Niyi Akinnaso

When I hired Oladele (not real name) a few months ago, I never imagined that he was a Libya returnee. As tales of woe began to emerge about modern-day slavery in Libya, he suddenly opened up one afternoon. “Daddy, No Man’s Land ni Libya o. Emi naa ti lo’be ri. Ko see ko rara.” I prodded him on with questions and conversational fillers in order to elicit a comprehensive account of his experiences. A summary of our conversations over two days follows in concise first person narrative.

It was 2009. I was working at a Car Wash in Lagos, when a friend introduced a woman to me as having just returned from South Africa and was willing to take us there on her way back. She painted a rosy picture of South Africa and assured us of good jobs there. For many of us then, South Africa was viewed as a good alternative to Europe.

There were three of us. She demanded N160,000 from each of us as the cost of airfare to SA. It took us two weeks to put the money together. Then, she told us we must each have $200 as pocket money. So, we had to change naira to dollar at 160:1. That took us another week.

In the meantime, she obtained our passport photos and promised to get each of us a Nigerian Passport. The Passports came but not in our names. The woman told us it was safer for us not to bear our real names. We learned later that it was the kind of Passport called yori. The original Passport owner’s photo was taken out and yours was affixed in its place.

Still, we were excited to embark on the journey. Three young girls joined us on the bus. They were also following the same woman. First, we headed for the Seme border on our way to the Republic of Benin. From there, we headed for Niger Republic by road. The woman told us that the only place we could board the plane to South Africa was Agadez in Niger Republic.

We arrived in Agadez after two days on the road, and we were there for a week. It was there the woman told us we were not going to South Africa, after all. Rather, we were headed for Libya. We were very angry at the deception, but we were already far from home. We were rendered even more helpless the third day, when the woman vanished with our money and the three girls.

Thereafter, another Nigerian woman where we stayed took over. She encouraged us to call home to raise about N40,000 each so we could embark on the journey to Libya by road. She had a bank account in Nigeria into which the money was paid by our contacts at home. We had no choice but to oblige.

After three days in the desert, we entered Libya through a place called Duruku. From there, we headed for Qatroun, where another group of Nigerians took over. We boarded another truck to Sabha in the middle of the country, where we spent three months. I got a job at a Car Wash, but the pay was low.

Our experience in Sabha was not that pleasant. We left Sabha for Gharyan, through the assistance of another set of Nigerians. We eventually arrived in Gharyan. Our target was Tripoli but we were advised to stop in Gharyan for now and make some money before heading for Tripoli. As the situation got more tense in Tripoli, we decided to stay put in Gharyan. I was working at another Car Wash. I was somewhat comfortable there. I was making an average of N4,000 a day. Things were going well, and I was able to send home between N60,000 and N80,000 every month.

However, things got tougher in 2011, when the war broke out. There were times we had to hide and dock for days for fear of shootings and bombs. Some of us, who were more daring, went to Tripoli in order to make it to Italy. Some were killed on the way to Tripoli. Some made it to Tripoli but died in the Mediterranean Sea. A few were lucky to make it to Europe. One of my friends made it to Italy, and we still communicate on the phone.

My return to Nigeria in 2012 was not voluntary. A Nigerian from a neighbouring town in my state betrayed the three of us living together in one room. He had been living in another room in the same building before we got there. We didn’t quite know what job he had but he seemed to live well. He often drank alcohol and smoked profusely. He had been in Libya for over 10 years. He knew the locals and everyone knew him. What we did not know was that he was working under cover for the police.

One night, he stayed in our room till late in the evening. At some point, we invited him to join us to go get some food. He said he was tired and needed to have a nap. So, we left him to sleep in our room. We shared our food with him when we got back.

He left for his own room later that night, only for the police to knock on our door and search our room hours later. They found a substance under our bed, which they claimed was drug. We had seen a similar substance with the guy before and we concluded that he must have planted it in our room.

We were all arrested and driven to an unknown location in the desert, where we were kept in a Deportation Camp for over three months. Most detainees were Nigerians but there were a few Ghanaians and Cameroonians.

Many of us escaped when a riot broke out one morning over food. The riot was spearheaded by some Igbo boys, who had observed that the police did not carry guns. The police were quickly overwhelmed and detainees jumped the fence and escaped into the desert. Because we had no idea of the location, we wondered in the desert for five days. Some of us died in the process because we had neither food nor water with us.

One Edo boy and I made it to the roadway together by pure chance. We were already exhausted and gasping for breath, when a Toyota Hillux truck drove by. The driver was a Nigerian. He agreed to drive us to Gharyan. On arrival there, we decided to leave Libya immediately for fear of being trailed by the police. We also wanted to avoid the war, which was expanding and getting more intense.

The journey back was as perilous as the journey to Libya three years earlier. We had no choice. Thirty of us were packed at the back of the Hillux, with about 15 people sitting on the parapet on three sides, with their legs dangling outside the truck. As we ploughed through the dusty desert, we occasionally saw dead bodies of humans and animals. I could only pray to arrive safely in Nigeria.

It was only after I got back that I began to think through my experiences in Libya. Eight out of every 10 Africans I encountered there were Nigerians. Nigerians were the main traffickers I came across. They were also the traitors. They would do anything to make money off you.

Libyans also made money off Nigerians at every opportunity. Even soldiers extorted money from passengers at every checkpoint throughout the country. Sometimes, you had to pay something to save your own life.

Next week, I will discuss the policy implications of Oladele’s and more recent migrants’ tales and make some recommendations.

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‘No Man’s Land’: Oladele’s Libya tale
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