.
“I went to Libya legally with appropriate documents. If anybody had warned me of the impending doom in Libya, I would have described the person as an enemy of progress,” he said.
To obtain “divine” backing for his journey, Ehhaguere visited a prophet in Ghana, who told him that evil people in his family were trying to prevent his success. This spurred him more, to make it in life.
‘Every migrant gets kidnapped’
Ekhaguere said he eventually met a Ghanaian “burger” (trafficker), who told him to pay N260,000 (about $830), his entire savings, for the journey to Libya.
On February 14, 2016, he along with 45 other Europe-hopefuls started the four-day journey from Ghana to Sabha, Libya.
Sabha, a city with a large population of migrants is 770km to the south of Tripoli and is the capital of Libya’s expansive southern Fezzan region. But more importantly, it is the hub of the country’s smuggling and human trafficking network.
Ekhaguere had hardly breathed the air of Sabha, when the traffickers who facilitated his journey “tranque” (kidnapped) him, a popular method of getting migrants to pay more.
He told our correspondent that every Nigerian immigrant in Libya had been kidnapped one time or another. “Everyone gets kidnapped,” he said.
Held and beaten daily for about one month in a house where he was shackled, Ekhaguere was given a phone to call a relation in Nigeria who later wired another N260,000 for his release.
After roaming the streets of Libya and doing unspeakable jobs just to get some money to get him to Libya, he again found another “burger” whom he paid the equivalent of N50,000 to get him to Tripoli, where he would make the journey across the Mediterranean to Europe.
Journey into the belly of the beast
Tripoli was symbolic for Ekhaguere. It was the darkness before the morning; the tunnel at the end of which he saw light. But it turned out to be dusk before the darkness.
One evening in April, his group of 40, whose journey was facilitated by the same “burger” arrived Tripoli and were herded in a room, where they slept till morning. They were supposed to go to the seaside in the morning for the onward voyage to Europe.
By December 2016, the number of migrants who made the journey across the Mediterranean sea to arrive in Europe in the last 12 months had reached 358,156. According to the IOM, 22,000 of those are Nigerians like Ekhaguere. An equally large number of migrants die at sea. The IOM declared that 3,700 migrants have so far gone missing or died in the Mediterranean journey to Italy in 2016 alone.
But for Ekhaguere, death would not come from the sea.
At dawn, a heavy bang burst open the door of the room in which he slept with his group. Then, Libyan officials carrying guns rounded them up.
“I did not know what was going on. They were shouting words I did not understand. But they took us all to prison,” he said.
That would be his home for the next eight months; a detention facility that he said was best described as hell. It was his journey into the belly of the beast.
“If there is hell, I think it will look like the prison in which we were kept,” he said.
According to Ekhaguere and other inmates our correspondent spoke with, the male cell in the detention facility measured about 20 feet by eight feet. In it, about 170 inmates, mostly Nigerians, slept “lappa-lappa”. He said that was the term used for sleeping on one’s side in a spoon position to make them all fit into the floor.
Libya’s Department for Combating Illegal Migration admits that officially, there are 24 of such detention facilities for migrants.
In September, the IOM estimated that about 770,000 migrants and asylum seekers were in Libya. Of these, between 4,000 and 7,000 are held in detention facilities operated by DCIM.
But these are not detention facilities like any other. Ekhaguere said they were designed for migrants not to survive.
He had said a lot about his journey to Libya, but when it was time for Ekhaguere to explain what he went through in the detention facility, he became more emotional.
Tears streamed from his eyes afresh now.
“Jesus! I have known suffering in my life. But I never imagined suffering could be that bad,” he said.
As he spoke, it was clear all was not well with Ekhaguere. He started breathing heavily as a sudden cough took his voice away.
After several minutes of being attended to by officials around, he assured them that he would be fine and insisted on continuing his story.
“I was a healthy young man before I went to Libya. Would you see me now and not think I have a terminal illness?” he said, as he gestured at his 5’11”-foot frame, on which bones jutted out from under-malnourished skin in different places.
In the detention facility Ekhaguere was held in Tripoli, drinking water and an overflowing toilet were just one foot apart.
“The toilet was always overflowing because the officials made water available once a week to flush the toilet. For some reasons, the drinking water tap is placed on the ground beside the overflowing toilet. So, if you wanted to use a drinking bottle to fetch it, you had to place the bottle horizontally on the ground before water could get inside,” he said.
But that was barely the worst in the prison.
Death is cheap, survival a miracle
The frequency in which Nigerian inmates died in the prison, had made thought of death a monster that would simply not go away, Ekhaguere said.
According to him, he initially coped by waking up and repeating a mantra to himself: “I will make it. I will make it”. But he soon gave up.
He recalled one instance when another migrant from his native Edo State, Fide, whom he befriended in the prison, became so frustrated with life one morning and went to an official to ask him what he did wrong.
“Fide went to the official and asked if they wanted him to die in the place even though he had complete travelling papers. The man told him, ‘Please die soon, so you can make space for others’ For the next three days, Fide cried bitterly. I would tell him to have hope, even though mine was dead. I kept assuring him that we would survive the place. But he refused to eat for three days.
“Our food was bread the size of a table-tennis ball once a day. They fed us that at 8pm every day. Fide always slept beside me. One morning, I woke up and wanted to go and ease myself. I roused him that we should pray. But Fide was stiff. He had died in the night in our ‘lappa-lappa’ sleeping position.”
According to him, Fide’s body was wrapped in a blanket and taken away. By the time the officials came back, they told the migrants that their friend had been thrown in the desert.
So many people died within the eight months I was in that prison. Unfortunately, their families in Nigeria would never know.
In one instance, three young Nigerian women died through an accidental discharge by an official.
It was learnt that the three women sat together eating one afternoon in the female wing of the facility.
Ekhaguere said one of the officials sat few metres away smoking hash. As he stood from where he sat, he tried to lift his gun and his finger touched the trigger. The three women were sprayed with bullets and died immediately.
“They just took their bodies away as if nothing happened. That was the day I realised any one of us could die in that prison at any time,” he said.
He said every week, bodies were taken away and because most of them at that particular facility were Nigerians, words always circulated among them later that “he was from this Nigerian state or that state”.
A migrant, Juliet Edopolo, 36, who was held in the female wing of the same facility, said women rarely died.
“The reason is that they did not beat us like they beat the men. They beat us so that we could get few broken bones. They beat the men like they wanted them to die. The only time I remember women dying was when the three women were sprayed with bullets in my wing. One of them was from Delta State, the other two from Edo State,” she said.
10 pieces of macaroni per day
At Ekhaguere’s detention facility, a time came for a change of food from the regular tiny piece of bread. Migrant inmates’ hope rose for better meal.
Then, one day, officials came with a large bowl of macaroni, the hollow curve type with each piece measuring about half an inch.
Each inmate was required to take a handful. Then, the shock came.
“When you dipped your hand and brought out the macaroni, you would be asked to count five of them and return the rest under the watchful eyes of the officials. You dipped your hand in the bowl a second time and took another five, making 10 altogether. We ate 10 pieces of macaroni per day, washed down with water from beside the overflowing toilet,” he said.
In the facility, if disease from the horrible cell, toilet, or food did not kill the migrants, the bone-cracking beating by officials did.
The abuse in Libya’s detention facilities for migrants is so widespread that the UN has clamoured for an end to the torture, calling on the country to close all unofficial detention centres, dismiss and prosecute anyone suspected of abusing the migrants and asylum seekers.
“The UN has made clear that Libyan authorities should end the torture, forced labour, and sexual violence that has been the lot of detained migrants for years,” The partners in Libya’s policies toward migrants, including the EU, should insist on nothing less,” the Human Rights Watch, Middle East and North Africa Director, Sarah Leah Whitson, said.
At Ekhaguere’s detention facility, migrants are flogged on a daily basis with a long pole. The hollow in the pole was filled with concrete to make it heavier, according to the migrants.
Ekhaguere, said he recalled a Nigerian who could not stand or sit up for five days after being flogged. He himself was flogged more times than he could remember.
The pastor with bullet in the arm
Like Ekhaguere,Tunde Ejirense, 27, another Edo State indigene, who said he was a pastor before he left Nigeria, had been flogged so many times that he even sustained a fracture on his left arm. But that was not the worst.
On Ejirense’s right arm is a two-inch lump with a pointy end, which on a second look resembled a bullet under a layer of skin. That was exactly what it was.
Ejirense decided to seek a better life in Europe and made his way to Libya after someone died in his church in Nigeria.
“Things went bad,” he said. I sited my church, Altar of Bethel Ministry, on a small rented land in Benin, Edo State. One day, they brought an ill patient to me for prayer and healing. He later died in my church. I was arrested by the police after being accused of using the patient for rituals. That was the end of my church. After I was released, I thought my life could become better if I could get to Italy,” he said.
Ejirense made the desert journey from Agadez, a transit point in Niger Republic to Sabha, Libya. Through being kidnapped, forced to pay more money by his trafficker and spending a total of N730,000 (about $2,322)to facilitate his journey, he was shot in the arm by Libyan officials who arrested his group on the journey from Sabha to Tripoli.
“I was screaming in pain. I thought I would die that day. But the policemen did not care. They just dumped me in the prison where I found so many other Nigerians. I did not get any medication, no first-aid and wasn’t taken to any hospital.
“For four months before the skin closed up on the bullet, the pain was hell. There was nothing I could use to treat the wound myself. So, I just cleaned it with water until it healed. Yet they beat me and broke my second arm, which again took forever to heal without treatment,” he said.
As he prepared to make his way back to his native Edo State, Ejirense said he would finally find a way to remove the Libyan bullet that had stayed in his arm for 11 months.
But the bullet would not be the only souvenir of his horrible time in Libya.
“Right now, I don’t know if my manhood still works because of the torture. I was flogged in every part of the body including my manhood with the pole the Libyan officials used. If I pull down my trousers, you will scream,” he said.
When Ekhaguere, Ejirense and 138 other voluntary returnees from Libya landed at the Murtala International Airport in Lagos, there was no doubt that these were men and women, who would forever be thankful for being back in their country.
“Lord! I have now realised how beautiful my country is,” one of them said as he stepped down from the plane.
One of them, a young lady of about 20 years was too dazed to even speak as she sat glumly in an ambulance in which she was immediately taken to for preliminary treatment. Officials said had she spent few more days at the Libyan facility, she would have died.
The Deputy Director, Search and Rescue, National Emergency Management Agency, Onimode Abdullahi, who received the migrants at the airport on behalf of the agency’s DG, Sani Sidi, said out of the 140 migrants, there were 14 children, four of whom were unaccompanied.
“NAPTIP and other agencies concerned would do family tracing to ensure that the children are united with their families,” Abdullahi said.
Of the accompanied children, our correspondent met 10-year-old Esther Ogbeide, a secondary school girl, Juliet Edopolo’s niece, who simply wanted to go and “work in Libya like my aunty”.
So, when Edopolo’s younger sister, Osahon, was preparing to join her sister in Libya, Esther asked to be taken along. The trafficker who organised the trip had no objection, only asked for more money.
Arrested during a midnight migrant raid by officials in Tripoli, Edopolo, had been in prison for five months when a batch of migrants arrived one morning. Among them was her sister and little niece.
“I cried for so many days when I saw Esther. I never imagined she would end up like us. I knew Osahon was coming but not Esther,” she said.
Detention in areas controlled by militia
In Libya, the plight of migrants is worsened by the fact that there are numerous detention facilities controlled by militias in areas where the UN-backed Government of National Accord has no authorities.
In fact, there are three rival authorities in Libya.
Saturday PUNCH learnt that many of these militia-held areas are too “hot” to even be accessed by IOM officials to get Nigerians and other African migrants held there released. In such places, what horrible fate Nigerians would be subjected to can only be imagined.
Head of IOM in Nigeria, Mr. Nahashon Thuo, told our correspondent that the security situation in many of such areas would determine if IOM could get Nigerians out or not.
Thuo said, “Many of these detention centres are controlled by militias. Our ability to bring people home from Libya would depend on funding and security situation in the areas in which the detention facilities are located. Some of the migrants came from within the city and voluntarily told IOM they wanted to leave.”
The trip is IOM’s fifth in 2016. In March, 172 migrants were brought back home from Libya. In June, August and October, there were 162, 241 and 154 respectively.
The UN estimates that up to one million migrants are trapped or living in Libya with or without hope of crossing to Europe. Out of this lot, the IOM’s latest Displacement Tracking Matrix of Round 5, 2016, has been able to identify and locate 276,957 migrants in the country.
Many of these are Nigerians, the organisation says.
But at the end of the day, risking death is better than staying in Libya for many migrants.
“Many migrants who had originally intended to stay and work in Libya eventually choose to take the journey across the Mediterranean Sea, perceiving this option as a safer living environment than remaining in Libya,” the IOM said.
Saturday PUNCH contacted the Libyan Embassy in Nigeria about the situation of Nigerian migrants in their country and accusations of human rights abuses in at least the government-controlled detention facilities.The embassy has yet to reply to an email as of the time of filing this report.
Treacherous journey in the face of poverty
Migrants like Ekhaguere came back home with thanksgiving for surviving an experience that claimed the lives of many. But numerous others continue to make the treacherous journey every day, travelling from northern Nigeria through the Sahel to Libya as recession, rising unemployment and a plummeting currency value make life unbearable for many.
In August, the National Bureau of Statistics states that Nigeria’s unemployment rate had risen to 13.3 per cent. In October, inflation rate in the country hit 18.3 per cent.