Tricked into Travelling, Trapped in Forced Labour – Part I

By Amarachukwu Nwanguma

Epilogue: Our correspondent narrates a horrific account of a couple who were deceived with a promise of a better life and opportunities by a distant relative into migrating to Italy without obtaining proper documents and visas, and the brutal experiences each of them had on the unlawful journey.

Tricked to travel

Like many other desperate youth, he travelled without proper documentation and ended up in the hands of human traffickers, drug lords, and human part sellers.

“I was ready to do anything to survive and take care of my young family. Watching my kids cry for hunger drove me crazy,” Obinna Udekwe, 34, tells Voice of Nigeria reporter Amarachukwu Nwanguma.

Obinna comes from Abu Agu in Anambra State’s Nando Local Government Area.

But he spoke with our reporter from Lugbe, a suburb of Abuja, Nigeria’s Federal Capital City, where he currently resides with his family of six and works as a waiter at a Grills shop.

Obinna graduated with a degree in Classical Music from Nnamdi Azikiwe Federal University Awka, Anambra State, in 2011.

After completing the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) programme in 2013, he roamed the streets of Abuja in search of his dream job in the security services but found none.

He met his love Azuka Perpetua while hustling, and they married the same year he finished his NYSC and had two children two years later.

Obinna got more frantic to find work so he could support his little family.

That’s when he decided to seek help from Emeka, a maternal cousin who lives and works in Italy.

Emeka wasted no time in asking him to come over, citing better opportunities and a better life in Europe as reasons.

Additionally, he told Obinna that his ambition of joining the security service would be easy, adding that he could join the Italian or United Nations Army.

With heightened excitement, the young man paid for and got his international passport and immediately visited the Italian Embassy to obtain a visa, but he was denied.

Unable to obtain a visa, Obinna said he began exploring for other means to enter Europe and again called Emeka for assistance.

“I asked him to help me get a visa since he has been in Italy for a while, but he told me that it is not that easy and suggested a quicker route,” Obinna recounted.

Emeka told him about Libya and how easy it is to travel to Europe from the war-torn country.

He also said that on getting to the Sahara Desert, Obinna would enter the Mediterranean Sea and land in Europe in an hour or two.

“I was curious at first and asked how possible it is to go through the sea to Europe, but Emeka told me he went through the same route,” he said.

He, however, opted to delay the trip while weighing other options because he was uncomfortable with the prospect of crossing the sea.

Throughout 2014, Obinna said Emeka pestered him to try the Libya route, but he resisted.

He slipped into depression while waiting for an alternative arrangement and a job in Abuja, seeing his family suffer unimaginable misery.

Left with no other option at the time, Obinna said he decided to Emeka’s advice and began preparing to leave for Libya.

“It is better for me to go and hustle in Europe like my mates and be sending money to my family than to watch my kids cry of hunger and demand for things that I am unable to provide,” he had reasoned at the time.

He contacted Emeka to let him know he was ready for the journey, but his calls were not returned because the cousin was upset with him for dragging his feet.

Emeka finally returned his calls after many weeks and connected him with Razaq, a Ghanaian resident in Agadez, Niger Republic.

According to Obinna, Emeka insisted he travels with his wife, claiming that as a couple, they will easily obtain a resident passport after working for a short period in Europe.

Excited by the possibility of a better life in Europe, Obinna persuaded not only his wife, a Public Administration graduate, but also his Computer Scientist buddy, Jubril Abubakar from Bassa, Kogi State, to accompany him.

The trio in no time raised the required funds and were prepared to embark on the trip.

Journey to a new life 

Obinna and his wife left their two children, aged two and 10 months, in the care of his wife’s parents in Suleja, Niger State, North-central Nigeria.

“We travelled to Sokoto, changed our naira to CFA and crossed from Ilella border to Koni in Niger Republic.

“On getting to Rainbow Park in Koni, so many human traffickers both blacks and whites were asking for passengers going to Libya and we entered a transport referred to as ‘3s Tv” and paid 14,000CFA (N8,000) each on June 21, 2016. We spent three days on the Trans-Sahara trade route to Agadez,” Obinna recounted.

Continuing, he said, “Immediately we arrived in Agadez, some smugglers came to welcome us, and asked for the passengers from Razaq. My wife, my friend Jubril and I indicated, and we were immediately blindfolded.

“They drove us to a large compound with the gates firmly locked and removed the blindfold. Over 3000 people from different parts of Africa were held there, young boys and girls and even pregnant women with little children,” Obinna said with a tone of pain.

When they finally met with Mr Razaq, who again inquired if he was indeed Emeka’s brother and he answered in the affirmative, Obinna said the man told him the fee to get to Libya was N70, 000.

Not able to raise the money, Obinna called his elder sister, Uju in Nando, Anambra East Local Government Area of Anambra State and pleaded with her to send him money and in minutes, Mr. Razaq got paid.

To cross the desert, a convoy of 100 vehicles is required, so Obinna, his wife, and friend were delayed a few more days before they could go.

The drivers, however, encouraged the migrants to carry at least 50 litres of water as part of their preparations for the journey, but many thought this was unnecessary.

Obinna was one of them.

Instead of taking two 50-liter jerry cans of water for himself and his wife, he took only 35 liters, apparently because Emeka told him crossing the desert will only take two days.

He did not want to be inconvenienced, but that was a fatal mistake he would soon regret.

On D-Day, 30 migrants were crammed into the backs of Toyota Hilux vans, which were then driven into the desert with no leg room for the occupants.

Women and children were made to sit on the floor while men sit on the edge of the cargo compartment with sticks attached for support.

Only an hour into the trip, the temperature had risen to the point where Obinna and his wife had finished four litres of water.

So, it became clear to him that not following Razaq’s advice to bring 50 liters of water with him was a terrible miscalculation.

“I can recall a day on the road when a tall young boy was sleeping and leaning on a Malian lady’s shoulder.

“At a point she taped him to adjust but he was not responding. Everyone was calling on the boy to adjust himself and the commotion attracted the attention of the driver, who stopped to check what was causing the noise.

“It was shocking to see that the boy was stone dead, probably because of heat and dehydration.

“The driver quickly flung his body like a piece of rag to the sand. There was an uproar from other passengers demanding that he should be buried, at least inside a grave,” Obinna recounted sadly.

He said the driver mockingly inquired where they would find the strength to dig a grave when they were all fatigued and thirsty.

So they went on their way, Obinna added, holding back tears for the dead kid.

Obinna said human and animal remains littered the road, and drivers seemed used to the awful sight.

“After spending one week in the desert, we exhausted the water in our jerry cans without reaching our destination. Thoroughly dehydrated under the scorching sun, we started drinking our urines and begged each other to urinate for us,” Obinna recounted.

“I would plead with my friend Jubril to urinate into my mouth, and I will urinate into his too. It was there that I discovered that women had more fluid in their system because they were bringing out more urine.

“A time came when urine was difficult to come out of because of dehydration. People were fainting because of the heat.”

When they arrived at Dirkou, where the United Nations had dug a well, the driver pulled over and ordered the migrants to go down and drink water.

According to Obinna, approximately 1000 people from various vehicles went to the well and drank till they were satisfied, indifferent about a floating dead body.

“My wife and my friend and I drank to our satisfaction, not minding the foul smell of the colored water,” Obinna confessed, adding, “People filled their jerry cans and the journey continued.”

Enough brutality and sexual violence

Less than 30 minutes after they left Dirkou, the convoy got to Niger Republic’s border and was stopped by a contingent of Gendarmes, a branch of the country’s Police Force.

“They asked where we were going, and we told them Libya. Immediately, they ordered us to hand over all valuables in our possession. Wristwatches, phones, bangles, bracelets, and cash.

“We watched helplessly as they collected everything from us, raped our women in our presence and beat us mercilessly. Insults rained on us for taking the route.

 “I consoled my wife and other women among us to endure it and be patient because I believed where we were going will be better than where we are. I have never seen brutality like this in my entire life,” Obinna narrated with so much anger.  

In Madama, a border town between Niger Republic and Libya, the most unexpected happened.

Men and women were separated, and Obinna said his wife was taken from him and he was unable to stop it.

Arrival in Libya

The vehicle that left Agadez with 30 migrants arrived in Libya on July 2, 2016, after 24 days of constant misery in the desert.

Only 21 persons made it to the war-torn North African country, 17 males and 4 women.

Obinna’s wife, Azuka, 32, confirmed what her husband stated but added that Chukwuemeka tricked them into embarking on the trip that nearly killed them.

She said that on their arrival in Libya, they discovered that they were supposed to go through an agent.  Because of that, she, her husband and his friend, Jubril fell into the hands of traffickers, and they were sold.  

Azuka was lucky the traffickers never sent her to a “connection house,” a place for prostitution and sex exploitation where she can only be freed after paying so much.

But it didn’t mean she enjoyed her time working as a maid for the “Madam” who bought her.

In fact, she was forced to work almost 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with little or no food, and for no pay.

“Most times I got a small portion of food which was only given in the evening,” recounted Azuka.

According to her, “Madam’s” husband made repeated advances on her, but she declined and informed him that she was married with two children and was still breastfeeding when she travelled.

During her captivity in Libya, she said she only spoke to her brothers twice over Facebook, and they advised her to return home.

When her “Madam” wanted to go on vacation, she offered to help her travel to Europe or return her to the traffickers to be sent somewhere else.

She pleaded that the mistress assists her return to Nigeria because she had never met her husband’s cousin Emeka.

According to Azuka, the Madam informed her that she would use the salary she had been saving for her to help her return to Nigeria. Being traumatized she couldn’t explain more. 

Her return trip to Nigeria through the desert was not as dangerous as her trip to Libya.

She arrived in Nigeria on July 4, 2017, and was reunited with her parents and children but did not know whether the husband was dead or alive.

“My baby could not recognise me. Only my first daughter did. With the pain of not knowing the whereabouts of my husband I couldn’t stay long in my parents’ house residing in Suleja, Niger State of Nigeria.

“Out of shame and stigma I moved in with my girlfriend in Durumi, a suburb of Abuja, Nigeria’s capital to start life afresh,” she said.

Azuka currently works as a hairdresser and sells hair accessories in addition to being a receptionist in an Abuja hotel.

…to be continued in Part II

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